Mrs. Schaefer, the longtime literacy specialist at Brookside Elementary, a Title 1 school in Norwalk, Conn., had a problem. Roughly one-third of the school's third, fourth and fifth graders had failed to reach proficiency on the language arts portion of the 2011 Connecticut Mastery Test, the annual standardized exam issued in conjunction with No Child Left Behind. This was nothing new. Brookside was 0-for-NCLB. It had never achieved proficiency. According to Mrs. Schaefer's data, the school's first and second graders were even further behind. What to do? Hers was an almost impossible task. She was the sole reading specialist for approximately 500 students, almost 80 percent of whom were minorities, with 59 percent sufficiently poor to qualify for free or reduced-fee school lunches. She decided to host a series of evening seminars, during which she'd provide parents with helpful tips on how to improve their children's reading. About 25 came -- and most were parents whose children were doing just fine.
Last September, Mrs. Lee, a Brookside kindergarten teacher, encountered a problem of her own. As she does at the start of every school year, she had issued her incoming students what she terms an academic readiness test -- to see, in short, if the children were sufficiently prepared to begin school. It is something all Brookside's kindergarten teachers do. The test consisted of eight questions, four of which were these: Can you write your first name? Do you know how to count to ten? Do you know the difference between an upper case and lower-case letter? Can you trace four basic shapes? Thirty-eight percent of the school's kindergartners failed one or more of the eight questions.
Mr. Hay, Brookside's principal, had a problem too. As the head of a Title I school he was required by federal NCLB law to consult parents on all key aspects of school management. Empowering parents to assume an active role in decisions about their children's education was one of the centerpieces of the legislation. Throughout his ten years at Brookside, he said, parental input has been almost nil. He would schedule a community meeting and one or two parents would show. At his most successful gathering, attendance reached three. Mr. Hay is at a loss at what to do. He has tried scheduling meetings in the morning, the afternoon, the evening. Every Latino parent receives a flyer written in Spanish. Nothing has worked. "You'd think parents would want some say in how we spend our $140,000 in Title I money this year," he said.
It's no secret that a number of things in our public school system need fixing. An ever-shrinking school budget, for one, that at Brookside last year resulted in fewer teachers, larger classes, the elimination of the school's literacy specialist and the shuttering every other week of its 15,000-title library. A more intelligent apportionment of those funds, to ensure that elementary schools -- the foundational pillars of public education -- can properly do their job. The tenure system, which in Connecticut offers teachers job protection after four years when many of them acknowledge it generally takes five to seven years to master their craft. The limited availability of quality, preschool education for the middle class and poor. The curriculum, which should be reworked to emphasize critical thinking. The incessant testing, and months spent on test prep. The punitive nature of that testing, which, according to Gerald Tirozzi, Connecticut's former commissioner of education, has "driven us to lower our standards to look better, and it's caused teachers and principals to act very differently than they normally would."
All are complex problems, entwined in money, ideology and bureaucracy and exceedingly difficult to repair. But there is one broken element in public education that is apolitical in nature and costs zero to fix. It would not on its own solve our schools' problems, but it would provide a major lift. It is an issue we tend to sweep under the rug, because airing it would point blame at us, instead of at teachers, the schools, the district. It is at heart what vexes Mrs. Schaefer, Mrs. Lee and Mr. Hay.
It is the issue of parental involvement, and it cuts across all demographics, all classes and races. I mentor a boy who will enter eighth grade this September. Fourteen years ago, in 1999, his parents moved here from Mexico. They settled in a predominantly Latino neighborhood and never bothered to learn English. For that matter, they are all but illiterate in their native Spanish. For as long as their son remains in school -- and I don't know how long that will be -- he will never be able to go to them and ask, "Mom, Dad, can you help me with my homework?" I've spent time, too, with a white, upper-middle class second grader who reads well below grade level. His mother is a veterinarian and manages a horse stable on the side. His father is the office manager at Mom's veterinary clinic. They work long hours, leaving before their son eats breakfast and leaves for school, and arriving home after dinner, near their son's bedtime. Most nights they're too pooped to spend time with him. They've entrusted their high-school educated nanny -- whose primary job is to care of his toddler brother -- to oversee his homework and reading. On more than one occasion, the boy has stopped Mrs. Schaefer in the hallway and asked, "Can you read with me today?"
We can't legislate good parenting. Still, we have to figure a way to get parents more involved in their children's education. The most accessible entry point for parents into a school is through the PTO. This is an organization whose sole purpose is to raise money for the school. Through a variety of fundraising activities, it bankrolls school trips, special assemblies and contribute to the school's general fund. The PTO does not set school policy. But a parent involved in improving her child's experience at school is more likely to ramp up her interest in her child's education. She may start reading more to her son or daughter, and have her child read to her.
Like many schools, the Brookside PTO has tried for years to increase and broaden its membership. Its annual dues are more than reasonable. Membership is five dollars for those who join at the start of the year, and seven dollars thereafter. For parents who can't afford that amount, the fee is waived. And yet in a school of 500, just 110 parents signed on at the start of the 2010-11 school year, of which only about 40, said past PTO president Audra Good, were active. The vast majority, she added, were white and middle class. The membership, she said, "was not as diverse as the school, I have to admit." She continued. "There are some Hispanic parents who are involved, a few African-Americans. But they're more of a middle class background."
Lack of time and transportation explained the absence of some minority parents. But something else was at work. Rightly or wrongly, one Hispanic mother felt Brookside's PTO was exclusionary. "I just feel if you try to get in, they're going to look at you like, 'Who are you and why are you coming here?'"
It is a common impression, acknowledged Mrs. Good, that is hard to overcome. The previous year, she said, the organization's executive board had called a special meeting, inviting Latino parents to help figure a way to bridge the membership gap. Just five Latino parents had attended. The group, she admitted, had made no such overture to African-American parents. "With Hispanic families," Mrs. Good said, "there's a language barrier to break. With the African-American families, I don't know what the barrier is."
Since then, nothing much has changed. Not at Brookside, not at a large number of America's troubled schools. That is the challenge: to get those parents involved. Perhaps PTOs need to wage door-to-door campaigns. To provide carpool rides on meeting nights to and from school. To team up with the local high school to provide a free babysitting service. In that way, the next generation might learn some important parenting lessons of its own.
The day at Brookside runs six hours and twenty minutes. Subtract gym, lunch, snack time, recess, bathroom breaks, music class, the morning announcements, timeouts for discipline, transitioning between lessons, copying homework assignments from the white board and packing up to go home and teachers are left with roughly three hours and forty-five minutes to teach core, academic subjects. Not a lot of time. It is essential that parents -- who have their children the other 18 hours -- use some of that time to reinforce the teacher's lessons, and help their child achieve his or her potential. Isn't that the true meaning of no child left behind.
Ron Berler is the author of Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America's 45,000* Failing Public Schools. Visit his website at www.ronberlerbooks.com.