|It’s high time to underscore the ‘public’ in public schools.|
Civic involvement has driven social progress in our country since the days of the American Revolution. The first words of the U.S. Constitution are “We, the People.” Citizens have banded together to abolish slavery, expand suffrage, end segregation, protect the environment, enhance economic opportunity, and accomplish other worthy social goals. In education, they have transformed schooling from a privilege granted only to a fortunate few to a right guaranteed for all.
Today, however, public education may be losing some of this sense of active community participation. When schools try to include “the public,” they typically target only parents. This may have made sense in a world where most families had children in school. But it no longer fits an America where education is the top political and social concern even among the 69 percent of the population without school-age children. Nor does it match the reality of today’s busy families.
We need to restore the school to its central place at the heart of communities’ civic life by inviting in everyone—parents, yes, but also retirees, “empty nesters,” childless couples, singles, and others who may have been excluded from school activities in the past. We need to turn these citizens’ strong concern about the quality of education into powerful involvement in the schools. We need to offer them more-creative opportunities to contribute and provide them with new structures for meaningful and satisfying involvement.
A civic-involvement campaign for the schools is more of an essential today than a luxury, because the needs of children and schools have changed dramatically. Children from single-parent homes and families in which both parents work need after-school activities, job-preparation programs, and adult role models. Schools need support—both human and financial—for their efforts to reduce class sizes, promote excellence in teaching, and give all students the ability to reach high standards. This level of contribution will require more than the occasional bake sale to raise money for extra programs like sports and music. We will need to put the power of all members of the public behind all students in new ways.
The public is willing. Americans understand the importance of schools to their communities and are ready to become more active in helping the schools make necessary improvements. In a national poll conducted for the Public Education Network by Peter D. Hart Research, nine out of 10 Americans expressed their belief that the quality of their communities depends on the quality of public schools. And virtually all (97 percent) said it was “very” or “extremely important” to have good public schools in their communities.
This is not just abstract support. The survey’s results show that the public is an untapped reservoir of potential school activists and political support. Two-thirds of the respondents said they had visited a school at least once in the past two years, and more than seven out of 10 said that they try to stay informed about local school issues. Over a third said they would be willing to volunteer time to support the schools. To convert this interest into active engagement, however, will require that the education community change how it encourages and mobilizes citizen efforts.
The 48 local education funds that are part of the Public Education Network represent one proven method for channeling citizen concerns about schools. Working in 26 states and the District of Columbia, these funds are connecting people who want to be involved with problems that they can help to solve.
In New York City, for example, the group New Visions for Public Schools is tapping the talents of young business professionals, who share their test-taking insights with students. Senior citizens are being mobilized to help out in school libraries. And more than a thousand New Yorkers responded to New Visions’ 16,000 queries about willingness to be involved in starting smaller schools. The result: nearly 40 new schools that are succeeding with some of the city’s most disadvantaged students.
In Oregon, the Portland Public School Foundation has mobilized an army of parent and teacher volunteers to pressure lawmakers on school issues. Some 30,000 gathered recently to ask legislators not to cut state spending on public schools. The foundation also is helping citizens become involved in efforts to boost teachers’ professional learning, close the achievement gap, and establish better systems for measuring student academic performance.
Other local education funds are addressing racial issues, advancing literacy programs, raising awareness of the role teacher quality plays in learning, increasing students’ access to technology, and organizing volunteer undertakings. They have a track record of serving as community agents for change.
They create new ways for educators to involve a broader segment of the population by acting as informed advocates and explaining the different avenues for involvement available to fit into busy schedules. Research on volunteers indicates that people today are less willing to join organizations and to commit themselves to regular meetings, but they still want to help. This is shown in the success of NetDay and other one-shot volunteer efforts. When someone leads the way and organizes tasks, results usually follow.
Americans also want to do more than just raise funds for others to spend. They want to provide strategic interventions that actually make a difference for specific children. They want to invest their time in personally satisfying volunteer efforts that will yield real, measurable improvement. While some say they are willing to raise money and participate in political activities, others prefer a more hands-on role, such as volunteering time to repair school buildings or serving as a tutor.
Our research also reveals that, although nonparents want to become involved in helping education, they do not know what they can do. These potential advocates and volunteers feel shut out of public schools—intimidated by the system, unwanted by educators, and afraid of having their motives misinterpreted. Schools can encourage their involvement by creating more programs and volunteer opportunities late in the day and over weekends, when they have more free time to spare. Those with limited English skills could be encouraged, for example, to serve as “bilingual” volunteers or to participate in programs that expand teachers’ knowledge of different cultures.
By hosting special events to reach out to those in the community who do not have children, schools can build awareness of the important role that the institution of school plays in the life of the community. Schools need to open themselves, creating more opportunities for people to visit and more reasons for them to feel invested in the school’s success.
The polling data indicate that citizens need better information about what is happening in schools. This is particularly true of the minority population. Minority parents are twice as likely not to be contacted by their schools about volunteering as white parents. Hispanics and minority women, in particular, need more information about how they can get involved in local schools.
Americans recognize that public schools cannot complete their mission by themselves. More than three out of four of those questioned for our survey agree that we cannot rely solely on school officials or government resources to do what is needed to improve public education. They strongly prefer community-based solutions to problems over simply providing more money to schools (or channeling public funds to private institutions). When given a way to participate on their own terms, without rigid commitments of time, a broad spectrum of Americans say they are willing to help.
Without such a collective sense of purpose and involvement, our public schools will not survive. That is why, at this moment of unusually widespread public interest in the quality of education, schools must reach beyond their traditional audience of parents and forge stronger, more substantive links to all members of their communities. They must underscore the public in public schools.
Wendy D. Puriefoy is the president of the Washington-based Public Education Network, a national organization of local education funds working to ensure the availability of a high-quality public education for all children.
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as All for All