Commentary

Dick and Jane Grow Up: Single Parents and the Schools

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When I went to school, Dick and Jane lived in a house with Mother and Father. But today that famous brother and sister (and don't forget Baby Sally) are old enough to have children of their own, and there's a good chance that at least one of the two is a single parent. In 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, one of five children under 18 in this country lived in a single-parent household. Moreover, nearly half (48 percent) of the children born that year will live in a single-parent family before they turn 18.

Such fundamental changes in the way we live are sometimes slow to register on institutions not only used to, but happy with, the arrangements of an earlier time. School authorities, I have found, are still inclined to behave as if we all lived in the world of Dick's and Jane's eternal childhood.

This I discovered when I became a single parent myself. Two years ago, away on a temporary job from the small southern California city where I teach, I wrote my two daughters' high school, asking to be sent their first-semester grades. The registrar replied that report cards couldn't be issued to more than one address and suggested I ask their mother, with whom the girls were living, to forward me copies of their grades.

When I phoned for an explanation of this policy, the registrar told me that a request such as mine would befuddle the computer. Aha, I said to myself: "computer error"--the excuse put forward nowadays by airlines, department stores, and utilities' companies alike, the classic run-around of our times.

I asked to speak to the high-school principal, who confessed that the policy stemmed not from the computer's incapacity but from the administration's fears of getting into legal hassles--the nature of which he didn't specify--with separated, divorcing, and divorced parents. The school would be glad to send me copies of my girls' grades, he assured me, if I would only ask my former wife to drop him a note giving her assent.

A few months later, I called to request an appointment with my son's junior high-school counselor. After consulting my son's enrollment card, which indicated he would be living with his mother during the school year, the staff person with whom I spoke told me that my request would need to be cleared with the boy's mother.

This is where I came in, I thought: In my son's case, as in that of my daughters, the schools were bestowing on my former wife the authority to decide whether I should have access to their school records and to school officials.

I am aware that the schools find themselves exposed to struggles between divorced parents for control of their children. I know that school grounds have been the scene of kidnappings by enraged, disappointed, and frustrated parents. I understand school officials' wariness in their dealings with divorced mothers and fathers.

What I don't understand is the schools' failure to adopt standing policies taking into account the dramatic increase in single-parent households, or to put it another way, in the numbers of parents who don't share the same roof.

After all, I wasn't asking to see my children, I was asking to be kept informed of their academic progress in my absence. I was attempting to maintain involvement in my children's schooling--an effort that in their public pronouncements, if not in their performance, schools claim to support.

But, frustrated in my dealings with my children's schools, and ignorant of my own rights in the matter, I took the wrong tack with school officials. I shared legal custody of my children, I explained: Surely this gave me access to their records.

Only later did I learn that, with respect to the issues in question, the matter of custody is totally beside the point.

Parental access to and control over student records is guaranteed by federal law: the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (ferpa). According to a pamphlet called "Custody and Parent Rights under ferpa," available from the ferpa office, "Custody or other residential arrangements for a child do not, in themselves, affect the rights of the child's parents under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act." Only a court order, the document goes on, can deprive a parent of his or her rights.

My own experience suggests that the schools are as ignorant of federal law in this area as I was. Not only that: Their standing policies may conflict with the law.

Eventually, I did get copies of my daughters' grades sent to me (although I must make my request at the beginning of each school year); and I managed to talk with my son's counselor and she agreed to keep me informed of his progress during the year I was to be away. If the girls' grades thereafter came only sporadically, and then not at all (the registrar evidently has a less reliable memory than her computer), my son's counselor kept her word.

But these were ad hoc responses, grease applied to one squeaky wheel. And replying to my letter of complaint, the school district official in charge of policy in this area reiterated that "We send school mail (including Progress Reports and other personal communications to parents) to the current student address only."

Such a position, it seems to me, falls woefully short of meeting the realities of the way a great many parents and children now live.

A modest way to begin taking these realities into account would be to print enrollment cards and other school forms enabling more than one parental address to be listed. Such forms would recognize that parenting is not merely a consequence of living under the same roof as one's children.

Most needed, however, is a heightened awareness on the part of school officials--and single parents--of what the legal rights of parents are. At a time when the public schools bemoan the loss of public confidence and the erosion of public funding, reaching out to single parents could be a means of soliciting community support, of opening the schools to the public scrutiny they are often charged with avoiding.

I am aware that some school districts have taken steps in this direction. Yet, my children's school district rejected a proposal to alter enrollment cards on the grounds of "administrative cost." What value, I wonder, does the district attach to concerned parents and their support of public schooling? That some parents are single does not mean that they care less about their children's welfare.

So far, school policy--sending school grades to one address only, and so on--and private attitudes, have yet to accommodate themselves to the sweeping changes taking place in American society.

And with respect to divorced parents, received opinion seems to be that Mother (Still) Knows Best.

Vol. 02, Issue 13, Page 18

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