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Notes from Education Nation: The Parent and the Village

NBC Universal

Aside from the infamous teacher debate, I predicted that this panel, which aimed to discuss the role of parents in a child’s education, would be the most anticipated. I was right – the room was fully packed and flooded with questions for the panel. Notable names in attendance were actress Cheryl Hines (who has a show called School Pride coming up on NBC), head of the NFL Roger Goodell, Chairman and CEO of State Farm Insurance Ed Rust, Byron Garrett, head of the National PTA, Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Caroline Kennedy.
 
Kate Snow, the moderator, began by stating the well-known fact that the educational attainment of parents is a huge factor in influencing a child’s education. And yet, I bet that many readers – especially parents new to public schools – have had a feeling of powerlessness when it comes to their kid’s school. But which came first: the feeling of powerlessness or the lack of parental involvement? Garrett, head of the PTA, measured involvement in this way: there are five million PTA members nationwide – but there are 56 million children in public schools.
 
The whole panel reached the conclusion, though, that everyone shares in the failure of our education system, and that there needs to be a reprioritization of the importance of education. Here’s how some of the panel members said they are contributing to bettering education:
 
Ed Rust, head of State Farm, said that he offers employees one day a year to spend with their children in school. One day doesn’t sound like much (because, well, it’s not), but it’s encouraging to see a big company like State Farm take parental involvement in school seriously. Many State Farm employees are also certified as substitute teachers.
 
Archbishop Dolan said that Catholic schools are communal and involve parents by nature and necessity. It’s parents who are needed to help paint classrooms or organize activities, because Catholic schools don’t have the same funding as public schools.
 
Just as I was wondering what NFL head Roger Goodell was doing at this panel, he talked about his organization’s initiative called Play60, which encourages children to engage in physical activity/play for 60 minutes a day. I actually think this is genius: while I’m no football fan myself, many kids are, and look up to players as role models – and if the players say to get outside for 60 minutes a day, kids probably will. Goodell also advocates for keeping gym in schools – studies have shown physical activity improves academic performance. Team sports also foster a good sense of community (high school sports games are big events in many areas of the country).
 
Actress Cheryl Hines talked about her new show on NBC called School Pride, where she travels around the country helping communities renovate their crumbling schools. The show “inspires people to come together to give what they can,” according to Hines – even if it’s a little bit. “People want a school they’re proud of,” said Hines. There’s truth in this – a good school can definitely be a symbol of pride to a community. Caroline Kennedy said she agreed with the idea that everyone needs to have a hand in improving schools: “Every single part of the community has a role to play.” Kennedy said that, as an example, corporations in a community can provide leadership training, and media outlets can publicize school events.
 
So what needs to happen to bring schools and parents together? Some of this is down to parents to step up, but schools need to open their doors as well. PTA head Garrett said that schools “need to reach parents wherever they are” and that “increasing two-way communication is going to be critical.” This means allowing teachers and parents to be in touch via email or text – many parents are at work and can’t take a phone call at home or not until late at night. The panel said that schools could also provide training on how to interact with parents.
 
“We’ve also got to think of unique ways to engage dads,” said Garrett. Garrett spoke more in-depth about this at the last National PTA Convention, where he gave tips on fathers getting involved in schools and introduced his One Million Hours of Power initiative: Get 350,000 men to volunteer for three hours each — and you have one million hours of power.
 
And, as an audience member asked, “What can parents do if teachers don’t want parent involvement?” The panel didn’t give specific steps on how to counter this — and it’s rare to find a teacher who would turn down help or engagement from a parent -- but Garret emphatically said that “you can’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” And really, he’s right – it’s your child’s education, and you have every right to be involved. This goes back to what Geoffrey Canada told me after the heated teacher debate: You’ve got to show up at school (when you can) and tell the teacher what you expect for your child.
 
No concrete solutions were reached on how to perfect the relationship between parents and schools, and what each contributes to it. But everyone agrees that more needs to be done on both sides for the sake of children’s education and futures: Garrett said simply, “It’s better to build children than repair men and women.”
 
Parents, what do you do to stay involved in your child’s school? Teachers, how do you think parents can step up their involvement?

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