by Guest Author, Alexander Marchuk

Picture This! The past decade has brought great changes to the education landscape but the real challenge has yet to be tackled with the energy it deserves. Disruptive changes in technology, politics, and policies have greatly increased the value proposition of the U.S. education system and as a result improvements have been made. While dropout rates have decreased, they still remain high especially with African Americans and Hispanics. Meanwhile, high school graduation rates have remained virtually stagnant with the aforementioned groups trailing the national average by close to 15% according to the U.S. Department of Education. Given the magnitude of the efforts made in the past decade, the returns we are seeing are disappointing. So what are we overlooking or not paying enough attention to?

The answer is simple: parents.

Charter schools, vouchers, iPads, social media, mobile devices, SmartBoards have all been hailed as the solution to the nation’s education woes. While there is no denying their positive impact, without the concerted effort of parents, we will never realize the full potential of our youth. The foundation of a child’s education lies in the hands of the schools AND parents; these are the two pillars upon which a child’s success lies. The nation keeps asking “what is wrong with our schools?”, “why is our education system broken?”, “is it our teachers/administrators/unions/politicians/companies fault?” The better question to ask is “how can we help our parents?” More or less, kids spend half the day at school and the other half at home; unfortunately far too many children receive one message at school – education, values, character development – and a totally different message at home – indifference, pessimism, negativity, and worse. In order for the nation to see a significant impact, the two messages need to become a strong singular voice that reverberates throughout the child’s educational career. We can change our schools/policies/curricula/politicians/teachers/technology all we want, but until the issue of parental involvement is addressed, we will not see the reformations that we all desire.

My adolescent and teenage years were spent living in a housing project in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. I made friends there with another kid that moved in around the same time I did. We made up just a handful of white families living in the housing complex which made it an extremely tough environment for us to grow up in. Drugs, guns, gangs, and blasting Biggie Smalls throughout the summer nights were the norm. My friend and I were very similar; we were both the same age, going to the same school, poor, and living under the same set of hard conditions. We also shared similar traits – we always tried to find odd jobs to make some extra money (a big snow storm was money in the bank), loved playing strategy games, and had a deep interest in science. Fast forward 20 years and my friend is a high school drop out that works in the back office of a real estate management company for a measly salary while I have earned a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, an M.B.A and started my own tutoring company that employs close to 100 NYS certified teachers that serve over 1,000 students. So what happened? In a nutshell, it was our respective parents’ differing expectations. In my home it wasn’t even a question of whether I will go to college, it was how prestigious the college would be. My mother would always say “only by educating yourself can we leave this place” and boy, did I want to leave. My friend’s mother, on the other hand, would allow him to skip school frequently and constantly tell him “if you’re not going to school then go to work”; ultimately that’s exactly what he did. Two completely different expectations with two completely different results; the message I heard at home was aligned with the one I heard in school, while my friend received mixed signals with the evening message dictating the course of his life – so far. After almost a decade of no contact with him, I ran into my friend about a year ago. He’s still at the same management agency working the same job. What astounded me was when he told me that his company wanted to promote him to manage one of their buildings – and he refused; citing that it would be too much work. His life is now governed by these low expectations that were bore into him at an early age, and unfortunately, I presume, he will pass along these same signals to his children.

One elementary school that my company services is located in a high poverty area in the Bronx. Boarded up houses, pitbull dogs strolling around streets, and characters only seen in movies populate this neighborhood. Generally schools in these types of areas are marked with major discipline issues, are failing, and experience very low teacher morale. The school is struggling academically; however, they have experienced a recent surge in special education and bilingual students entering the building and they are showing academic growth. Otherwise, teacher morale is relatively high and very few incidents involving behavior problems. I was very impressed with the way the Principal had a handle on the school. After working with school leadership and teachers for a full year and enjoying many extensive discussions with the Principal, I came to realize how she was succeeding where many are failing. She demands that parents engage (a lot) with the school for the betterment of the child. When a child misbehaves, she’ll call up the parent and say “Mom, you better come up here and sit with your child in class and keep an eye on him/her”. Teachers are always made available to speak with parents about any issues a child may have, whether is it academic, behavioral, or something else. She holds parents accountable for a child’s performance by frequently asking “have you sat with the child to do their homework?”, “who is helping the child at home?”, “what will you do to better the situation?”. She offers a dose of tough love to her students and her parents and for this she commands a lot of respect from all the stakeholders in the school. She leans on parents for support and makes it clear that they must play a pivotal role, otherwise, “don’t come knockin’ on my door asking why my child failed” as she would say. As a result, the Principal is forcing parents to step up – and they are. By collaborating and holding parents accountable, she is aligning the messages students are receive during the day and evening: high expectations, education, character development, values. Here are a few reviews I found online about the school from some parents:

Posted September 24, 2008
Principal X has obviously worked very hard to get the school back on track. The worst thing for the kids is that MANY of the PARENTS DO NOT GET INVOLVED. I hear parents complain all the time, so you should spend a day inside the school system and see how difficult it is to be responsible for all those children. If the parents don’t like something, maybe they should get off their backsides and participate in the SCHOOL.
—Submitted by a parent

Posted April 16, 2009
We love this school. The Principal and her open door policy make you feel comfortable and you can talk to the teachers about your child’s progress whenever you need to. The gifted program is exceptional they really enrich the learning experience and take away some of those antiquated mundane boundaries that children don’t like. I recommend this school to any parent -to parents who want to become involved and those who if its not broken don’t try to fix it.
—Submitted by a parent

Posted September 17, 2009
The principal and staff at PS 31 really care about the children. The staff and parents at the school are friendly and make you feel welcome. They really stay in touch with the parents about their child’s progress. They have high hopes for all the children and push for respect and academic success.
—Submitted by a parent

The Principal’s strategy is encapsulated fittingly in the school’s slogan: “It Takes a Village To Raise A Child”. Indeed.

I just finished reading a book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (highly recommend it); there was a chapter in the book that spoke about a KIPP Charter School in the Bronx that has shown some really great results. School is in session six days a week; classes start at 7:30 AM and finish at 5:00 PM with an after-school component available until 7:00 PM while Saturday classes begin at 9:00 AM and end at 1:00 PM. The author contends that one of the reasons KIPP is so successful is because of the extra hours students spend in a KIPP school versus a traditional public school. Because of this, KIPP students not only receive extra instruction but, equally important, they are exposed less to conflicting messages that occur outside of school. A KIPP student leaves school at 7:00PM while a traditional public school student leaves at 3:00 PM; the KIPP student receives an extra four hours per day of positive signaling while the other student not only misses out but is at risk of receiving negative signals from his out of school environment. The author writes about a student attending KIPP: “Her community does not give her what she needs. So what does she have to do? Give up her evenings and weekends and friends – all the elements of her old world – and replace them with KIPP.” What KIPP is doing is assuming the role of guardian for several extra hours per day and ensuring that their students are exposed to the right message while mitigating opportunities for the wrong message to creep in. In this case, where the community fails, the school steps in.

We need to exert greater energies on finding ways parents and schools can work together for the child’s educational growth. We have spent immense amounts of resources trying to fix the latter while almost ignoring the former; too much time is spent focusing on the first seven hours of the day and not enough on the last seven hours. There needs to be a greater discussion on how parents may be brought into the process and held accountable – schools and students have report cards, why not parents? We can keep coming up with different ideas on how to reform schools all we want, but until we recognize the magnitude of the role parents play – and create solutions through that lens – we will just keep going in circles. Let’s stop making excuses and start creating innovative ways parents and schools can synergize to engender cultural change in our education system.

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Alexander Marchuk is the Founder and President at Perfect Score Tutoring, an after-school tutoring firm that successfully provides Supplemental Education Services (SES) under the “No Child Left Behind” law to urban NYC public schools. Prior to that, Alexander – who is a NYS certified Math teacher – taught Middle School and High School Math to at-risk students and subsequently went on to mentor incoming teachers as a Math Coach.  He is a founding Board Member and current Vice Chair of the Board at Invictus Preparatory Charter School located in the East New York section of Brooklyn.  Alexander is passionate about education and advocates strongly for the use of pragmatic, common-sense solutions with a twist of disruptive innovation mixed in.

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