During my early years as a school district superintendent, a mother came into my office with a request: “My daughter is blind – blind from birth. And I would like her to attend school in a general education setting.”
Well, the child study team told me there was no way that could happen. But I sided with the mother, who provided a very persuasive argument that her child “could do it.” It was one of the few times I overruled a child study team. Twelve years later, I stood on the stage of our high school, and I handed that girl her diploma.
I often tell this story to illustrate my commitment to special education. It also stands out as a powerful example of the positive impact that can emanate from parental involvement, support and advocacy.
This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of addressing the annual leadership conference of the New Jersey PTA on a subject very close to my heart: The Power of Parents. It’s an easy concept to advocate, almost like “apple pie and parenthood.” That’s because research supports the influence of parental involvement in children’s academic success.
A 2009 study by Duke University cited the important role of families, home-school relations, and parental involvement in education. They can close demographic achievement gaps and maximize students’ potential.
In a 2002 review of research on parental involvement, the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory found the following: “When schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more.”
As a chief school administrator, I always found the support of the PTA to be critically important to the local education program. The role of parent organizations is more influential than many realize. Through the efforts of our PTAs, much good is accomplished for children.
PTAs and local parent organizations also provide a gateway for parents to enter the next step of involvement: education advocacy.
I’ve often said that when parents speak about their children’s education, decision-makers listen. Parents have an extraordinary ability to influence education—and to influence it for the good.
Today, the New Jersey School Boards Association recognizes the natural alliance between parents and local boards of education…and between our state organization and the New Jersey PTA. We value the excellent relationship we have with the leadership of the New Jersey PTA. On a monthly basis, our organizations meet informally to discuss educational issues, share concerns and plan initiatives.
One such effort is NJSBA’s Parent Connections program. For the past year, NJSBA has worked with various boards of education to establish district-based parent advocacy groups. We have also launched a Parent Connections webpage, which provides information on education funding, testing, school choice and other subjects. It also serves as a resource on the operation of local school districts, explaining “who does what” in public education, including the local school board.
As a superintendent in three school districts, I found that nearly half of the board members came up through the ranks of the PTA. Of course, you don’t need to have school-age children to serve on the local board of education. I know many outstanding board members who are grandparents or do not have children. At the same time, the link between serving on a school board and being a parent is logical and strong.
In February, Ray Pinney, NJSBA’s director of member engagement who manages the Parent Connections program, wrote about the characteristics of an effective school board member. He listed “people skills,” thoughtfulness, a focus on the student, and dedication.
Over the years, the statewide candidacy rate for local school board membership has been low—less than three candidates for every two available positions. We would like to see more citizens become interested in school board membership. But we also need people with the right attributes, such as the four listed above.
That’s where PTAs and parent organizations play an important role by encouraging citizens with a sincere interest in their own children’s education to advance to the next level. For the right person, the next stage can involve making a difference for the community’s—and the state’s—children by serving on a local board of education.
These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours. Contact me at [email protected].
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