BACKPAGE EDITORIAL

Focus on What We Can Control

Is the superintendent’s parent academy the wrong approach?

Posted

Don’t get me wrong. I support Duval County Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s initiative to get more parents involved in public schools. I believe our schools would be a lot better if we had more constructive parental involvement. The thing is, schools should first control what they can control.

As a schoolteacher, I have no control over whether parents are involved or not. If they read to their children or not, take an interest in them or not, or if they do the bare minimum of things they should do to be called a parent or not. Once a child leaves my classroom and then leaves the school, my control — and the district’s control — effectively come to an end.

So, although I support Vitti’s plan for a parent academy, I think we need to deal with the issues in our schools first, the things we can control. We can address student accountability and curriculum issues, and I think those are the areas where we should concentrate.

First, our schools must have discipline. We ignore discipline at our own peril. If you want evidence of this, just read the paper or listen to the news, because you can’t go more than a day or so without reading about some horrific act committed by a young person, a school age person. Furthermore, this is an area where we can nudge parents to get more involved.

I think we can address this by having a multiple-offender rule. If a student gets three referrals, he or she should be suspended indefinitely until a parent comes in for a conference to discuss the behavior. The caveat: A parent could come in the same day for the conference and the student might not have to miss any school at all; but at three referrals, a student’s behavior really needs to be addressed by all concerned parties. For every subsequent referral, the student would be suspended indefinitely but could come back the very next day without missing any school — but only if the parent shadows the child for the whole day. That means going to class, walking the halls, eating lunch, etc. I imagine in many households that would have to happen only once.

If a student does miss school, that’s on the parent, not the school, because the parent didn’t follow through. Discipline is hard, but when we run from it or ignore it, we make things worse, not better. Discipline is something schools can control and it's one of the most important lessons a student can learn. Sad to say, if some children don’t learn it at school, they won’t learn it anywhere.

The next most important lesson students need to learn is how to have a good work ethic. Like discipline, some kids will learn this only at school. That’s why, when we destroy student accountability and push along kids who haven't learned the skills and knowledge they need, we're doing them a lifetime of disservice.

We must change grade recovery and stop forcing teachers to push kids along whether they have the skills they need or not. Grade recovery should only be for the truly deserving, not for the students who don’t come to class, don’t make an effort or act up. Right now, many don’t think it matters how they act or what they do, because they know we'll give them another bite of the apple through grade recovery. Teachers should no longer be told to watch their D and F grades. If teachers are cajoled into passing students who don’t deserve it, then we've taught them that having a good work ethic doesn’t matter.

If they don’t learn this lesson at school, many will never learn it; quite frankly, a work ethic is probably the lesson they need to learn the most. Vitti should say that no longer will teachers be told what grades to give; instead, students should get the grades they deserve. Yes, this will lead to more students failing, so we must offer more summer school opportunities. But, once again, we'll be nudging parents to be parents by saying if the kids don’t go, they will repeat the year. I don’t like the prospect of kids failing a grade, but what I like even less is the prospect of kids going through life without the skills they need and without a work ethic.

My last point: Schools can control curriculum. Not every child is going to go to college, but we must still prepare them to be successful citizens. This is why we must have multiple pathways to graduation. We cannot continue to shove all our children into a one-size-fits-all curriculum, regardless of their ability and aptitude, and then scratch our heads when some fall through the cracks. We need a college-ready curriculum, and every student needs to be taught the basics, but we must also have arts, skills and trade and technology curriculums, too. We need to meet the students where they are and engage their strengths to make school more interesting and relevant.

Schools can control these things, and we should. This is where we should start — not with a parent academy, despite the fact that it looks good on paper.

So, though I do support the superintendent’s parent academy idea, I think it's like sprinkles on ice cream. Sure, it’s nice, but what enhancement is it really going to create? What parent who has abdicated his responsibility is suddenly going to think, “You know what? I can take this class on a random Thursday night and turn it around.” My guess is, not many.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but it should mean we first take care of the things for which schools are directly responsible. o

Guerrieri is a teacher who also writes a blog about education issues called Education Matters (jaxkidsmatter.blogspot.com).

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