Making sure parents are heard
Publication Date: Wednesday Sep 20, 1995

Making sure parents are heard

Whether they volunteer in classrooms, help with yard duty, drive on field trips, serve on school site councils or district committees, parents by the hundreds take part in school activities in Palo Alto.

Yet do those parents influence policy or are they simply involved in the process? While many parents feel satisfied working within the existing decision-making structure, others feel like they're not being heard.

"It's truly an area where the more you put into it, the more you get out of it," said Edie Miller, a four-time PTA president who began volunteering at school when her son, now in college, was just six months old.

"I know what it's like to feel like you're not being heard," said John Tuomy, a school board candidate who used to teach in the district. "You shouldn't have to go and petition the school board. In one of those cases I didn't get involved early enough," he recalls, referring to the high school closure debate in 1987. "I had every reason to get involved and I didn't. We as parents have a responsibility to know in advance how decisions are made.

"What the district needs to do is communicate earlier," said school board president Don Way who is seeking reelection this fall. "We're coming at it too late."

Way acknowledges the wealth of parental resources the community has, from Stanford professors to Silicon Valley business professionals. "Sometimes we use (the talent of parents) well. Other times parents do not have informed access when they need to," he said.

Board candidate Jim Maples takes it one step further. "There are a lot of avenues for community input. That's not the problem," he said. "It's involvement in the decision-making process. Even if there is, it seems like no one is listening. What's lacking is influence in the decision making. It's a feeling that there's a preordained path that the district would like to take."

For example, Maples said, there was a forum at Jordan Middle School to discuss the new math curriculum. The panel discussion, he said, was "basically a sales pitch" for the new math. A member of the audience asked where the evidence was for the new approach's success, and the panelists couldn't pinpoint any, Maples said.

"The professional approach," Maples said, "would be to present both sides. I think a lot of this gets back to a trust issue. Trust is something you have to earn. Parents are only responding to what they see."

Some parents are concerned that only those who are part of the establishment really get heard.

"We have a lot of parent involvement here which tends to be through accepted channels," said Kate Feinstein, a school board candidate and former PTA Council president and co-founder of Parents for Equal Voice, a parent advocacy group. "Parents who challenge some of the directions are very often ignored."

"The atmosphere has to be one of respect for diverse opinions. I'm not talking about getting to the stage where there would be any action taken. I'm simply talking about collecting information from parents and evaluating it."

The goal in having parents involved, said school board member Susie Richardson, is to maintain "the balance between listening to parents and determining whether there are other parents whose interests need to be factored in," she said. "We all know that we need to communicate better." --Elizabeth Darling

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