Parents: The Missing Engine Behind School Reform

Mar. 26, 2012 / By

New America Media, News Report, Khalil Abdullah, Posted: Mar 26, 2012
Modesto E. Abety-Gutierrez, President of The Children’s Trust (with the mic), along with other panel speakers, including (from left) Liz Looney, Service Manager with City Year Miami; Principal Pablo Ortiz with Miami Edison Senior High School; School Board member Raquel A. Regalado with Miami-Dade County Schools; Dr. Lenore Rodicio with Miami Dade College; Mc Nelly Torres with Florida Center for Investigative Reporting; and Lucie Tondreau, a parent and Haitian community advocate and Parent.

A series of first-ever forums brought front line education reformers and community media representatives together in Atlanta, Memphis, Miami and New Orleans. The consensus was clear: improving schools is a civil rights issue but will become a movement only when parents are fully involved — and a movement in which media must play a more compelling role.

“It’s a right for the children to have an education,” said Elise Evans, co-chair of Southern Avenue Middle Charter School in Memphis. “It’s a civil right.” Her demand was seconded by Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Haitian Women of Miami, Inc., who questioned how parents could be adequately informed unless community media are fully engaged in covering education reform issues.

New America Media, a national consortium of ethnic news organizations, convened the forums to foster a better communication exchange between education reformers and news organizations serving communities most impacted by low-performing school systems. The results of the recently released NAM poll, which surveyed 1400 parents of K-12 students in eight southeastern states about the quality of their children’s education, served as the impetus to spark the symposium in each city.

Conducted in seven languages, the poll found parents overwhelmingly satisfied with the quality of their children’s education and with high aspirations that their children would not only attend college but pursue advanced degrees. However, the data show that six of the eight states surveyed are in the bottom half of math scores when compared to other states within the United States; seven are in the bottom half in reading. Yet, parents showed no sense of urgency or outrage. “How is it possible,” asked pollster Sergio Bendixen, “that parents seem to think the quality of their children’s education is okay?”

Though the poll did not include questions about where U.S. students ranked internationally, Bendixen’s presentation underscored the decline of America’s educational competitiveness by showing data that placed the U.S. students 18th in math, just behind Estonia, and, at 17th, trailing Poland in reading. Chinese students now hold the top spot in both categories. The U.S. rankings were markedly lower from only a few decades ago when the country ranked either number one or two respectively.

“The signals are starting to turn in the right direction in terms of how important the quality of education is,’ said Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation. “We’re starting to appreciate that the competition is global in nature.”

Atlanta Forum Focuses on Undocumented

McGuire, who served as the lead-off panelist in Atlanta, the venue for the first symposium, urged parents to demand accountability and to “ask for the evidence” of whether the school system or purported reforms are working, particularly because of the demographics in the Southeast. “Kids of color are the ones we do the least well with,” he said, noting that their numbers will continue to grow.

Angelo Hurtado said the media could assist in dispelling stereotypes ethnic students often embrace about their inability to succeed. However, Hurtado, co-founder and vice president of H.O.P.E. (Hispanic Students Promoting Education, Inc.), said the most pressing issue for many of her peers was the looming passage of a state bill in the Georgia House that will mirror the Senate’s SB 458. The legislation would effectively bar undocumented students from receiving an education at Georgia’s public colleges and universities.

“Not only undocumented students are being affected by this, but documented students as well,” Hurtado said, explaining that, collectively, these students form one community. Other speakers in Atlanta also decried the legislation as short-sighted and contrary to the goals of education to yield productive members of society. Many in attendance agreed that the media should devote greater attention to the legislation and expand their coverage of education in Georgia.

William Teasley, Director of Evaluation and Research at Atlanta Education Fund, challenged ethnic media in particular to become advocates of education reform, in part because it “reaches audiences our traditional media and our traditional organizations have trouble reaching.”

New Orleans and Ethnic Media

Though reaching audiences remains an essential priority for all media, the resilience of ethnic media in New Orleans during and since Katrina in 2005 serves as a testament to the art of the possible. Yet, covering education reform there may prove as critical a role for a city experiencing profound changes in the redesign of its school system.

Panelist Neerav Kingsland, Chief Strategy Officer at New Schools for New Orleans, explained that 80 percent of the city’s students are now attending charter schools and student test scores, while not a comprehensive measure of success, are trending upward. In terms of academic achievement and preparation for careers, “10 to 20 percent of the open enrollment schools in the state are where we want them to be,” Kingsland said, but he was confident that within five years New Orleans schools would soon surpass the state’s in terms of performance.

Kingsland said it is useful to remember how far the school system has come, citing the travails of a New Orleans high school senior and valedictorian about ten years ago who had repeatedly failed the then-required 10th grade level math exit exam. “Those stories are increasingly few and far between,” he said.

Dr. Andre Perry, Associate Director for Education Initiatives, Loyola University, expressed concern about using test scores as a true measure of a school’s success. In his opinion, New Orleans schools have achieved only modest gains.

He was particularly adamant about the need for media to take the time to understand what data means in the context of quality of life issues. “If you increase test scores, what does it mean when you can’t get a job,” citing lack of access to transportation or other resources that often weigh heavily on a graduating student’s success.

“Wealth is a causal factor of educational achievement,” Perry argued, not just a correlation, explaining that parents of poor children can less afford books and other resources that could prepare and assist their children at an early age. In addition, he noted that the analysis behind education reform is often miscast as a black-white paradigm and that a media focused on closing the achievement gap will miss the real story, the goal of attaining excellence but one attuned to the cultures of communities. He asked how is it possible to read an article about “success in schools” in a local newspaper and “three kids murdered” in the same edition?

Success Stories in Memphis 

At the Memphis forum, attendee Marcus Matthews, University of Memphis Coordinator of “Teen Appeal,” a newspaper written by and distributed to the city’s high school students, concurred that media’s role in helping parents understand data and context is crucial. As an example, he noted that some parents may not know that the ACT exam, a test that measures college readiness, is not scored on a scale of one to a hundred. He recalled a student who scored a 26 on the ACT but, when Matthews asked him about attending college, said, “I haven’t applied.” Matthews said it was plausible “that the parents may be thinking, ‘26 out of a 100, that’s an F.’” On the ACT scale of 36, a score of 22 in math and 21 in reading indicate college readiness.

Matthews said the media can help assist in finding and documenting the lives of young adults who have the academic capacity to pursue higher education but who never did: “We don’t know where they are; we don’t know what they’re doing,” but media also should tell their audiences about the individual success stories of Memphis city school graduates.

Similarly, Paris Byrd, a high school student in Memphis said it is important that media seek out the opinions of students who are “experts on their own education; that’s not being paid attention to.”

The City of Memphis is slated to merge its public school system with the county’s public schools. More than a few panelists and attendees said the media will play an even more vital role in explaining the issues at stake to parents given the scale and complexities of the impending union, especially for immigrant parents who may be unfamiliar with the American public education system, much less the key elements of education reform.

Mark Sturgis, Memphis Director, Stand for Children, said, “Media has a moral responsibility around this issue to advocate for a system to provide equity and equality for all children, and, if the media is not doing that, it’s a problem.”

College, Job Readiness at Issue in Miami

At Miami Dade College, which also served as the host for the concluding symposium, Lenore Rodicio, Executive Director of MDC3 Student Success and Completion Initiatives, captured part of the disconnect between the expectations of parents in the NAM poll and their children’s capacity to perform academically upon graduating high school.

She said more than 70 percent of students coming to Miami Dade for their first year of study are “testing as deficient in one or more academic areas and the greatest number of them is in mathematics.” However, she said the recognition of the need for reform has brought elected officials together with business and community leaders to find ways to address education in ways that will enable graduates to be better prepared for the jobs available.

Several panelists, however, stressed that collaboration alone, though useful, will be insufficient in addressing the myriad number of issues that impact education. For panelist Lucie Tondreau, a parent who represented the Haitian community, the failure to pass the DREAM Act results in the inability of many teens from her community to have the legal means to pursue higher education. “Those minds are being wasted,” she said.

The Miami dialogue highlighted several issues on display at the other symposia, including the need for more adequate and better directed funding for education as well as the call for media to hold education administrators more accountable to the public. McNelly Torres, Co-Founder & Associate Director of Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, agreed with those objectives but said that media’s unique role in explaining the need for education reform could only be achieved by media accurately reporting on what’s going on in the schools, talking to students and to parents as well. “You need,” she said, addressing media members directly, “to be out there on the battlefield.”




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