What a parent can do

Our view: Public schools work best when parents choose to stand and fight for them instead of run away

May 18, 2010

An elementary school has a new playground because of a parent who raised the money, helped design it and even stored the bricks to build it. A father mentors troubled middle school boys on everything from substance abuse to anger management. A mom lobbies county government to limit housing development that might lead to classroom overcrowding.

The importance of parental participation in Maryland's public schools is critical, as anyone with children in them can attest, but too often overlooked and underappreciated. There is no better example of this than Jeffrey Macris, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the U.S. Naval Academy who has helped rejuvenate two Annapolis area middle schools.

Earlier this month, the Maryland Department of Education recognized him as winner of the Comcast Parent Involvement Matters Award. What did he do? He started by refusing to believe that the answer to low-performing schools was to avoid sending your children to them.

As Sun education reporter Liz Bowie recently chronicled in this newspaper, when Mr. Macris and his wife moved to the area, he was advised by everyone from real estate agents to friends and colleagues to buy a house in the suburbs or plan to send his kids to private schools. As a Maryland native, he was outraged — and decided to buy in Annapolis anyway.

Although his eldest child was only 3 years old, he quickly set his sights on low-performing middle schools. He discovered that one of their most glaring needs was that they simply lacked advocates. He and other parents went to the school board seeking changes — better order and discipline in the schools, better, more experienced teachers, and a magnet program to attract top students.

That coalition worked wonders. The schools have improved markedly, and even suburbanites are looking to send their children there. It didn't cost Anne Arundel County more money, but it did require more focused attention on the schools' needs.

How many other schools might be improved if parents opted to pitch in instead of relocating or sending their children to private alternatives? Baltimore has seen its share of success stories. Many neighborhoods in the counties have, too. But too often the prevailing view is why take the chance? School failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Recently, a Vermont-based company announced plans to create school boundary maps for the Baltimore metropolitan area. Potentially, these are tools to perpetuate this kind of destructive behavior. Call it white flight or rich flight that can be as much a cause of, as a reaction to, bad schools.

Mr. Macris concedes that turning around schools is not an easy task, but he notes that the means to do so — chiefly the ton of statistics covering everything from U.S. Census results to test scores — have never been more readily available. What it takes, he says, is a critical mass of concerned parents who won't accept the status quo.

"Parents are the ultimate bosses of the school system," says the father of five. We couldn't agree more. Like any business, schools work best when those bosses step up to the plate and take responsibility for what happens there.

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