On Saturday, the city school system sponsored a daylong workshop on effective parenting and the tough question is this: Was it worth the effort?
Are city parents more effective now? More empowered? Will we suddenly see more successful students?
Or would it have been better for all concerned if the money and the energy and the manpower that brought about Saturday's "Parent Empowerment: Foundation for Student Success" workshop had been directed somewhere else?
This is, as I say, a tough question because the organizers -- an energetic committee of parents, teachers and administrators -- certainly meant well.
They mailed some 110,000 fliers advertising the event.
There were workshops on self-esteem, special education and drug abuse. Speakers talked about the importance of the partnership between parents and schools. The mayor and the superintendent even breezed through to offer their encouragement.
But, on the other hand, the event cost about $10,000 -- mostly for the mailings and to provide lunch for participants. And only a fraction of the parents with children in the system attended -- estimates of Saturday's participants ranged from 500 to 1,500 people, scattered about the four workshop sites.
Meanwhile, another office within the school bureaucracy is coordinating the ambitious school-based management restructuring plan. Another office is implementing a new Afro-centric curriculum. Yet a third office must find a way for the entire system to cope with the prospect of dramatic cutbacks in state funding as a result of the recession.
And overseeing all of this is a superintendent who has been on the job for less than two months.
Here you see the dilemma that the state's largest, and in many ways, most impoverished school system, must continually confront. Cursed with a paucity of resources, city schools nevertheless must try to be all things for all people. There always seem to be so many massive efforts under way at once, each one equally crucial to the future of the city's children.
Where do you concentrate resources? Who provides the focus?
Worse still, the city constantly finds itself providing services that wealthier systems in Maryland take for granted. In the spring, schools throughout the state conduct workshops to train teachers. In the fall, the city finds itself obligated to conduct a workshop to train parents.
Still: "I think it was worth it, definitely worth it," declared Dolores Winston, of the school system's Community Mobilization Office.
"Just looking at the enthusiasm, at the kind of ideas that came up in the action planning sessions, we know that a lot was accomplished. At one of the workshops, at the end of the day, one of the parents got up and said that this had been a great day and that she hoped we held one of these every year.
"I don't want you to focus on the money we spent," continued Winston, somewhat defensively, "because there are still people out there who are against this idea. But if it means providing parents with the skills necessary to make a difference in their child's education, then it is something we have to do."
Said Avis Ransom, one of the parents on the planning committee, "You also have to think of this as the beginning of a process, not a one-day event. One parent goes back and shares what they've learned with other parents. And they share with someone else and so the knowledge spreads.
"One of the ideas we are trying to get across," Ransom continued, "is that this isn't an everybody-out-for-themselves kind of thing. If my child is in a classroom where all of the other parents are uninvolved, is she going to zoom ahead? No. She's going to respond to peer pressure and lag behind with the others."
Will we see a sudden, dramatic leap in test scores as a result of this conference?
Probably not, because the city will still have, on average, the poorest, the youngest and the most beleaguered parents in Maryland. And their children will continue to go to one of the poorest school systems in the state. They both are trapped in a poverty cycle, and it is the children who suffer.
When you're trapped, you try anything and everything to work your way out. On balance then, if just one parent felt even a little bit empowered Saturday, the conference would have been worth every penny.