Tuesday, September 18, 2007

One Way It Can Work

I've been to a lot of back-to-school nights where the teachers, the PTA, the administrators talk about how they want parents to get involved, and most of the time I can't figure out how to do that without making somebody mad, or getting mad myself. Because they've got their routine in the school, they've got their roles, they've got their acronyms and their habits and philosophies, and I don't even know what those are, never mind agree with half of them. Sometimes when I talk with a teacher, I end up not ... having a good experience. And it appears it is not always a joyous occasion for the teacher, either. And it's not just me, I hear the stories.

So it's nice to read in the Washington Post about some parents here in MC who had a problem with their school, and they ran into a brick wall, and then it worked out.
It was "The Case of the Missing French Teacher." Last month, one week before school started, parents learned that because only 77 fourth-graders had enrolled in Maryvale Elementary School, one of the two French immersion teachers at that grade level would have to be dropped and some students shunted into a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class.

Outraged parents flooded the Rockville school with complaints. "Our children and staff are expendable," one wrote in an e-mail. "This is completely unacceptable," wrote another. The school system's response seemed to them limp and unconcerned. "I am confident that all Maryvale students will have a successful school year," wrote Stephen L. Bedford, a Montgomery County school official. "Thank you for your interest in Maryvale Elementary School." Parent-School Conflict Is Lesson on Efficacy

I hate it when they do that.

Maryvale is not too far from our house. One of the kids used to practice some sport there, or maybe it was in a park next door. The French immersion program always sounded kind of cool, except for the part about it being French. Once when we were having guests from France, I thought I'd learn a few words. But I don't think that's something you teach yourself. Another language, yes, I've learned (and forgotten) a couple of them, but I could not tell one sound from the other. I didn't learn any French.

You see how these parents felt when they took that old advice to get involved. It sounds like a good idea, but the system really isn't in place to make it work.
It had all the makings of a typical parent-school battle, full of frustration and resentment. Yet these particular parents and educators began to look for a way to work it out, exchanging information rather than epithets, trying to stay positive and employing several methods that experts in the growing field of school-family partnerships say are essential to reaching solutions rather than creating long-term feuds.

Washington area school leaders have shown increasing interest in advising parents on how to complain. Montgomery, for instance, is starting a Parent Academy. But school systems often limit guidance to where parents should send objections and how long they should wait for an answer. Experts on school-family relations say it is also important for parents to know how to mobilize and how to word complaints. Likewise, it is critical for school officials to know how to respond.

Storming in while the buses are pulling up and trying to solve your problem with the two ladies who happen to be standing in the attendance office, it seems to me, is not probably the best strategy. But people seem to do that. I've seen it. I have also tried to talk to somebody when the ladies at the front desk really didn't want me to. It can be very frustrating, especially when you're seriously concerned about what's happening with your kid.
At the heart of the Maryvale dispute were a PTA president, Anne-Marie Kim, and her husband, Caius Kim, a nonprofit-company executive with a business and science background and a fondness for breaking down conflicts into comprehensible parts. They began a dialogue with two Montgomery school officials: Sherry Liebes, a community superintendent; and Bedford, the chief school performance officer.

School administrators are often uncomfortable, experts say, when parents such as the Kims seek to insert themselves into management decisions. But "being defensive and saying, for example, that parents have 'no business inquiring about personnel decisions' and 'no right to interfere with administrators' professional judgment' is not just insensitive but poor public relations," said Anne T. Henderson, a senior consultant with the Community Involvement Program at Brown University's Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

In a letter to Caius Kim three days before school started, Bedford explained that class-size guidelines called for adding a teacher when the student-teacher ratio exceeded 28 to 1. He said officials were doing their best to ease any difficulties caused by the loss of a teacher. Liebes attended a parent meeting at the school that day, Aug. 24, to answer questions.

Oh great, there's a memo somewhere. You lose, this doesn't meet a criterion. That's the rule.

But wait.
At that stage, the administration's response was not making parents feel much better. "Creating a combination class is not only detrimental to the learning environment of students but defies the strong educational objectives of Montgomery County," Maryvale parent Bahram Meyssami wrote in an Aug. 26 e-mail to Liebes.

The Maryvale parents adopted what experts say is the best approach to such disputes: getting as many people as possible on their side with a strong argument. "One parent complaining is a fruitcake," Henderson said. "Two parents are a fruitcake and a friend; five parents will get some attention; 20 parents can be seen as a powerful organization."

Fruitcake? What do those have in them, I can't remember. I'm sure it's not fruits. Is it nuts?

Here the story takes a fortuitous twist. The memo is still lying on the countertop, parents on one side and administrators on the other, scowling across the well-Listerined linoleum at one another, when ...
To organize parents, Caius Kim sent a long message the week before school started with precise data on Maryvale's staffing situation and exact quotes from relevant county policy guidelines. He argued that although the 77 students were not enough for four teachers under the usual staffing ratio, 43 of those students were in the French immersion program and should be considered a separate part of the fourth grade. Combining fourth- and fifth-grade French students in one class would overburden the teacher and betray previous promises to parents, he said, as well as contradict Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's plans to reduce class size and the number of combined classes.

The two sides went back and forth, keeping the conversation going. Family-school experts Henderson and Karen L. Mapp, a former Boston school administrator and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education -- asked by The Post to review a sample of the Maryvale messages -- said they were "on the whole, respectful, courteous and trying to understand the other's position."

Henderson and Mapp noted, however, some missteps, including an administrator's failure to thank parents for their diligent research and a parent's dismissal of any hope that an official would respond to her message.

On the morning of Aug. 29, two days into the school year, good news arrived in a telephone call from Liebes to Anne-Marie Kim. Kim was out walking the family whippets, Devo and Ella, so Caius Kim chatted with Liebes until his wife returned. She was the first parent to hear that two new students had enrolled, and one previously registered student had shown up late. The new students brought the class sizes to a level where she could justify a fourth classroom teacher, Liebes said. In the end, the school wound up with a 20-to-1 student-teacher ratio in fourth grade.

Win-win! Our favorite! Everybody gets what they wanted.

Oddly, some parents seem to have been skeptical.
Several Maryvale parents said they thought the slight enrollment bump provided the school system a convenient excuse.

"I truly believe that [Montgomery County Public Schools] only changed its position and reinstated the teaching slot because of the enormous pressure from parents and the overwhelming facts that they presented," Martha Desnoyers said. Mary Ann Holovac said, "Obviously, the squeaky axle gets the grease, and we made a lot of squeaks."

Reading this, I'm thinking, no. The memo said what ratio they needed. So some parents are mad, parents are always mad. Who hasn't been mad at the ridiculous rule-following people who run the schools? I don't think that makes them change their mind.
Some experts advise school systems to involve parents in decision-making before complaints arise

But schools often don't know what their class sizes will be until the last minute, as happened at Maryvale. "Just because we may not end up agreeing on a particular issue doesn't mean that we haven't listened," Liebes said, "and that is important for parents to always keep in mind."

The Kims said they were happy to send their daughter Chloé and son Caius off to a school where the French program was back in shape. Anne-Marie wrote in a bulletin to parents: "Congratulations on your professionalism, letters and phone calls. Our children will benefit from your dedication."

It's good to see that everything worked out for these guys. It seems to me that a school is a kind of organization that needs to be stable. Well, for one thing, when you've got a gazillion screaming kids running around, the administration needs to provide a reliable and sturdy framework for teachers, or they'd lose their minds by the end of the day. They need their acronyms, and their memos, and those ladies in the attendance office screening complainers.

On the other hand, it can be very frustrating watching your kid fall through the net, and nobody doing anything, no acronym assigned to them, no policy or program they can go into. The schools need to be responsive to families, because they don't know what kind of people they are -- you can't just treat every kid like a normal kid, and ignore them when they deviate from that. If you're going to educate them, you've got to know who they are, and you're going to have to bend the rules sometimes.

There should be a flexibility rating on every memo, telling administrators and teachers just how far they can bend it. Some are strict, some are just guidelines, really. The 28-to-one rule shouldn't apply a hundred percent here, because this is the French immersion class, which is a reason people move to this neighborhood and send their kids to this school (and I should tell you, Maryvale is not in a fancy neighborhood, you might say, it's just regular folks). They need to have these classes, more than they need to have some geography class, or PE or something. The rule needs to loosen up here.

I'm glad it worked out. The Post plays it up as if the parents and the school worked it out. They didn't. They demonstrated what happens if the two sides stay out of each other's faces, and I guess the lesson is that there's no sense burning your bridges when things can still change for the better. This was resolved by sheer luck. Those parents were going to get the short end of the deal, but three kids happened to show up to tip the ratio and then the rules worked in their favor.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you considered that maybe the three new students were a convenient excuse for the School Board to recant their decision? It was not sheer luck but a valid argument that took time to find its way out of the political morass that is the School Board?

September 21, 2007 10:10 PM  
Blogger FADO Blog said...

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November 20, 2015 10:34 PM  

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