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Fixing the Schools? Parenting Is Paramount

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, February 10, 2007

Following last week's column, a number of readers weighed in on the D.C. school-takeover debate. Two in particular provided valuable insights, strengthening my conviction that city leaders, by drawing swords over school governance, have understated the challenge. Left unaddressed: parental governance.

Here's Tracy Zorpette, a parent of a seventh-grade student at a charter school and two fifth-graders at Murch Elementary School:

"Our school crawls with parents. Parents at Murch partner with teachers and administration -- as fundraisers, cheerleaders, classroom helpers, coaches -- whatever is needed to support the children."

The involvement is generally positive, Zorpette said. "But if things start to get off track, parents will notice and not let it slide." Because of this parental involvement, she said, low-performing teachers interested in coasting until pension time are not likely to come to Murch. "It's just too much trouble for them."

Zorpette offered another key factor in Murch's success. "Our [Home and School Association] raises over $150,000 every year." The funds are used to supplement the school system's resources.

"Money does matter," Zorpette said, adding that "the District has it. But it doesn't go where it should."

Murch has a dynamic principal, Carolyne Albert-Garvey, "who succeeds despite the system," she acknowledged, But she added, "Murch can't always escape its ill effects."

Now let's turn to another reader: Brenda Miller, the executive director of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. She said that in the 1980s and 1990s, the District had triple-digit teen pregnancy rates and teen births in the thousands. "Washington, D.C., now has close to 900 teen births every year, with about 25 percent being repeat births to teens."

"Numbers like that," she explained, "present a double whammy. Teen mothers seldom finish high school themselves and the little ones they eventually send off to kindergarten aren't prepared to learn."

She noted that "children of low-income teen mothers suffer more vocabulary deficits (they don't know as many words as other children) more learning disabilities, abuse and neglect, just for starters."

Miller said teen mothers are "a stark reminder that in a city where children are raising themselves and each other, fixing the schools must go way beyond academics."

Back to Zorpette: "Parents shouldn't have to raise $150,000 a year to make up for improper funding." She asked: "How can single parents or parents living at or near the poverty line pull this rabbit out of a hat?"

They can't, of course.

Now let's dispel a notion before it becomes an article of faith: Murch is not an all-white privileged school in Ward 3. About half of its students are white. A large number of African American students come from other wards. Murch students, however, have one thing in common (with each other and with charter school enrollees): parents who actively seek the best for their children.

So what's really needed?

Political leadership, and not the variety driven by big drama seekers.

Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray are District-born, former D.C. public school students, and fathers; two indigenous leaders who know the problems of family life in the city. Gray is probably the most qualified authority on youth and social problems of any elected leader in the city's history.

This is African American history month. Fenty and Gray should make history.

They should convene an emergency session with the heads of organizations such as the Links, AKAs, Deltas, Zetas and Sigmas and other professional and social women's groups with rich experience in dealing with young women. Bring in Brenda Miller, ministers and college presidents. Tap the leadership of active high school alumni associations, such as Dunbar and Roosevelt's.

Do the same thing with male professional and fraternal groups (Kappas, Omegas, Alphas, Sigmas, Peaceoholics, Elks, Masons, etc.). Make it racially inclusive.

Enlist from these groups an army of adult volunteers to serve under an official Fenty-Gray mandate to fill the gaps at elementary and middle schools deficient in parental involvement.

The District has a wealth of talented people who can serve as mentors, tutors and extended family for children whose parents are unable, either because of work or personal circumstances, or unwilling because of their own issues, to be on the school scene. A Fenty-Gray sanctioned volunteer corps, like Murch parents, can partner with principals and teachers as fundraisers, classroom monitors and helpers. They can also provide direct feedback to Superintendent Clifford Janey and school board President Robert Bobb, as well as Fenty and Gray, on what's going on, good and bad, at ground level.

The school board and the teachers' union should welcome this initiative. If they don't, tough noogies.

I'm talking about changing a tenet of District life -- that responsibility for children is the school system's job. In truth, it belongs to parents and the community. This could be the time, under a Fenty and Gray initiative, for citizens to start acting like it.

kingc@washpost.com

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