Opinions

Education reform is strengthened at home

Call me an ingrate. I complained last week that promotional materials for Saturday’s commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington didn’t mention education. At the event, a few individuals — the National Urban League’s Marc Morial and the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten — did call attention to the need for quality schools. I remain unsatisfied. No one set a course that would lead the masses to that expressed goal.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, television talk-show host and head of the National Action Network, which organized the event, outlined a post-rally agenda. It included congressional repair of the damage done by the Supreme Court’s invalidation of a major portion of the Voting Rights Act and passage of legislation to repeal “stand-your-ground” laws. He and Martin Luther King III also alluded to the need to improve the family structure.

“We need fathers who create stable families and not simply procreate,” said King.

“Don’t you ever think that men like Medgar Evers died to give you . . . the right to be a thug,” said Sharpton. “We have some house cleaning to do.”

Families were the foundation for the success of the civil rights movement — from desegregated schools to nonviolent street protests. The disintegration of families may be one reason for the decline of quality public education in many communities.

Studies have demonstrated that children from two-parent homes fare better in schools than do those from single-parent households. Unfortunately, one-third — 15 million — of children in the United States are being raised in homes without their fathers; another 5 million are living without their mothers. In the black community, most children (54 percent) live with only their mother

In the District, just 25 percent of blacks are living in two-parent households. But 85 percent of whites are in homes with a mother and father.

“If we want to see improved outcomes for children, we cannot do that without engagement of families,” Carla Thompson, vice president for program strategy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, told me this week. The foundation has announced that it will provide $5 million in grants of up to $500,000 each for innovative education programs nationally that would target families of children from birth to age 8.

“Families are the critical element in reform,” continued Thompson, adding that Kellogg wants them to be “empowered” to learn to ask important questions, including about “equitable services.” Kellogg wants families to become “fully engaged partners” in education reform.

As I have traveled around the District, parents have consistently told me they feel left out of the city’s education reform movement. D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the education committee, is expected to seek approval this fall of legislation that could create a more welcoming environment.

But some parents don’t understand the role they are expected to play in their children’s education. Others, who dropped out of school, lack the requisite skills to help their children with reading or math assignments.

On Sept. 7, Interim State Superintendent Emily Durso and her staff will convene the second annual D.C. Parent and Family Engagement Conference. She said a yearly event held downtown may not be enough: “I would like them more regularly in those wards where there is high student population.”

The location and frequency of such an event may be the least of the problems facing the District on this issue. While the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) is charged with tracking students from one school to another, it doesn’t collect sufficient information to assess the home environment or evaluate how a parent or guardian could be more helpful to a child’s success. I was incredulous to learn that such critical data haven’t been collected even from families who receive government social services — although in the late 1990s, when Anthony Williams was mayor, the District pledged that it would. The plan was to enhance agency coordination, providing a sort of triage that could strengthen families and create better outcomes for children.

“The policy has been, once the child is enrolled, it’s up to the [local education agency] to interact with the family — not OSSE,” Durso told me.

There’s still an opportunity to change all that. Durso said the city is expected to increase funding for adult education this fall. Officials may want to require participants in those programs, many of whom are parents, to provide a full household profile that could be used to target efforts to strengthen that family. Further, those individuals could be subjected to mandatory parental training sessions, helping them, at minimum, become better supporters and advocates for their children’s schools.

While Durso resisted that suggestion, a hard truth hasn’t escaped her: “We can’t expect a child to do well in school when a parent is reading at a third-grade level,” she admitted. “The more we help parents, the more we help kids.”

Destroying silos and building a holistic family service delivery would be a good start.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com

 
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