Saturday, July 19, 2008

Am I Obsessed With Middle Class Parents?

My baby son—thirty years old, six foot four inches tall—is acting as my Jiminy Cricket. He told me that he thinks my concentration on attracting middle class parents to RPS as a key issue in the school board campaign goes against my commitment to social and economic justice. He thinks that I should concentrate on fixing our schools for the students who are already in attendance. He also worries that the parents of students who already attend RPS will think that I don’t care about their children.

Well, Ethan, I hear you loud and clear. However, there is method to my apparent madness. For several reasons, I know that we must convince all parents in Richmond that they are stake holders in RPS if we are to make it into the first-class school system it needs to be.

First, as I have said before (The Next Superintendent) we need to look at Richmond Public Schools as a business. “At one end we take in young minds ready to learn; at the other end we produce young men and women who are prepared to deal with their life goals, whether in college, in the business world or in the military.” As with any business, in order to succeed RPS has to have a great product and to market it to all its prospective customers. And just like Coca Cola, which will never be happy until it controls 100% of the soft drink market, we should never be satisfied until we attract all the children in Richmond to RPS.

Second, as I have also said before (An Open Letter to Doug and Jackie and Paul and Bill and . . . ), the continued hemorrhaging of our middle class parents to the suburbs to find what they perceive of as a better education for their children is not healthy for our city. Further, the continued use by parents of the RPS open enrollment policy to avoid sending their children to their neighborhood school is not healthy for the neighborhoods of Richmond. As I said in my open letter to mayoral candidates back in March,

Providing great schools for our children is not just a matter of economic and racial justice. It is vital to the overall health of the city. A city with a population composed of just the old and the young, with nobody in between, is not healthy. A city population of just the affluent and the poor, with no middle class, is likewise unhealthy. When the middle class leaves a city it takes with it a significant part of the tax base.

If we want to have a city that is vibrant and safe and a wonderful place to live, we must invest in our public schools. How can we attract people to live in Richmond if we do not have great schools? How do we attract businesses to Richmond? Do we tell them this is a great place to work but advise them that their employees should live in the counties because our schools just aren’t that good?

Third, I am concerned that if middle-class parents are not committed to Richmond Public Schools, the number or people advocating on behalf of our public school children will decrease further in the future. As I said here at the end of April, if the number of students attending Richmond Public Schools continues to decrease by about five hundred student each year,

it means that the number of voters in the city who consider adequate funding of the public schools to be in their own best interest is shrinking. How many of the current members of the City Council represent a district in which the quality of and funding for Richmond Public Schools is really a make-it or break-it issue? Will the winning candidate for mayor in November really need to capture the parent vote to be elected?”
School Issues: The Playing Field

Fourth, there is a practical reason. I am convinced that strong parental involvement is necessary to make our neighborhood schools work., beside ranking schools on student academic achievement, also ranks schools based on parent assessment of several factors, including parent involvement. In describing what the parent involvement ranking means, says:

Evaluate the quantity and quality of parent involvement. In a highly rated school, parents play important leadership roles on the school site council, PTA and in other organizations. A school with strong parent involvement attracts a large percentage of parents to school functions. The school offers a variety of opportunities for parent participation, such as school events, classroom projects and schoolwide committees. Parents are respectful of teachers and the principal, and the teachers and principal seek out and value input from parents.

Let’s look at the three elementary schools in district four (sorry about my obsession with district four, but that’s the place I live and understand best). The latest data published on the RPS website shows the approximate economic background of the students of our schools. At Westover Hills, about 76% of the students are receiving federally subsidized meals. At Southhampton, 67% of the students are receiving subsidized meals. At Fisher, only 27% of the students receive subsidized meals. On, the three schools are rated on parent involvement as Westover Hills, 2 out of 5; Southampton, 4 out of 5; and Fisher 5 out of 5.

These figures are not surprising. I believe that most middle-class parents have more time available to get involved in their child’s school than do most parents who are not earning as much. Let me make it very clear, I am not suggesting that less affluent parents care less about their kids than do those with greater income. I don’t believe for a second that a parent’s concern for his or her babies varies with income.

I know that if we can get middle class parents in the Westover Hills zone to commit to their neighborhood school that parent involvement will go up. The same is true for Southampton. The experiences of such north side schools as Munford, Fox and Holton make this clear. And, when parental involvement goes up the educational experience of all children at that school will improve significantly.

So this is why I spend so much effort trying to win over middle class parents. We must make them see themselves as stake holders in RPS. Once we are able to convince all the parents in the city that what happens in our public schools matters to them, I know that every child in our schools will benefit.

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