Every year when school starts, many parents discover that their child’s education is not running as smoothly as they would like. Problems can be small, such as a missing vaccination record. Or they can be large, such as a delayed shipment of textbooks to a classroom.
What should you do? Usually, a call or an e-mail to the school office will produce the information needed to rectify the situation, or at least the contact information of someone who can help. But what if that doesn’t work?
Here are nine complaints that I have heard from parents, including some of my own, along with the recommendations of school communication experts on what to do when you think something is wrong.
1. Your child has special needs and should have services but is not getting them.
Talk to the principal or the administrator at the school who is responsible for special education, said Philip B. Kavits, director of communications services for Prince William County public schools. “An intervention meeting will be arranged,” he said. When these interventions, which mean ordinary classroom adjustments, “have been in place for a given period of time, but concerns remain . . . the team may determine that evaluation for possible special education should be done.”
If your child is already in special education and has an individualized education program (IEP) that does not seem to be working, you “should first contact the child’s teacher and ask for an IEP team meeting,” Kavits said.
2. Another child has been picking on your child.
This is a ticklish situation that requires patience and care about not jumping to conclusions. John Torre, spokesman for Fairfax County public schools, recommends setting up an appointment to speak to the school’s principal or, if your child is in high school, the assistant principal for that grade level.
“Explain to the principal the situation as explained to you by your child, acknowledging that you may not have the whole story but want the principal to know that your child has been upset by the incident and ongoing incidents,” Torre said. “The principal will investigate the situation and may contact parents of both children involved, and possibly set up a meeting to resolve the situation.”
A conscientious principal will follow up with you and your child to make sure the problem has not recurred.
3. A teacher has been picking on your child.
What some teachers consider to be motivating words might seem abusive to some parents. “The parent may want to speak to the teacher first, go to the principal or request a meeting with both,” Kavits said.
This is also an instance when parents might check with other parents whose children have had that teacher to see whether they had similar experiences.
4. Your child’s counselor is recommending courses that seem to you to be too hard or too easy.
In some parts of the country, parents complain that their children are being guided into classes that are not challenging enough. In this region, the more common complaint has been about courses being too hard.
As with nearly every complaint about a school, it is best to contact the principal, but if there is a teacher who knows your child, you might call her first. A professional educator with detailed knowledge of your child’s strengths and weaknesses is a priceless ally in any dispute. But before you do anything, Kavits said, you should talk to the counselor to make sure you have an accurate account of what she is recommending and why.
5. Your child can’t handle higher-level math but has been placed in geometry.
Too much math acceleration has been a frequent complaint in Montgomery County. County school spokesman Dana Tofig said these days, however, with the installation of the unfamiliar Common Core-aligned curriculum, some parents have the opposite concern: that there is not enough opportunity for acceleration.
Either way, Tofig said, parents should contact the teacher to get a better sense of the changes being made and how their children can be helped. “Do they need more support? There are many things that can be done,” he said.
6. Your child’s teacher seems incompetent.
This happened to my wife and me early in our long tour of duty as parents. Our son’s second-grade teacher sent home an assignment in which she misspelled two words. We did not discuss this with the principal, as we should have, but instead transferred our kid to a private school.
According to Torre, “the principal will take the appropriate actions to assess and evaluate a teacher’s ability and performance.” That is true in most cases, although I have encountered principals who took the teacher’s side so as not to create the impression they would not fight for their staff. At that point, a parent’s best option is to talk to other parents and join those who have similar complaints in an appeal to the school district superintendent or the local school board member.
7. You have several issues to discuss with your principal, but she keeps putting you off.
D.C. public schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz endorses the general view that the school principal is a parent’s best resource, but “we understand that over the course of the school year, there will be instances when it benefits the school and the family to introduce a third party.”
If a D.C. principal has been uncommunicative or unhelpful, she recommends contacting the District’s critical response team (202-478-5738). This unusual feature, not found in most districts, is worth a try. The team “is able to work directly with schools and families to offer proven strategies to help resolve the complex issues we see arise each year,” Salmanowitz said.
8. You think your child is gifted, but he did not score high enough on the test.
Generally, school systems have appeals processes. In Prince William County, parents can contact their school’s gifted education resource teacher or the supervisor of the Office of Gifted Education and Special Programs to request an appointment with the appeals committee, Kavits said.
Torre said Fairfax County officials respect research suggesting that “educators should review multiple sources of information when considering a child for gifted services. Student work samples, projects and observations can serve as valuable pieces of evidence.” A parent can either request a retest or ask for a meeting at the school to share additional evidence of giftedness.
9. Your child’s teacher has been fired, and you are told you can’t know why because of privacy rules.
Years ago, I reported on the plight of a Montgomery County parent who thought her child had been traumatized by witnessing a teacher physically abuse other students. After the teacher was fired, the mother could not get anyone to describe what happened.
Kavits says what other school officials have told me in the past: “Administrators are strictly limited in what they can disclose.” I think school officials are blind to the consequences of such policies, so if it happens to you, e-mail me. We can see whether something can be done.