Charles Olson is not one to sentimentalize parent involvement in education. He knows that many parents only stir themselves to complain. And he thinks Americans have become reactive, expecting their elected officials to solve problems rather than playing a constructive role themselves.
"What has traditionally made this country great is that the leaders don't have to be the elected officials," says Olson, the president of the Parents for Public Schools national board of directors. "We want to be leaders in the most constructive way."
Olson, a lawyer who four years ago founded the PPS chapter in Waco, Texas, wants to see parents take a leading role in policymaking at both the school and district levels.
"The heart of the PPS movement is this concept: We own this school district. We're the ones who get up every morning and pour the Cheerios and send our kids to school. We are the logical ones to be involved deeply in the resolution of problems that the school faces. We should be at the forefront of ensuring schools are successful."
What parents need most--in Waco and across the nation--is a way to gain access to schools, he says. That can be difficult.
"The school board is a political place--there are television cameras, and people may not be comfortable. The classic you hear about principals is that they are still viewed as people in authority, and some people are intimidated by that. Teachers are a little more accessible, though there are still some hurdles."
In Waco, a district of 17,000 students that serves an urban community of 100,000 residents, the state-mandated councils that govern schools are a prime vehicle for parent involvement. The PPS chapter, in cooperation with the school district, has organized budget workshops for the parent members of the councils. This fall, grant-funded consultants will teach chapter members how to train parents to serve on the councils.
The Waco PPS chapter, which has about 200 members, also has organized public forums that bring parents together to discuss common issues, such as the college-preparatory high school curriculum. These well-attended gatherings have proved that parents are eager to get together, Olson says.
"We have so much more in common than we typically think," he notes. "We bring in parents from all through the community and also bring in community groups, business groups, labor, all sorts of people into the process."
Many people have been dissatisfied with the schools and frustrated over how to bring about change. Often, what has brought people together is a single issue, rather than concern for the whole system.
But blessed with a supportive school board and administration, Olson feels the Waco chapter will make inroads.
"We have a long, long way to go," he admits. "But it's an exciting process."