Philadelphia Metropolis


Tapping into Parent Power

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By Matthew Ward

As a parent of a two-year-old son, it is already time our family to be seriously exploring our education options, and that is tricky, considering we live in Philadelphia.

In suburban districts, the decision is far simpler - just send your child to the nearest public school.  But, most Philadelphia parents I talk with consider the neighborhood public schools to be a last-resort option, if at all - with the exception of a few rare jewels in more affluent neighborhoods.

In Philadelphia, charter schools are an option.  But the feedback I get on charters often mirrors what I hear about the public schools - the majority do a mediocre to poor job and the exceptions have extensive waiting lists,  Charter schools leave me conflicted.  True, they are smaller, offer more diverse curricula, and cater towards more parent participation.  But, they also seem to represent the exodus of all active parents, as well as long-term public commitment, from the traditional public schools. 

As a concerned native Philadelphian, I feel that the quality of public education is paramount to our survival as a city and our prospects for the future.  I am the product of the public schools and my father taught in the district for 30 years. It got me to thinking about ways to improve the public schools, not in a top-down way, but in a parent- and neighborhood-based way. I think my idea has the potential to appeal to the common sense perspectives of parents and community members, as well as the bureaucrats, budget crunchers, city planners, and politicians. 

The basic idea is to have a parent in all classrooms Grades K-4.  One parent in the room could serve as assistant teacher as a classroom helper and as a disciplinarian of sorts.

These parents would get paid modestly -- say $10 an hour.  With some training, I think these parents could have a grasp of curricula for Grades K-4 and could contribute to the basic education of the children.  A parent who is a teacher's helper could also make it easier for the teacher to do his or her job.


Parents add value

As important, the disconnect between community and institution, parent and child, even teacher and student could be bridged.  The idea would be to bring in as many different parents as possible to participate.  If the kids are held accountable, not just to the teacher, but to the parents of their classmates, who are likely also their neighbors, disruptive behavior could be cut dramatically.  Also, it will help the children's self-esteem if they feel they are worth the time and attention of the parents.

On the surface, it is easy to criticize the idea of paying parents to participate in their children's education.  It is hard to argue with the basic idea that all parents should be involved to some extent.  But the fact is, not all parents are. Some want to leave the whole educational process up to the institutions.  Most are just working too long for too little to be able to participate.

This would be a way to create incentives for people to get involved, whether they are stay-at-home moms or workers who normally wouldn't be able to afford to take off and visit their child's school.

When you crunch the numbers, it would cost a relatively small amount of money to put one parent in every classroom for grades K-4 for six hours each school day at a cost of $10-per-hour, paid in the form of a stipend. I estimate the yearly cost at about $36 million. Out of a school district budget of $2.3 billion, it amounts to less than two percent.


A good investment

It would be a good investment.  You could find scores of educators, criminal justice experts, and other experts who can prove statistically, that a solid, formative education prevents crime - and all of the costs associated with crime, not just economic, but also when it comes to families, the quality of life, the city's image, etc.

And most of money given to parents would likely end up in the local economy.  Small pilot programs could pave the way for citywide participation.  Private funding or grants could pay for these initial small investments until dedicated funding became available.  Legal issues would have to be worked out, but if the support and excitement is there, the legalities could be handled. Union teachers who I talked to liked the idea and downplayed potential conflicts.

This proposal is about engagement, involvement, and overcoming boundaries between institutions and communities.  We should be proud these institutions exist, and we should treat them with love and care considering our precious youth attend these institutions for the sacred purpose of learning.  Institutional reform is always confined within the institution.  Maybe it's time we tap more community resources for common sense problem solving.


Matthew Ward is a father and a writer who lives in West Philadelphia.

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