NOW IT WAS TIME FOR the people to speak up about our schools and our children. Eight of them had gathered at my invitation; they had come because I had asked a while back if anybody really cared. From scores of respondents, they'd been selected and they'd come because they agreed that someone other than the feuding politicians had to get involved and help make the D.C. public schools work.
The people who sipped beer and coffee and talked for two hours on two recent nights kept coming back to problems that individual citizens could focus on. They returned repeatedly to the average citizen's responsibility and the family's role in motivating and helping assure that children learn.
An overriding wish seemed to be for the schools to involve the parents and the community, since Washington is far richer than most cities in the talent that could be recruited for improving the schools without further burdening an already-strained school budget.
Minnie S. Woodson, a former school board president who now heads the education committee of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, allowed that parents need a deeper understanding of the schools. She proposed making it mandatory for every parent annually to register their children in person. "Then you can get the child and the parent for a discussion on the reporting system, reporting forms and the school's expectation."
Johari Roshad, a graduate student and divorced working mother of a second-grader, endorsed this idea. She checks and signs each of the papers her daughter brings home, she said, reads all paper and notices sent home and forbids television until her child's homework is completed.
"I would find time to help with such a registration plan and I know other parents would too," she said. "Parents need indoctrination; they may have to brainwash their children to want to learn."
"I know that parents have to be involved," responded Dr. Eva Rose Towns, president of D.C. Citizens for Better Public Education Inc. "But I have some concern for the parents who can't be involved."
But the consensus emerged that some families in Washington too long had reneged on their responsibilities to their children.
"I am concerned about beleaguered teachers, too," injected Dr. Towns, whose organization is part of the Coalition on Education, a group of education-related organizations. "We don't get the prestige there for many. The community needs to reward the teachers who make children respond."
They considered the idea of an awards program to give a bonus to the three meritorious teachers at the elementary, junior and senior high level. They thought such teachers should be selected by peers, students and parents, with a "Support Education Committee" of citizens to finance it.
David Beckwith, a thirtyish community organizer, leaned forward to point out: "I would raise the money by getting a dollar from many parents and getting a foundation to match it then to get all of the money from foundations."
One sample cited of how the wealth of local talent can help the children was from 12 summers earlier when a group of parents from Hardy School agreed to a busing arrangement with Anacostia schools.
Thinking first about the kids, sidestepping bureaucratic snares and disregarding hierarchy, "The Hardy Holiday became a six-week program combining remedial classes, science courses and recreation, with parents raising money to pay for some classes. Parents taught classes, and daily fun and games followed the academics.
Lawyer Ramsey Potts Sr., whose children have completed college, told the group that young Washington lawyers might be an untapped resource, providing their involvement could be "packaged in such a way it would be acceptable to teachers, union and management."
And Harry Wheeler, a precinct chairman from Far Southeast, suggested administrative and individual concerns could merge if parents were motivitated to help protect schools by patrolling halls.
Still, Beckwith warned that people will be loath to get involved unless they feel the system will be responsive. "Their sense of control and power over the situation will build slowly," he said as he advocated some organizing activity in communities around issues of education.
But the biggest fallacy, said these men and women, was that too many parents believe the entire responsibility for education lies in the hands of the teachers. Parents must hold teachers accountable but also must involve themselves in their child's education at home and school. b
Many District pupils are being wasted, but a number are achieving. Those who are succeeding do it most often with the aid of their parents. As Johari M. Rashad told the gathering, with her pig-tailed daughter resting her head on her lap as she spoke:
"I'm scared to leave the job of educating [my daughter] up to the schools.
I'm teaching her French this summer. This takes a lot of my time but I'm determined that attending public school will not hold her back. My advice to parents is to maintain constant contact with the teachers and to be firm and vigilant at home."