Educated Consumers

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'I was basically appalled and frustrated at the lack of communication between parents and community people, and the school district.'

Andrea Villasenor-Perry
San Jose, Calif.

Three years ago, when the school board voted to cut the district's before- and after-school child-care programs, Andrea Villasenor-Perry got mad.

She viewed those programs as a vital service and felt that board members and administrators didn't want parents to be a part of policy decisions.

Villasenor-Perry, who has a master's degree in social work, called the district office for a copy of the budget. Then, she started digging.

"I was basically appalled and frustrated at the lack of communication between parents and community people" and the school district, she says. "I felt they weren't welcoming input, and we were treated with disdain by them."

Not any more. Villasenor-Perry, a violence-prevention coordinator and the mother of a 12-year-old girl, is now the co-chair of a group she helped found called CARES--Community Alliance for a Responsible Education System. Since its formation, the group has successfully pressed for an independent audit of the district and helped elect school board members who are more responsive.

Its members meet regularly with the superintendent, and the group has representatives on key district committees, including budget, facilities planning, and bond oversight. CARES also worked with city and county officials to cobble together funding for the child-care programs.

"We do our homework," Villasenor-Perry explains. "We are critical, but we keep a respectful tone and are cooperative. We just wanted to be treated as equal partners."

Need for Control

In many ways, questioning parents like Villasenor-Perry are simply acting on sentiments shared by a broader segment of the population.

In a national survey conducted last year for usa Today, the Gordon S. Black Corp. turned up unmistakable evidence that parents want more control over schools.

Half the parents surveyed said they wanted more input in selecting their child's teachers; 42 percent said schools could do a better job of including parents' views when making decisions. And nearly one-third said schools need to communicate better when children have a problem.

'Years ago, [parents] just said, "Give me a town with a good system." They're saying now that they want proof.'

Regina Birdsell
Madison, Conn.

"People in general are demanding higher degrees of control over all aspects of their lives," says Gordon Black, the chairman of the Rochester, N.Y.-based company, which also owns the polling firm Louis Harris and Associates.

As the president of SchoolMatch, a Westerville, Ohio-based company that provides information about schools to corporations and people who are relocating, William L. Bainbridge hears what the consuming public wants.

In the past, he says, parents were happy to get a few facts about test scores and pupil-teacher ratios. Today, "they want all these details"--the win-loss record of the lacrosse coach, how many books the library has, and what programs are available for gifted students or those with special needs.

Regina Birdsell, the principal of Academy Elementary School in Madison, Conn., agrees. "Years ago, [parents] just said, 'Give me a town with a good school system,'" she says. "They're saying now that they want proof."

Often, parents request meetings with her, question her about the school's educational philosophies, and take a tour before enrolling their children. Such parents, she adds, often become strong allies of public education. "If they're demanding the best for their kids," she says, "they will continue supporting the education system. And we need that kind of support."

Picking a Teacher

Parents who have gone to such lengths often aren't willing to take the luck of the draw when it comes to teachers. Some schools get so many inquiries about student assignments that they've developed formal procedures to allow parents to express their wishes. While most prefer to stop short of granting flat-out requests for particular teachers--preferring that parents describe what kind of environment would be best for their child--it's impossible to stop some people.

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