TOM HARTON Commentary: Dragging parents back to class

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The day he was hired in June, Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White broached a topic too often missing in the dialogue about public education. White said that parents are among those who will be held accountable for student achievement in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The words “parents” and “accountable” might have shown up together on a school vocabulary test sometime in the last 100 years, but they don’t often go together when those of us who aren’t in the trenches talk about improving schools. The culture that surrounds public education today suggests it’s up to teachers and administrators alone to get the job done.

White is trying to change that culture in IPS, and he has his work cut out for him.

The Web site for No Child Left Behind, the federal school-improvement act that became law in 2002, tells parents this: “Schools are responsible for making sure your child is learning.”

No Child Left Behind has many excellent provisions intended to make sure, as its name implies, that all students learn. There’s even language in the fine print requiring schools to promote parental involvement. But the act’s boldest pronouncements perpetuate the myth that teachers and administrators are solely responsible for improving schools and student achievement.

It’s no mystery why politicians point the finger at professional educators. They’re paid for what they do and can therefore be held accountable. Parents are a moreelusive target. They’re untrained volunteers, after all, and it’s politically incorrect to criticize them. In our quest to bring business-like accountability to public education, parents don’t fit neatly into the equation.

In IPS, White seems committed to making sure they do.

Last month he required the parents of disruptive students who were removed from two middle-school assemblies to meet with IPS administrators upon picking up their children.

Not that White’s relying only on tough love to involve parents.

He knows that in districts with lots of low-income families, parents often have no clue how to participate. Generations of bad experiences with public schools break down trust and build walls between parents and schools.

I got a taste of this in IPS way back in the fall of 1974, when intradistrict desegregation shuffled the enrollment deck at Christian Park School No. 82. The parents of the low-income students who were transferred in weren’t nearly as active as the neighborhood parents. When there was involvement, it wasn’t always positive. On at least one occasion, a mother came to school and physically assaulted a teacher with whom she disagreed. That’s a mother who cared but didn’t know how to help her child.

IPS will launch two programs this school year to help parents make their caring count.

At least 52 of the district’s 79 schools will employ parent liaisons, many of them parents themselves, to reach out to parents and give them the information and tools they need to get involved.

The other program is called Parent As First Teacher. Most people would call it early intervention-very early intervention. It starts the day a baby is born. The new parents will get regular instruction from birth to kindergarten about their important role in childhood education and how to prepare their child for school. The results won’t show up immediately, but there could be a big payoff four or five years from now-and in generations to come if those children mimic their newly empowered parents.

As promising as these programs sound, White has no illusions they’ll solve all the problems parents and schools face. Only the hard work of principals, teachers and parents will turn today’s children into responsible, well-educated adults.

While the politicians and the business leaders and the media crunch the numbers, analyze the test scores and make pronouncements about the need for progress, it’s reassuring to know that IPS’ new chief recognizes who’s been lost in the din-parents-and that their job is the most important of all.

Harton is editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to

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