The power of parents in a public school
Parent Vicki Sando reads to a group of students on the P.S. 41 Green Roof.
October 4th, 2012
04:16 AM ET

The power of parents in a public school

By Rose Arce, CNN

Editor’s note: Rose Arce is a senior producer in CNN’s New York Bureau who is also a regular contributor to Mamiverse.

(CNN) - I walked into Room 308 this year and made a beeline to see Luna’s contribution to the Art Wall, a rosy-cheeked self-portrait with an essay on her personal goal: learning to say hello to strangers. Her teacher has no such problem.

“Hello, everyone!” Clare O’Connell said brightly before telling parents about the hurdles in the second-grade curriculum.

She had me at “hello.”

My daughter’s teacher has the bandwidth to worry about her social development and teach beyond the test? And that’s not all the good news at school this year. Looming behind “Ms. Clare,” like the screen at an Apple product launch, was a gleaming new smart board, a silver-toned Mac and a camera that can shoot and project documents. There was also a calendar listing all the days the children of Room 308 will have classes in art, dance, chess, science (twice a week!), music and gym and a lunch program that provides fresh vegetables and fruits from recipes suggested by famous chefs.

My second-grader has that elusive part of the American dream: a good local public school. It’s not sponsored by IBM. It doesn’t live off a Gates Foundation grant. It’s not a charter or a magnet or a choice school with a crazy admissions process or breathtaking lottery. It isn’t part of a social experiment devised by the U.S. Department of Education and “seeded,” as government people love to say, with public money. It doesn’t qualify for Title I or any other numerical or alphabetical federal program with a pot of cash that resulted from a court decision or congressional act. The parents made it happen.

Our daughter was only 3 the first time we stepped into P.S. 41. There was a Class A auditorium, two playgrounds with artists’ murals, a fully stocked library, morning tutoring and afternoon chess, classrooms devoted to arts and sciences – all organized or paid for by parents. One of the parents, Vicki Sando, had launched a project to transform the roof into a huge science garden.

So far the efforts at environmental education were some big planters in the middle yard. Mysteriously, Principal Kelly Shannon talked about the rooftop garden as a sure thing. “The thing that makes this a great school is that the parents are so involved,” she said.

But it soon became clear that the conversation was going to be less about why you chose this school than whether to opt out. Ominous leaflets rallied parents to storm City Hall over rising class sizes. A woman spoke passionately about the wait lists that would send children to neighboring schools to avoid overcrowding. Grim scenarios were painted of staff layoffs, overworked teachers and scant supplies.

Pamela Wheaton works with Inside Schools, which visits the 1,700 New York public schools and independently evaluates their performance. She said there are hundreds of high-performing schools in New York that are distinguished by the parent involvement in supporting the staff. But some of the same well-educated, financially strong families who make schools great sometimes opt for private schools because they want guarantees that overcrowding won’t upend their child’s future. Or they have a particular affinity for the schools’ philosophy or religious leanings, want the upscale social connections for them or their child, or want diversity that is screened through an admissions process. They don’t believe they could get extra instruction, in arts or sports or after school, without writing a check.

But the vast majority of parents don’t have the luxury of shelling out nearly $40,000 for kindergarten. Their choice is to find a way to game the system or walk into their assigned schools braced for 12 years of hyperactive parent involvement. We walked out of P.S. 41 asking ourselves which parents we were.

Two years later, I found myself at my first PTA meeting, scanning the holiday calendar with an eye to leveraging cupcake sales to fill enormous budget gaps. The accumulation of projects was astounding. A group of parents was organizing and raising money to improve school food; others were working on programs for arts, dance, chess and recreation. There were parents hyper-focused on middle school entrance exams, working on community giving, enlisting local restaurants in teaching business skills and organizing a string of fundraising events around every conceivable reason to give a big family party. A vocal group was also organizing against budget cuts and overcrowding and taking on all aspects of school bureaucracy, but I was floored by how quickly parents simultaneously complained about what they didn’t have – and then moved on forcefully to fill any gaps.

Sando was still there, complaining about that empty rooftop and unconcerned about the nearly $2 million price tag of transforming it into a working garden. “I’d been on the PTA and done so many events at the school and I knew the caliber of the parents I was working with. There are parents that when they put their minds to something can do anything,” she said. “Not just for their one kid. Something like this was bigger than that.”

She imagined science classes and weather labs, a way to make real a lecture on biology, chemistry and nutrition. She envisioned classrooms reading poetry with the rooftops of Greenwich Village rising above them. She banded together a group of parents and reached out to environmental groups and the school construction authority to make a convincing case for how the roof would reduce the school’s environmental footprint and create an enviable learning lab that could be replicated all over the country. She drowned her skeptics in information and drew up plans. The parents began searching for city and private funds, soliciting donations from national environmental groups, the Wildlife Federation, even the local bars. They hit up every parent, past or present, over and over again to give, give, give.

Sando’s children had graduated from P.S. 41 by the time Greenroof Environmental Literacy Laboratory opened this week. I’m no longer just a parent, biting nails over whether my kid will get a good education. Like the other parents who entered P.S. 41 three years ago, I am now knee-deep in working to make it a great school. I’m the co-vice president for external fundraising.

Sando is still around. She now teaches science part-time. She read a book to my daughter’s class this morning on the new roof as the sun fought back crisp fall air. The teacher sent us a picture of the class on the roof that was enough to make me feel like we’d made a great decision three years ago. I know I’m going to hear about that roof at bedtime tonight, and that is priceless. I’ll have to remember to tell her that it’s not money, but parents that made it happen.

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Filed under: Elementary school • Parents • Practice
soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. Marie

    I could care less about smart boards and what the cafeteria is serving for lunch or how many parent send in extra money or help with fundraisers for field trips and fun. I want my kids, myself and there teachers to focus on their sole purpose for being in a classroom. Which is to learn and to educate. I put all of my focus on making sure my kids understand their homework each night and that if they don't understand we find a way to make them understand. I do not volunteer in the classroom and I do not go to PTA meetings. I feel that if all your free time is spent volunteering you lose site of your individual child's education. You do not have to spend time at the school to be what your kid needs, you have to spend that time with them and pay attention to what they need not what the school needs.

    October 16, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  2. matt

    I knew white parents are employees about bad unions given their cheap salaries because they cannot afford to kids go to private school. they are more concern in urban public school is dangerous area. if kids can very scared and shoot by colored suspects. it is sadly about bad economy is beyond .

    October 11, 2012 at 3:10 am |
  3. Geoff

    People such as "krehator" are what is wrong with our educational system and what is wrong with our country. Clueless. Penguins would never allow someone like "krehator" to breed because doing so would mark a big step away from evolution.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:26 am |
  4. Nicole

    I think it is great that parents are helping out more in schools. They should help fund things for their kids classroom like having fundraiser.Some parents don't get involved with their kids in school then they feel like they are getting left out of all the cool things that the other kids get to do. I think that is really sad and I think that isd why parents need to help out with their kids school.

    October 8, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  5. Jack

    I think that it is cool that parents can help out at their school. I think that parents should not only help fund for things, but get more involved with things. Help out their kids with homework, and volunteer for things. Like Events, or special classes for kids, like chess, dancing, or something special. Not just to fund for the school, but become part of what they do.

    October 8, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  6. JT

    President Obama did promise that federal funding would take care of all school problems. He made these statements even in front of teachers and students, and started receiving help from the teacher's unions. He even said that school districts that joined with him to promote education would receive federal funding. I guess now anyone can translate those kinds of statements into simple English. This article proves that the opposite of everything Obama says about education is absolutely true. Schools need to be under local control, and parents and communities make a difference, and not the federal government.

    October 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Geoff

      JT - if we leave public education to local folks, nobody in Georgia would come out being able to write a complete sentence. The same goes for Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. Too many students in certain states, particularly in the south, failed to match up against students from other states. That is why we need the federal government to be involved. Let's keep it real here. If Texas governor Rick Perry were left unchecked the educational system in that state would reflect the Dark Ages. Is that what we want?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:30 am |
  7. jdoe

    The public school system is not terrible. In some places it can be at least as good as private schools, and in some places it can be pretty bad. The problem is the uneven funding that is based locally, such as using property taxes. This is a form of segregation, as poor neighborhoods tend to fare worse due to lack of funding.

    October 8, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • Reason&Learn

      Funding might help in some situations but we have learned in NJ that just throwing money at the problem doesn't improve the education. In NJ, a lawsuit and a susequent court ruling that created 31 "Abbott Districts" was about fighting the funding inequities in the mostly urban poorly performing districts. This resulted in these 31 districts getting a large share of the education money.

      Did all this money make a difference? Not at all. Some of the money was siphoned off by curruption, administrative salaries, waste, and very little made it into the classrooms.

      The problems with education in the urban districts have less to do with education but involve other factors. Many of these students don't receive parental support or interest in their education. These students are often late or absent and nobody is there to make sure their homework is getting done or provide help when needed. Without their parents/guardians showing them the importance of education, many of these students don't care about their education. In addition, their peers and the people they associate with in "the street" discourage the idea getting a good education.

      Can these problems be solved? Yes, but only throwing money around without addressing the underlying problems will not improve the education system in the urban and mostly poorer school districts.

      October 8, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  8. Betty Roberts

    Part of the problem is that there is too much involvement from helicopter parents who run the schools. The curriculum is so sugar coated. The administration bullies teachers if there are lame complaints from parents. As a teacher of the gifted, I have very little say in choice of materials. Classics are discouraged because they do not support the required books used by our reading/language arts programs. Academic freedom is a real issue!

    October 7, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Bobby

      Classics are not important. You can read Poe or Hawthorne on your own time. Teaching is about covering what is needed. Math, Science, Reading skills, Critical thinking. These things are important. It's less important what you read as it is that you read. You can analyze harry potter to death just as they had us do to poe. This process aids in critical thinking but it detracts from the fact that this story is just that a story to enjoy. However the real problem is that in our haste to cover everything in an allotted period of usually 180 days we gloss over the why we do things. Most kids have a new section taught every couple of days. This is speed learning. You need time and experience with anything to fully learn it.

      October 7, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  9. The_Mick

    I was hoping this article would be about the power of parents to help their kids be much better students by staying on top of their studies, making them do homework, and seeing that they get enough sleep and food before coming to school each day. I taught mostly gifted and talented chemistry and physics high school classes. On parent night, there was standing-room only in my classroom and I often had to rush to copy more handouts for the later classes because so many parents showed up. My colleagues who taught lower-level classes were lucky if a single parent showed up all night. Wonder why those kids are lower level? There's an old teacher-insider joke that "You know you're a teacher if you meet parents at a guidance conference and understand in 5 seconds why their kid has behavioral problems." The teachers can't do it all: good parent involvement usually means the difference between success and failure more than good teachers alone do.

    October 7, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  10. Alex

    I am involved in PTA in my daughter's school. One of the programs we fund is the Accelerated Reader program. The school cannot afford it and many schools in our district do not have it. The PTA pays the $3200/ year licensing fee. The Ar program is used by all the students. It has improved the reading scores on the standardize testing and more importantly it in stills a love of reading. Some might consider AR a luxury but our PTA view it as a necessity.

    October 6, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  11. Gatorfisch

    I actually went to a school like this in rural Tennessee in the 70's. The school board wanted to consolidate and close our school...but the parents and administration (and some local "celebrities" all worked together to keep us open for years. Parents who were carpenters and welders literally built our playground equipment, other schools gave us their old textbooks, over ordered food and shared it with our lunch ladies (who cooked lunch) and we held fundraisers, etc to help keep our teachers. Ironically, we had some of the highest test scores in the state, because we were such a small school. Many of us know the answer to our failing education system...but most are unwilling to put in the work to get it fixed.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  12. Naomi

    Very inspiring! I was looking around for things to write about in my new blog and came across this article and this whole website. I love it and am signing up to be a follower now! Parents can make a difference and you don't need to build a school from scratch – there are plenty of wonderful public school waiting to blossom again with a little TLC.
    Thank you! Naomi

    October 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  13. Hollywood

    Teachers want and need the support of parents both in and outside the school.

    October 4, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  14. The Truth Hurts

    Kaspar – "You hit the nail on the head." You covered every issue most teachers are facing in the U.S. today. EXCELLENT RESPONSE!

    October 4, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  15. krehator

    I wonder if teachers are willing to come to my work and help me with my job? I'm tired of teachers passing blame off on parents.

    PUT DOWN the cell phones. Stop handing out worksheets, and actively teach. We don't need daycare. Teach something.

    When I was a kid my parents did not participate at my school. I was still educated better than these kids are today.

    The excuses are getting very old.....

    October 4, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Kaspar

      Krehator - Wondering when a teacher is going to come to work and help you out?? Well they already did - that's why you have a freakin job! You were taught. Your parents may not have "participated" at your school, but I bet they still had expectations for you. I bet they still required you to do your best. I bet they required you to do your homework. To treat your friends and teachers and any other adult in your life with respect. NOW let's fast forward to today...... Many of our students do NOT have anyone at home to set expectations for them. They do not have anyone at home who even give a damn about them. They dont have ANY model for social skills - much less practice. They come into school with little to no background knowledge or experiences. However we teachers are still expected to work MIRACLES. In today's classroom, I wouldnt teach if it wasnt my absolute love or my absolute passion to spend every minute of my day with 12 and 13 year olds. I wouldnt teach if it wasnt my absolute passion to care for those students who have NO ONE. Who have no accountability. Who have no structure. Who have NO support system. That is why I teach. To be there for them. But I am also realistic and KNOW that I am only one person who sees them for 90 minutes a day. It's the parents who have the most contact with their kids.

      My own daughter's education takes time and work. I have to TEACH her how to do homework. I have to TEACH her how to LEARN. I have to TEACH her how to be respectful. I have to TEACH her how to study for tests. AND I AM HER PARENT - NOT HER TEACHER. That is the crucial element that a lot of our kids today are missing in the school system.

      So get off your high horse and get into the classroom. Be a volunteer. Go and become a regular speaker sharing your knowledge with the students. Put some action behind your comments.

      October 4, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
      • EsmereldaMadelin

        I hear you and I applaud your commitment. The major sad fact about public schools is that instead of being a teacher you're expected to be a social worker, a therapist, a professional behavior modifier, a diplomat, a family counselor and a Gov employee. Many of these jobs were OCCASIONALLY part of a teacher's workday and, bless them, they made time for it. Now, it's REQUIRED or you're not doing your job. I just feel sorry for anyone who is trying to raise children today when exposure to lifestyles which parents used to be able to protect themselves and their children from experiencing are now forced upon all of us by the oh so inviolate Federal Gov who is saving us from ourselves. Of course, penury is upon us all and I only hope it brings with it the silver cloud of decentralized Gov. God Bless.

        October 4, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
      • sqeptiq

        The truly sad thing is that I don't know a single teacher who would advise a young person to become a teacher.

        October 7, 2012 at 2:22 am |
      • Bobby

        Here's the deal. Before you take the moral high ground you need to look at the picture as a whole. Yes parents need an active role. Volunteer? Give me a break. I know 90 percent of you that comment here are parents but also teachers so the school is your life. Most people these days don't have that luxury. Parents do need an active role in a child's learning. However you all miss the point that more than 70 percent of what you learn is not learned in a class room. If you do work 10, 12, sometimes more hours a day you don't have a lot of time to "volunteer". Personally i really don't care how teachers feel. They have a job same as we all do. On the other hand I also don't want to hear whiny parents who say oh it's the teachers fault or we never had to learn this blah blah blah. Doesn't matter. You have a kid you have a responsibility. Now onto the problem at hand. The methods used to teach these days are complete crap. It is the same material we all learned. Now however because of political moves we have SOL tests. These have ruined the school system. You have to cover x material because it's on y test in z amount of days. The problem here is that time is now not spent on learning. You have what i call speed learning. Until we go back to the old ways of learning and teaching we're going to have quite a bit of people graduating who don't know anything about the real world and don't have the necessary skills to function.

        October 8, 2012 at 12:06 am |
    • Dano

      You are absolutely clueless. You cannot teach beyond the standard of the home.

      October 5, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Kate

      Krehator, you absolutely have no idea what you are talking about. As someone who teaches, ACTIVELY, in the field of science, problem number one is parental involvement with their children. What is so wrong with being involved with your children and being involved with what they are involved with? That's called being a parent. Just because you had an experience such as yours doesn't mean others have the same. Kaspar has it completely right. How about you do yourself a favor, get a teaching degree, get into a classroom yourself and do it your way. You'll see exactly what we're talking about. We're not lazy, trust me, I do two labs a week and most every day is hands on. I don't even TOUCH my cell phone until my lunch and after the school day is over. Your presumptions blatantly show your ignorance.

      October 5, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • RedRaider

      Krehator...after reading your posts it's clear you do want a daycare center, and I could make an argument that you don't care much about your child. Very sad, but not surprising. Teaching is an effort between teachers and parents. If you aren't part of the solution then you are part of the problem. An old cliche, yes...but appropriate in this context.

      October 6, 2012 at 5:25 am |
  16. JudgeDB

    Parents need to be involved with their children and know what is going on at school, but they need to keep some distance. Parents have ruined all of the public schools in my area by demanding special treatment for their little snowflakes and threatening to sue when their children are told they can't go to the bathroom every 5 minutes. The district caved in to the demands of helicopter parents a long time ago.

    October 4, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • krehator

      and teachers are ruining parental rights. They think they should have more power over kids that parents should.

      Primary caregiver = PARENT. Primary authority = PARENT

      October 4, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
      • Mike

        I don't know one teacher who "wants" parental rights to their students. We sometimes have to take them because the real parents have forgotten their role or the government has said it's the schools' job to be the parent. We would prefer to be the teacher and let the parent, well, parent.

        October 5, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
      • RedRaider

        Krehator...surely you are not being serious. Your posts indicate that you have no sense of reason when it comes to education.

        October 6, 2012 at 5:27 am |
      • pattysboi

        Krehator, please have mommy put a password on the computer, so that little ones ike YOU can't accidentally format it.

        Then, have her put you down for a nap, with your footie pj's, your teddy bear, and a bottle of milk. You are clearly WAY past your naptime.

        In short, grow UP, and get a life.

        October 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
      • sqeptiq

        You obviously have no idea what you are talking about.

        October 7, 2012 at 2:23 am |
  17. Guest

    We used to have a lot of parent involvement at our local public school. I used to participate in all the events too. Until a principal told parents that younger siblings were no longer welcome on the school grounds & should be left with a babysitter, even if we were there to pick up a child. Then they started making more of a fuss over kids who sold things for fund raisers than they did for academic awards. The school arranged for a "Money Chamber" at the school award ceremonies to reward the fund raiser winners. My child stopped participating in essay contests after the PTO promised a savings bond for a winning 1st place essay. After 3 reminders & many excuses, the child never received it. I am sure there are schools that do well, Ours used to be one too until they discouraged both the parents & the students from participating.

    October 4, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  18. Jeff of Peoria

    I am on the school board locally. You can see that the kids who have their parents total support and committment are doing just fine. The others struggle.

    It is NOT about money. We are not in a rich area AT ALL. It is about Parental Involvement PERIOD!!!

    October 4, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • krehator

      When are the teachers going to show up at my job to help me? I'm not rich either, but I don't blame my failures at work on teachers.

      October 4, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
      • TexasHorseLady

        krehator, raising your kids IS your job – whether at home or, if necessary, at school.

        October 4, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
      • sqeptiq

        Maybe the teachers will show up at your job when your job involves helping to raise their kids.

        October 7, 2012 at 2:27 am |
  19. larry5

    Obama promised federal funding would take care of all these school problems. He made these statements in front of teachers and students and started receiving help from teacher's unions. He said that school districts that joined with him to promote education would receive federal funding. I guess anyone can translate those kind of statements into normal English. This article is proof positive that the opposite of everything Obama says about education is true. Schools need to be under local control and parents and communities make a difference, not the federal government.

    October 4, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • JudgeDB

      You do realize the president is not a dictator and can't rearrange the entire government as he sees fit, right? Our educational system has been terrible long before Obama was ever elected. The fact that most people in the US cared more about the replacement refs in the NFL than they do about who runs the country speaks volumes about why we don't value education anymore.

      October 4, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
      • krehator

        Well stated, JudgeDB. VERY true.

        October 4, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
      • larry5

        Obama is taking on authority he does not have with his executive orders and Czar appointments. He has been interfering with education and even using his wife to butt in.

        October 4, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
      • EsmereldaMadelin

        The schools were taken over by the Feds in the 1970s I believe and its been downhill ever since.

        October 4, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
      • NorCalMojo

        You do realize making a promise you know you can't keep is a lie, right?

        October 6, 2012 at 10:00 am |