Schools must be responsive to parents

Jay Mathews
Columnist October 9, 2011

The parent-teacher organizations and associations in our schools do good work yet rarely agitate for change. Parents often pick their neighborhood because they like the school the way it is. Teachers often prefer to make their own decisions without parental interference.

But occasionally, as happened at Leesburg Elementary School in Loudoun County, parent dissatisfaction reaches a level where the PTO begins asking questions and sending e-mails to the principal or, worse, the principal’s bosses. Then those evening meetings, which used to put me to sleep, get stressful.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

Communication breakdowns between parents and schools are common. We education writers usually shrug them off as too local and trivial. But little stories such as the flap at Leesburg Elementary expose a flaw in the way schools treat parents (that’s right, I think the school is usually the villain) and deserve more attention than they get.

Brooke Josties, a PTO officer at Leesburg Elementary during much of the controversy, told me tempers rose when parents asked for improvements in electronic communication with the school, better accounting of what the school was doing with funds raised by the PTO and more after-school programs. They also wanted a reassessment of the school’s preparations for Virginia’s annual Standards of Learning exams.

The school’s response, Josties and other parents said, was negative or noncommittal. They hoped for dialogue that would lead to compromise. They said they didn’t get it until they went over the principal’s head. Even then, they were denied the courtesy of a note telling them their wish would be granted. Josties said she felt “intense frustration . . . as an involved parent trying to implement minor changes to a local school.”

Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde Byard said that the principal, Clarke Magruder, “has led this school for 19 years and has always enjoyed a strong working relationship with the school’s parents.”

Magruder wrote in an e-mail: “There is ample evidence of cooperation between parents and staff members.”

Byard said the school has several electronic means for parents to contact teachers and administrators. Josties said many teachers and administrators weren’t responding to messages. Parents said they struggled for two years to get an accounting of where their money went, only resolved when they complained to W. Michael Martin, director of elementary education. Byard said the principal never denied their request for an accounting. Byard said the school had five after-school programs, not counting chorus. Parents said they made that happen.

The most emotional moment stemmed from the school’s request that the PTO make up for school budget cuts with $4,400 for tutors to prepare students for the SOL exams. Some parents expressed concern about putting too much test pressure on kids. At a PTO meeting, some teachers said the parents weren’t respecting teachers’ work. Byard said the school system found other funds for the tutors.

Alexandra Klaff told me that “as parents, we have been screaming from our end, but nobody wants to listen or help in any way.” Charles Speacht said, “When you have a customer filing a complaint . . . and you hear absolutely nothing in response, what is one left with assuming?”

None of us like ill-informed people sticking their noses in our business. I can see why principals and teachers resent pushy parents. But they still ought to respond to them, quickly and generously. I show all of my stories before publication to all people mentioned to catch errors. Many of my colleagues think this is being too open, but I find people are friendlier when kept in the loop.

Even annoying people have useful ideas. I hope everyone at Leesburg Elementary remembers that the next time they get a request they don’t like.

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