One of the enduring conundrums of contemporary education is this: How do you get parents more involved in both their own child’s education and the life of the entire school? You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes parental involvement is anything but a benefit, but you would be equally hard-pressed to find anyone who has a magic solution to the problem of parental apathy. Different schools pursue different methods, from hiring or appointing a “parent outreach coordinator” to sending out invitations for special events to sub-groups of hard-to-reach parents. However, it may be the case that schools in large communities where the opportunities for informal interaction between parents and school personnel are few simply miss out on a golden opportunity that is there for the taking: reach those parents by imaginatively and aggressively using local media outlets to spread the school’s message and invite feedback.
Unfortunately, it’s the second part of the “spread the message and invite feedback” equation that is often the stumbling block when it comes to local media. Aside from election time for School Board members, parents don’t often get a chance to ask anyone involved in the management of our schools direct questions about their pursuit of the educational mission they are being paid to oversee by our community’s taxpayers. Fear of embarrassing questions is one cause; fear of lawsuits is another. Speaking in a open public forum without a script is an invitation to both, so the answer to these potential problems is often to avoid impromptu interaction with the public. This is a shame because the explosion of media outlets has created an insatiable hunger for “programming” to fill the many slots now available.
Whether we are talking about radio, public access television, chat sites on the Internet, or anything else out there, the time slots and the media vehicles are ready and waiting–the only thing that is lacking is the availability of the school officials. I sure many parents would enjoy a monthly call-in program featuring the principals of our community’s schools–live and unscripted–on public access television. Likewise, I would very much enjoy a weekly “School Board Member Chat” on the radio or a “Teacher of the Week” Bulletin Board on the Internet where questions can be asked and answers posted with a candor.
Is candor a problem? Yes, it is when it violates the legitimate privacy rights of students and employees or turns into rancorous finger-pointing, which is always a possibility when human beings are involved, and some common-sense accommodations will have to be put in place to avoid both. However, the only alternative to frank and open discussion is the continued gray wall of “ed-speak” and bureaucratic platitudes–neither of which is prone to excite parents into involvement. More importantly, seeing and hearing our school personnel answering the community’s question on a regular basis will make them more approachable and our schools more inviting to the public and parents because our educators will no longer be strangers to the citizens they serve.
If we expect to see parents involved in our schools, schools must be willing to step out from behind the protective screen of tightly scripted interactions and mix it up with our citizens. I believe we all will be surprised by the interest that will be ignited when the public gets to better know and understand the school personnel who are shepherding their children toward adulthood. There are too many outstanding educators who are strangers to the communities they serve so selflessly: Let’s change that by putting them where they can be seen and heard so our parents can more readily join with them in working toward the success of our schools.
Also published in The News Gazette, 15 July 2007.