Parents and Students as Citizens in their own Schools

Today’s Los Angeles Times piece, “Parents hope to force sweeping changes at Compton school”, highlights a dysfunctional educational venue, McKinley Elementary School in Compton, and a controversial effort by parents to turn it around. Controversial because, without the knowledge of school staff or the school board, parents quietly took the radical action of circulating a petition, based on a new California law, to bring a charter company in to take over running the school. A school dysfunctional perhaps because of a lack of a good governance model that could have kept parents, teachers and even students in touch with each other as school stakeholders to share their concerns.

We live in a society that was founded on egalitarian principles and process, which have been proven in the last two centuries to be more effective than hierarchies of monarchs and aristocracy. As citizen stakeholders we have struggled to be represented in all key decisions that impact us, from that original Boston Tea Party with its challenge to “taxation without representation” onward.

But from my experience as a parent, including witnessing friends launch an alternative charter school attended by my daughter, well-meaning school leaders often forget that there is more to an effective educational venue than just educational content, methodology and talented staff. Beyond those critical elements, the model for school governance is often ignored, usually to the detriment of the effectiveness of the school as a learning environment.

This appears to be the case with McKinley, because parents and school administrators were apparently unaware of each other’s efforts to turn things around. The district had hired a new principal and brought in talented teachers who were making measurable improvements at the school. At the same time parents had partnered with a community organization to launch a petition drive to oust the school staff in favor of a charter school provider.

Assuming a hierarchical model of top-down school governance, school administrators would see themselves as solely responsible for improving the school without bringing the parents (or students) into the loop. Under those same governance assumptions, parents would see their only recourse to revolt against and try to topple that hierarchy.

If we can instead leverage the egalitarian principles that inspired our country and its Constitution, our schools can be set up so parents and students have a significant voice in how those schools are run. In such a governance environment, one could hope that situations of poor communications and cross purposes like at McKinley could be minimized.

Certainly there are challenges to this model. Parents, including those in at-risk neighborhoods, are often overwhelmed with current responsibilities of work and family and would not feel they have the time for significant participation in running their local school. And children… are children, and many adults feel they are too immature to have any say in their lives and the institutions created to facilitate their development.

As to parent participation, there is a completely different dynamic between being invited to have a real voice and choosing due to circumstances not to use it, versus not being invited at all. And even if only a few parents chose to play a real role in school governance, they would represent a key perspective that might otherwise be missing.

And as to student participation, even though only children, school is still about their education, and no one will suffer more if the school is dysfunctional. I believe it to be an important principle that is often ignored in conventional schools that learning is enhanced when the learner is fully engaged in and is a co-creator of that learning process. To the extent they have the inkling to, students (even young elementary school students) should be brought into school meetings that include adult school staff (and parents) and encouraged to speak their minds.

It has always seemed to me that we miss a great learning opportunity excluding kids from a real voice in running their schools (even if not a vote in the decisions). We strive to develop their critical thinking ability and prepare them to be active citizens in an egalitarian democracy, yet we exclude them from this very obvious and readily available opportunity to learn by doing and make it relevant to the real world (at least their real world)!

What I respectfully submit here, for further consideration, is making parents and particularly students “citizens” in their own schools. Acknowledged stakeholders with a voice and an egalitarian governance model that allows them to exercise that voice.

One reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *