I’ve been on a hiatus from writing my blog lately, a self-imposed exile from doing something that I really enjoy doing, writing and sharing information about health and wellness as it pertains to kids. The reason being? A malady that I came down with a couple of months ago. It left me tired to the bone, anxious, deflated, hopeless, and uncertain of the future. The clinical name for this malady is PVBO or Parent Volunteer Burn Out and I’ve had a pretty bad case of it. It’s only been over the past week or two that I’ve been able to peel myself off the couch and stop my endless re-reading of”Waiting for Godot”. Parent Engagement is a difficult challenge that School Districts across the nation face. I hear the rumblings in our District on a regular basis. We’ve even got a District appointed Director of Community Engagement whose plate is full when it comes to reaching out to families in our communities. Families whose challenges of everyday life present a greater problem than worrying about the next PTA meeting, whether or not homework is done, or if a child is even on the bus in the morning. Many feel hopeless in their own situations so why would they think their efforts could improve the outcomes in our schools? On the other side of the spectrum you have the actively engaged parents who are ready to do anything to improve schools and they can be counted on for involvement on a number of different levels, joining committees, working on various initiatives, helping to raise money, advocating at Board meetings, etc. You name it and they do it because they believe in getting things done and that change is possible in their lifetimes or better yet in the time that their children are attending public schools. There are probably a handful of these parents in any given community and they’re probably the last group that you would think would benefit from the acknowledgement that parent engagement is a two way street. Unfortunately it’s a costly mistake when dealing with volunteers and it has a precarious ability to drive a parent to that all-consuming malady, PVBO. I don’t have a one-stop solution to solving the issues that Districts face when dealing with parent engagement but I could try to offer a bit of support and advice. When dealing with our underprivileged and underserved families we need to do a better job of taking services to the affected neighborhoods, breaking down socioeconomic stigmas and language barriers, and learn to communicate effectively to get families the supports they need. As I mentioned earlier in this post, our District has appointed people who are doing just that but the needs are far greater than what a few can fulfill. With the PVBO’s we need to recognize that many are taking time away from paid work or other responsibilities and we need to consistently recognize their efforts. A simple return of a call or an email of acknowledgement would probably suffice for a lot of these parents. When hours of work have been done on forward thinking initiatives that would benefit the whole school community we should respectfully and openly address why things are not moving forward. It is a poor reflection on any District to have a volunteer, a parent, a person on the “outside” muttering how it’s business as usual, nothing ever gets done and we seem to be stuck in a Beckett world just waiting for Godot.
Fixing What’s Broken in our Schools
The other day I watched an excellent documentary called “180 Days: Hartsville”. It was about a school district in a small South Carolina town that, despite high poverty rates and low employment has turned into a success with a 92% graduation rate.
In the community of Hartsville you have to work 100 hours each week at a minimum wage paying job to meet the median income of $38,000. Parents are stuck in an endless cycle of struggle as they try to keep their heads above water, working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Family time is compromised and the result is a lack of structure in the home for many. In Hartsville, these societal adversities were directly impacting performance in the schools. They knew they were in need of major reform in order to rescue their students and community from a system that was failing them.
What Hartsville points out they were doing wrong was multi faceted and could apply to many school districts. Simply put they had lost focus on the whole child and they had failed to recognize all of the factors that influence behaviors in schools.
Hartsville educators felt like they had been forced into an “unhealthy relationship with an overreaching federal government that rewarded states for adopting common core”. While they understood that we live in a data driven society and that a certain level of importance would always be placed on these metrics, they realized that their students needed to be worked with as human beings, not pieces of data.
The educators in Hartsville also realized that many of their students were burdened with issues from their home lives that directly affected their behavior in the classroom. Overworked parents with little to no involvement in their kids’ lives resulted in a lack of structure surrounding time out of school for many. Additionally, because of the hardships that many in the community faced, the level of parent engagement within the schools was virtually non-existent.
As educators they were tackling these issues alone and they were getting nowhere. They realized that there were many contributors to their failures and there needed to be many contributors to their successes. They knew that they had to grow their foundation of stakeholders for successful reform. Business leaders, community members, parents, educators and students all had to be a part of the solution and the drive to success. The idea of school as a reflection of community needed to be a focus and a goal.
The Hartsville schools set out to establish a framework of positivity. They embraced the notion that “the ultimate measure of success was in the holistic well being of the child.” They began to celebrate student achievement and successes in the classroom. They validated students by emphasizing their ability to be positive contributors to their schools and their communities. They were consistent with the affirmation that all students, no matter what their background, were capable of success. One school Principal started her entire student body off on the Honor Roll at the beginning of the school year to show that they were all fully capable. They used their testing data not to show deficits but to find solutions, encourage and showcase successes.
They also looked at the role of leadership differently. There was still a hierarchy of teacher, principal and superintendent, but the emphasis shifted from being in power to that of empowering. This approach enabled them to establish a foundation of healthy challenge, encouragement, and reward.
The Hartsville schools also changed their approach to parent engagement. They began to view parents as part of the solution not part of the problem. They sought out open communication and asked parents what was working, what wasn’t working, and what could be improved. They also went directly into the neighborhoods of the families they served instead of asking the parents to come to them. They broke down the barrier of “us against them” and allowed the parents to feel like they had a voice and a stake in the success of their children and the schools as a whole.
In implementing and embracing these changes the Hartsville schools moved from a district that had been ranked below average in 2010 to a district of excellence in 2013.
What’s Happening in Buffalo
Although Buffalo is a much larger urban district, there are many parallels with that of Hartsville’s district prior to reform. The Buffalo Public School District has a graduation rate of 53%. More than half our kids live in poverty, unemployment rates are high, and many kids deal with absentee parenting because family members work long hours at multiple jobs.
Like the Hartsville of 2010, our district is also failing because we have lost focus on the students. Very rarely will you read an article that casts our schools or students in a positive light. As a district and a community we could be doing a lot better at celebrating successes. We could also do a better job of treating our students as individuals with issues that can directly influence their behavior and their performance in school. Just last week there was an article in The Buffalo News about a student who had behavioral issues and struggled in class. He is now 15 and repeating 6th grade for the 3rd time. Our district’s response to this student was to write him off. It wasn’t until the student’s mother reached out to a parent organization and the article appeared in the paper, that the student was removed and placed into a different school with the appropriate resources to help him succeed.
We also have a school board that is in dire need of reform. They are so insistent on name calling and divisiveness that they simply don’t have the time to focus on real issues like the reality of why our schools are failing. Our Board needs to be a part of the solution not a part of the problem, and they should be working collectively to set a standard of excellence for our students and our community.
Any community that is dealing with a failing district really needs to take a step back and look to examples like Hartsville. We have to change our focus and start to embrace the model of whole child, whole school, whole community. We are fortunate to have a small but growing group within our school district and community that is committed to this idea of reform, but we need more stake holders and more buy in to realize the full potential that this paradigm shift has to offer.