A student in Maryland uses her iPad during an online-based class discussion. A parent volunteer in Virginia was criticized for her role in monitoring an iPad-based lesson. (Joe Crocetta/Herald-Mail via AP)
Columnist

March 18 was a typical day for Melissa Dana, a parent and physician who volunteers as a classroom aide in Falls Church City schools. Her local elementary school was having an Ancient Civilizations Festival. She played a 15-minute video for each class and helped students use an app on their iPads to write Chinese calligraphy.

As instructed by the school’s teachers, she checked to see if the children were working just on calligraphy and not other parts of the app. Curious about what her child was learning, she looked at some of the apps. She took screen shots so she could view them later at home. She noted what students were doing with the technology and took some photos of what was on their iPads without identifying any student.

She also asked her child’s teacher about the activity, chatted with another teacher who was a friend and, on her way out, stopped to talk to the librarian.

That’s when it gets weird. All of her movements were reported to Falls Church City Schools Superintendent Toni Jones. Jones called Dana in five days later and gave her a letter saying she better watch her step. “Please accept this as a formal notification that making interview or meeting requests and impromptu questioning which causes staff to feel uncomfortable is not appropriate during the course of the school day and/or on school grounds,” said the letter, which ended with “Regards, Toni.”

Despite 14 years of unpaid effort on behalf of the city’s schools, Dana was told by Jones she would no longer be allowed to volunteer if she did not mend her ways.

Dana has been a critic of Jones. Such tension between school leaders and active parents is common but rarely reported. School districts say they welcome outsider involvement. The Falls Church City school board’s mission statement says “our schools must be responsive and accountable to the community.” But parents like Dana often feel a chill if they ask too many questions.

In a statement, the school district said Jones warned Dana in part because “we are careful to protect student privacy and data.” It also bothered staff that Dana had asked to meet with staff members “on more than 20 occasions” during the school year and “wrote over 2,100 emails to 145 separate FCCPS email accounts,” according to the statement.

The best teachers I know like dealing with parents. A teacher who worked last year at an elementary school told me a majority of her colleagues “were thrilled that Melissa was asking questions.” Jamie Scharff, an International Baccalaureate teacher at George Mason High School, said he has “never met a parent as sincerely dedicated to helping the schools” as Dana.

Jones’s letter accused Dana of “attempting to log on inappropriately to at least one technology device, and taking random pictures not associated with tasks assigned to you in your role as a parent volunteer.” Dana said the charge of logging on inappropriately was “absolutely false” and “I was taking very specific pictures of the activity to which I was assigned.”

What bothers me most is the school district presenting her large number of emails as a sign of misbehavior. Dana told me she was concerned by teacher complaints of mismanagement and made hundreds of contacts with parents and teachers, plus school board members. What’s wrong with that? She said 234 people emailed her their support for a satisfaction survey she was advocating.

In May, several people, including Dana and her husband, formed a group called The Falls Church Way, seeking more input on school policy for parents, teachers and community members. The group wants the board to include staff, parents and community members in its evaluation of Jones this month. Jones has agreed to meet with the group every month.

School officials often consider such groups a nuisance. But asking questions can lead to meaningful change. Smart administrators know that and listen carefully to parents before threatening to ban them from volunteering.