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Parental Guidance Suggested

Parents Organize to Improve the Quality of Education in the Baltimore City Public School System

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Mad As . . . : Robert Heck banded together with other parents of students at Roland Park Elementary and formed an advocacy group "to be a voice for 90,000 students . . . from a parents' perspective."

By Walaika Haskins | Posted 5/5/2004

While city and state officials continue to work on overcoming the Baltimore City Public School System's crippling $58 million deficit, many parents are angered by the ongoing uncertainties surrounding their children's educations. Despite a promise by the city and the Abell Foundation to loan enough money to help the system make ends meet for the rest of the fiscal year, parents say they still don't know what to expect come September and the start of the 2004-'05 school year. Fueled by a growing distrust for the decision-making capabilities of North Avenue administrators and the city school board, some parents have chosen to get organized on their kids' behalf.

For Robert Heck (aka Maryland Public Television's Bob the Vid Tech) and other parents at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, the financial crisis became a personal reality when the school's kindergarten aides and office staff were laid off in December. Not content to stand by as their children were forced to bear the cost of the district's financial woes, the Roland Park PTA leapt into action. The organization set up an online listserv at Yahoo! Groups and began an e-mail, fax, letter, and phone-call campaign to get the aides and other staff reinstated. The group also demanded full disclosure from the school board so parents would know exactly what positions had been cut from the school's budget.

"These cuts have been done without consideration as to how they will impact on individual schools," Roland Park PTA President Dennis Moulden said in January when the PTA started its campaign. "The lack of answers from government officials is the most troubling. I'm not getting enough information to just sit back and say [the school board is] taking care of it, but I just don't have enough information. We're the ultimate stakes-holders because they have our kids."

Two of the kindergarten-aide positions were eventually reinstated, but rather than be content with their victory, the Roland Park parents decided to examine other potential cuts that could harm the quality of education for students throughout the city school system. The informal Roland Park group named itself Advocates for Reform at the Top, and today, the organization's goal is to "be a voice for the 90,000 students of the BCPSS, from a parents' and caregivers' perspective," says Heck, chairman of the group.

"We intend to continue to be an independent parents' voice in all aspects of our children's education," Heck says. "There has to be, quite frankly, a citizen's role that is respected and recognized by the powers that be--that was not the case when we began. The goal is to have input into what goes on in the schools that directly affect our children. We are the stakeholders of the system. Think of us as the 'Navy SEALs' of parent groups."

Many parents, even those who are not members of Advocates for Reform at the Top, echo the organization's sentiments. They feel they have been cut out of the decision-making process for far too long, and therefore have adopted watchdog mentalities when it comes to the public schools.

"It's a big issue and I've been thinking about all this lately--How much time do I need to spend making certain my daughter receives an adequate education?" wonders Chequita Lanier, whose 11-year-old daughter attends Northeast Baltimore's Glenmount School. "I think it's a question all parents will have to answer for themselves."

Though many parents like Lanier are now taking something of an activist role in their kids' education, not everyone is happy about it. Some feel betrayed by local politicians and school administrators and are feeling a bit overwhelmed by having to monitor the district's activities--some are choosing to move to better school districts where they won't have to worry so much.

"I don't remember my parents having to be this involved," Lanier says. "And I think parents don't realize how involved you need to be. You shouldn't have to be, but right now you have to be a watchdog, and I think that's why so many people are pulling their children out [of the district]."

Other parents, like Eric White, are taking to the role naturally and feel it is a parent's duty to be aware of changes in the system. White was raised in a family that believed strongly that parents should be involved in their children's schools. He sits on two School Improvement Teams--one at Baltimore City College where his son is a student, the other at Western High School, which his daughter attends.

"As a parent, you have a duty to have an influence on the school system that is educating your child," White says. "If you want the best for your child, you have to get involved and have some influence. . . . I guess the times dictate that you be connected to the school so that you are aware before things [are announced] of what's happening. I don't think of it as a watchdog role."

Though all three have different levels of involvement in the system, Heck, Lanier, and White all share a common concern: that relatively few parents are attending PTA and other school-related meetings ever since the city announced that it will loan $42 million to the school system to help it meet its fiscal deficit.

"My concern is that I don't see enough parents questioning the system," Lanier says. "They only seem to come out when there is a major crisis. I think what's happening is still going to be happening next year in September. It will really be frightening how many students will be in the classroom, [in comparison to the number of] teachers and administrators in the schools."

Heck says Advocates for Reform at the Top has received support from "hundreds of sympathetic parents." The organization has received invitations to speak at Medfield Heights Elementary and has helped Mount Washington parents set up their own Yahoo! listserv to keep in touch. But still, he says, Advocates for Reform at the Top needs to mobilize thousands more parents, and the group's immediate goal is to reach out to residents of the city's east, west, and south sides.

"That's what we're doing at [Advocates for Reform at the Top], is forming coalitions so we can get people moving," Heck says. "And right now, the only reason we haven't gone further is time. We all have personal lives, and this takes up a lot of time."

He says in order to "make the schools better" Advocates for Reform at the Top needs citizens willing and able to express their "outrage" in a constructive way.

As the '03-'04 school year draws to a close, parents, students, and teachers apprehensively wait further word from the school board as to how it will handle layoffs, summer school, and enrichment programs, among other things. Recently, city schools chief executive officer Bonnie Copeland announced that class sizes would increase to an average of 32 students per teacher. Lanier points out that some schools, like Carver and Mervo high schools, already have classes with 35-plus students. She says that if more parents don't continue to insist on smaller classes and continued programs, children will continue to see the quality of education in the city go down.

"When do we as parents say to the school board, 'What have you given my child so that they will be successful later in life,'" Lanier asks.

"We're very happy with the education our kids are getting [at Roland Park], but that's not the case at all schools," Heck says, noting that Advocates for Reform at the Top is "strategizing and planning, getting ready for the next crisis."

"This is about all the kids, not just one school," he says. "I've spent too much time and energy on the phone with people from different backgrounds. This has been a uniter, and we just have to keep the fire burning."

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