For years, as a resident of New Orleans, I was a super-involved parent, engaged in everything from the proverbial bake sale to serving on the school improvement committee. I served on the local PTA and on district and state textbook committees, assisted in the interviewing of teachers and principals, and was a vocal critic at school board meetings. Yet none of these activities could have prepared me for the ways in which I need to be involved today.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the vast majority of our public schools were taken over by our state department of education and placed into the Recovery School District. Because of my involvement in the school system, I was asked to serve on the RSD advisory committee and did so eagerly. I believed this was a chance to make real change from the ground up in public education. I even helped create a new high school to be built in my flood-ravaged neighborhood.
After Katrina, my family and I landed in Texas. My youngest son was able to attend a neighborhood school while we rebuilt our home in New Orleans. I had dreams that my child would finally be able to attend the high school that I helped create in our neighborhood back home. But my high hopes were quickly dashed when it became clear that this newly rebuilt school would become a charter school, despite the fact that our community was promised a traditional public school. My son had no more right to attend it than a child from across town, even though it was only two blocks from our home.
Parents must be given more information and support to properly evaluate the ever-changing array of school options before us."
I completed the required application, but I later learned from an RSD official that it was lost. There was no appeal or grievance process. But we were luckier than most. My son’s middle school expanded into a high school, so he was able to go there. Unfortunately, this past June, he was asked to leave for not making the required grade point average as a junior. I appealed the decision, and he will now graduate from the high school.
This close academic call for my son got me thinking about the changing role of the involved parent in this new kind of turnaround school district, where the state runs a portion of the traditional public schools and oversees most of the public charter schools. In addition to the customary ways of being involved in our children’s schools, such as serving as hall monitors or raising money for the school, I’ve learned that parents in the “new” New Orleans public schools must now be armed with a different set of skills, including understanding the entire landscape of public schools, particularly since we no longer have a right to send our children to our neighborhood schools.
New Orleans is considered an “all choice” district, yet over 80 percent of the public schools are operated as charters. In order to make informed choices, parents must have information from the school district so that we can evaluate the true quality of schools. As parents, we must look beyond the glossy brochures and the rhetoric of success when schools tout their “gains.” This can easily distract us from a poor school performance score by the state. This is no easy task when 79 percent of the Recovery School District charter schools in New Orleans earned a D or an F in the 2011-12 school year.
Parents must do their due diligence. They must ask questions about everything from suspension and expulsion rates to the cost of the school uniform. We need ready access to information about the quality of the teachers, their level of experience, and the rate of teacher turnover. We must familiarize ourselves with course offerings and school discipline policies, especially since the latter are often used to push students out of schools.
After determining the quality of the schools, we must stay on top of the application process for the higher-performing, selective-admissions charter schools so that we don’t miss critical deadlines. Once our applications are in, we must then hope that our child wins a seat at one of our top choices. In New Orleans, this process is known as school choice, but actually it’s more like school chance.
Whether you live in a state-led turnaround district or not, it is important to recognize that school choice alone isn’t enough to transform public education. In addition to the traditional ways of being involved, parents must be given more information and support to properly evaluate the ever-changing array of school options before us. Our voices must be included at all levels of decisionmaking, not only when it comes to choosing schools for our children or checking off boxes on satisfaction surveys.
This Commentary is part of a special section supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Parents Can Inform Meaningful School Change