What do parents want from their kids’ schools?

By John Monfredo, Worcester School Committee

Parents are the consumers; all schools should make every effort to attract them in a most competitive way. No longer are public schools a given, for parents now have options in the form of charter and private schools, as well as school choice. As Dr. Boone, superintendent of the Worcester Public Schools has stated on several occasions, “We want the public schools to be the school of choice for all of our parents.”

Thus far, in general, the Worcester Public Schools have been the choice of parents in Worcester. In 2009 and 2010 the Worcester Public Schools enrollment was 24,006 students. Worcester’s private, parochial and charter enrollment was 4,302 students. In addition, 342 School Choice opted out and 75 students School Choice opted in. Therefore, roughly 84% of the students in Worcester attend the Worcester Public Schools.

However, times are changing and, if a school system is to meet the needs of all the students, it certainly must continue with a strong education system and listen to the voices of the consumers – parents. Across the nation long-term studies show that the percentage of the public expressing a lot of confidence in America’s public schools has declined. The American School Board Journal stated that an increasing number of middle-class families worry that public education is so focused on “teaching to the test” and meeting the needs of at-risk learners that their children will be left behind. Some middle class families are on the fence as whether to stay with public education or look elsewhere.

With reading, writing and mathematics dominating state testing programs and districts curricula, parents are concerned that art, music, foreign language, social studies and other college prep subjects are getting short shrift. In Worcester that has not been the case for administration led by Dr. Boone has been very strong in supporting a liberal arts curriculum.

A successful system needs to have a diverse population and must continue to attract middle class parents. With the new agenda (driven by the Federal Government and the State) increasing test scores, meeting the needs of at-risk students, and fixing low performing schools are critical goals and because of the accountability involved these issues dominate the public debate. Thus, we read about the doom and gloom resonating about ill-prepared children, low test scores, and inadequate funding.

Communication is and will always be an essential element for winning the battle of public opinion. Face to face relationship building is important but the positive aspects of the system need to be highlighted. How schools greet parents and make them feel that they are important partners in the educational process is crucial. As one parent stated, “ When we visit a school we don’t want an atmosphere of the Department of Motor Vehicles but one that encourages me to come back again”. Better public relations will bring parents to the school door, but only strong teachers, high expectations, and a caring environment will keep then there.

Over the past few weeks, I asked a number of parents what they want from the Worcester Public Schools and received a myriad of responses. Debra Steigman, a Nelson Place parent, stated, “There are many wants, but I think this says it all… I want a strong well rounded academic foundation taught by

high quality teachers who engage, challenge and inspire our children to learn. What I don’t have is the confidence and or commitment from our community leaders to appropriately fund the Worcester Public Schools so they can continue to improve and deliver a high quality education.”

Parlee Jones, a former parent at Belmont Community School, stated that she would like, “More history on other cultures, more family activities, and more accountability on teachers to teach children what must be taught. I’d like the school to contact parents if there is a problem before it is at the end of the rope.”

Nancy Saul, a parent of three Worcester students stated, “As a parent of three children who have attended public schools I can identify three different “wants” from a Public School District. For my youngest child who just started third grade, I want her to continue to love school. Her curiosity, joy of learning, reading and discovering I fear are going to fade as she is challenged and may not have the benefit of a teacher who is able, due to large class size to tend to her in order to keep the spark alive. For my middle guy, I want the Public Schools to understand that all children may not receive the same education, but each should receive the education they need. I want the Public Schools to accept that although they may be required to adhere to the letter of the law when it comes to placement of children, I want the Schools to follow the spirit of the law as well. As the most important member of my child’s team, I want the respect and I want the opportunity to demonstrate that approval of an outside placement indicates that the team is willing to put my child first. Lastly, for my oldest child I want the Public Schools to honor and seek out questions from children who think beyond the box and need to know why. Often, my son has expressed frustration as to why something was happening or how he wanted school to be different, and he rarely asked I believe, because he was afraid. Over the years, he has been described to me, by his teachers, as “lazy”, “defiant”. I truly think his teachers missed something very special in my son, by labeling him. Unfortunately, in these times, I do not expect to receive any time soon what I want from the Public Schools. So my last want would be hope!”

Other parents wanted additional family events, more communication between the school and the home. Many working parents wanted access to teacher emails so that we can communicate via technology. Some wish that teachers could stay after school for awhile so if parents could drop over for a conference. Other parents stated that communication was good during the elementary years but broke down after that. Another parent would like to see all students engage in a civility course so that we can all bring back the basics of caring for one another. Many parents felt that testing accountability was important but also wanted to see a gifted program in our system. All parents reported that they wanted a strong parent component in their schools and a nurturing environment for their child.

One parent stated that she expected her kids to get a good education and be in a safe environment. She expected a good physical education program and a good after school program and for the kids to be safe without any fear of being bullied. The overriding theme with most parents was: communication with the schools.

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