09 February 2011

Want to change your school? Know your school board

by Leigh Dalton

During a political debate with my husband (then boyfriend) about eight years ago, I learned that he – 27 years old at the time – had never voted.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it doesn’t matter,” he replied.

I then told him that I would not discuss politics with him until he registered and practiced his right to vote. “It is the right only of those who vote,” I told him, “to weigh in on what is working and what is not in our government. If you don’t vote, keep your mouth shut.”

I sometimes feel that way about parents and their involvement in their children’s schools. I have worked in communities around school issues for about nine years. When I am in schools I hear a lot of parents complaining about how things should be done, but see very little action from the parents to help make changes.

One of the ever-emerging discussions among teachers and school administrators is the need for increased parent involvement. Actually, in one of the first speeches by then President-elect Obama in 2008, he called parents to the plate, reminding them that they need to be involved in their children’s education. And rather than complaining to one another while waiting for school to dismiss, a very effective way to be involved includes attending school board meetings.

I was once told that if you want to make the biggest impact on a child’s life, sit on a school board. And it is true. Who decides at what age your child can enroll in school? Who votes on the curriculum? Who hires and holds accountable the superintendents, who then hire and supervise the teachers? Who passes the budget – a budget that affects class size, building maintenance, after-school programming, elective classes, and availability of social workers and guidance counselors in a school? Who approves attendance and discipline policies?

With all of those issues at hand, why is it that I most often hear parents resolve to go to a school board meeting to demand changes in school calendars and school policies around snow days and two-hour delays? While I understand the need for safe transportation is preferred over crazy attempts to shovel out, spin tires in the snow, and peep over mounds of snow, the frequency of snow days/delays and their impact on a child’s actual educational experience pale in comparison to more important issues such as curriculum, budget concerns, discipline and attendance policies.

I am a new parent; my daughter is 10 months old. But knowing what I know about school boards’ power, I will likely attend at least half of the school board meetings that take place in any given school year. The impact school boards have is amazing. Please consider attending the school board meeting for your child’s school. Not only will you learn about budget items, personnel decisions and curriculum changes; not only can you challenge decisions about school buildings being built or torn down; but you can see and meet the people who make daily decisions affecting your children. If you talk to a teacher, he or she will say their hands are tied, talk to the principal. The principal, most likely, will indicate that she follows orders from the superintendent. And who does the superintendent report to?

The school board.

Please consider issues larger than the school calendar. Think about discipline codes, attendance issues or even bullying situations. Go to the school; talk. Go to the school board meetings; learn.

And the best part? Your child will watch you, learn from you, see that you value his or her education and learn to do the same.

Leigh Dalton is the director of the York County Truancy Prevention Initiative and the community mobilizer for York County Communities That Care. After receiving her law degree from the University of Baltimore, School of Law, she managed a truancy intervention program called the Truancy Court Program. She is pursuing her doctorate in education policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She lives in Spring Garden Township with her husband, baby daughter and her two rescued dogs. She can be reached at leigh@yorkbar.com and 717-854-8755, ext. 209.


Joel Sears said...

Great points, Leigh. I'd like to invite you and your husband to join me at the next meeting of the York Suburban school board on Feb 14 at 7:30 pm. If you haven't attended in a board meeting in a while, this would be a good time go. Looking forward to meeting you there.

Leigh Dalton said...

Hi Joel, I'm sorry I didn't read this comment sooner. As a York Suburban resident it is important for me to attend so I will make sure to attend what I can in the near future. Thanks!