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Defining the 'Break the Mold' Parent

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Remember the old days when the role of parents in schools was clearly defined? In those days, parents were the valued trip escorts, the classroom volunteers, the hostesses for teacher-appreciation day, the school fundraisers. Then came the 60's when we got used to the idea of parents acting as advocates on behalf of their children--doing battle with stubborn, insensitive school bureaucracies.

Now we have the 90's; we have become accustomed to hearing about parents marching to deplore shrinking school budgets, protesting the closing of a neighborhood school, even objecting to the transfer of a favorite teacher because of union seniority practices. We have come to expect an angry outcry when schools are no longer regarded as safe havens for our children because of lead, asbestos, to say nothing of weapons or intruders.

But with the development of learner-centered schools--schools of choice and restructured schools--we have entered a new era--one in which the ground rules, and perhaps the expectations, are not entirely clear. We have not yet defined the parent-teacher-school relationship in those settings that subscribe, at least, to the rhetoric of partnership. We have not yet arrived at a way of relating to one another which takes account, but not advantage, of an open door, a welcoming style, a set of shared values.

Where does one draw the line between interest and intrusion, between inquiring and interfering? Experience tells us that perspective is related to position. We see things differently depending on where we see them from. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than it is in relation to schools. As an outsider, whether parent or university researcher, it is easy to judge out of context--to criticize without having to see the whole picture, to suggest solutions without having to live with the consequences.

Things look very different from the inside.

Recall the origins of the school paraprofessional: Back in the 1960's community protests around school issues were common. Then, as now, many of these protests centered around what neighborhood parents regarded as the insensitivity of teachers to the needs and backgrounds of their children. One proposal, putting parents from the community into schools as paraprofessionals, was regarded as radical. The idea of bringing the community into the school was greeted with anxiety, even hostility, by many school officials, most especially by the teachers' union. These outsiders-turned-insiders were seen as spies, walking the halls just waiting to blow the whistle on any perceived wrong-doing or act of insensitivity.

What actually happened was quite unexpected. As employees working in schools day-in and day-out, the paraprofessionals became quickly socialized by the very institutions they had formerly picketed, and the union moved in, suddenly realizing that these former critics could increase their membership rolls.

Belonging, being an insider, does surprising things to people. It makes them aware of just how complex working with numbers of children can be and forces them to see the flow of interactions that make up a school day. There's nothing like working with preschoolers to make you recognize the value of "rest time,'' even if, as a parent, you once argued that every minute spent in school should focus on learning and intellectual stimulation. Everything does look different from the inside. Parental concern for the individual child is transformed into a teacher's responsibility for the collective well-being of an entire class.

What does all this suggest for the new school model? Parents now have easy access to schools; they come and go as they please, often participating in school governance decisions. Clearly a new relationship between schools and parents is emerging.

Doesn't the fact that parents and children, rather than being assigned to schools, may, even must in some cases, now choose schools, suggest a fundamentally different kind of relationship between parents and school professionals? If some teachers now belong to school staffs because their colleagues selected them, doesn't that suggest that school staffs share a collective responsibility for the quality of instruction, and doesn't this mean that teachers can no longer shrink behind the protection of a principal when a colleague comes under fire from dissatisfied parents?

Do parents, who may bring forward legitimate concerns regarding curriculum, teacher effectiveness, or school organization, and who have access to staff members, as a result of the school's governance structure, now engage in attempts to micromanage the day-to-day school activity?

What responsibility do active parents have, and what does an effective home-school relationship look like? If the parent still retains the right to complain--to question, to challenge--what then becomes the role of the teaching professional and what, if any, responsibility does the parent have to delineate the ground between herself and the teacher?

Ultimately, I suppose, the answer to such challenging questions lies in the degree of trust parents have in their child's school and its teachers, and the degree of trust the school demonstrates in parents. Trust relies on a context of confidence: It replaces what schools achieved in former times by distance and authority with the belief that those in charge will treat children respectfully while supporting their growth intellectually.

Once that is said, however, we must acknowledge how difficult it is to define exactly what we mean by "trust'' and to explain precisely how it works. Trust permits a willingness to accept something less than a parent may want in the best of all worlds, while also maintaining a level of expectation that justifies parental confidence. Trust implies contradiction. Isn't it odd, for example, that the same national polls that record high levels of satisfaction among the public with the school their own child attends also indicate a strong public disaffection with the state of American education? What accounts for this? Could it be that parental choice is self-serving (as in, "the school is down the street,'' "my older child went there,'' "I am well-known there'')? Or might it reflect the conflict we are forced to face as parents: Taking responsibility for choice means you become wedded to the decision. If you make a poor decision, you must face questions like: Did I damage my child? Did I cause him or her to lose a year? How do you assess a school, anyway?

Such questions are fraught with anxiety. Choice puts responsibility squarely in the hands of parents and prevents them from hiding behind a predetermined school assignment. In doing so, it recasts the nature of the parent-teacher-school relationship. What parent would want to admit that he or she had intentionally selected an inferior school for their child?

Could trust contribute unwittingly to lower standards, and obfuscate the clarity required to focus on rigor and quality of learning? How can parents' trust be proactive in the service of the child, supportive, without being blinded to problems in need of attention? And how can parental trust be expected without being taken for granted?

"Break the mold'' schools require "break the mold'' parent-teacher-school relationships; they necessitate discussion which attempts to communicate a vision, define a common agenda, and engage in an ongoing dialogue. We urgently need such debates, because without them, the new visions will become familiar scenarios--and we will have lost a valuable opportunity to create a new set of possibilities.

Ann Cook is the co-director of the Urban Academy, an alternative public secondary school in New York City.

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