A public school district's worst revenge: Involved parents

DALLAS—Teachers, be careful what you ask for. You might get a rebellion.

As Americans demand more from their often low-performing public schools, educators pass the buck to the home front, insisting that improving student performance requires increasing parental involvement.

Some parents have taken that request seriously. In some places, parental involvement has led to parental insurrection.

Consider what happened in 1996 at the Ninth Street Elementary School in downtown Los Angeles. About 50 Latino parents, including many Spanish-speaking immigrants who were sold on the virtues of learning English, had grown frustrated with their inability to pull their children from bilingual classes that they believed were causing the kids to fall behind academically. They were equally fed up with the insulting manner in which their concerns were dismissed by administrators.

So, the parents grabbed picket signs and organized a boycott that kept their kids out of school for almost two weeks.

A rebellion of a different sort took shape recently at a middle school in the ritzy suburb of Scarsdale, N.Y. Parents there are up in arms about the trend toward so-called high-stakes testing, where student performance on exams can determine everything from whether students get to graduate to whether teachers get pay raises. The parents worried about New York state’s policy of testing students in the 4th, 8th and 12th grades. They feared that officials were simply teaching to the test and that their kids were stressing out from the pressure.

About a dozen Scarsdale moms decided to act. They grabbed their cell phones and organized a boycott on test day that kept their kids out of school for almost two hours–the time allotted for the school to test its 290 8th graders. The rebels weren’t half-bad, managing to keep two-thirds of the kids out of school. Later, the mothers triumphantly held a news conference to declare victory over a cruel system that pelts fragile adolescents with the slings and arrows of multiple-choice questions.

And to what end? Among the stated goals of the testing regimen now in place in New York is determining whether students are on track to graduate.

That tells me that those Latino immigrant parents back in Los Angeles live in a different world than the Scarsdale parents.

Five years after the Ninth Street Elementary School rebellion, Latino immigrant kids in school districts around the country are still largely roped into bilingual classes where they languish for as long as six or seven years with little expected from them academically. Their parents should be so lucky to put up with clipboard-carrying administrators who enforce standards, demand achievement and ensure that students are provided the tools to graduate.

The Scarsdale moms resorted to a boycott to convey their feeling that the tests demanded too much from their kids; the immigrant parents at Ninth Street staged theirs for a different reason–out of a concern that their schools were, by avoiding teaching their children English, demanding too little.

And what are we to make of the fact that Scarsdale school officials, including the superintendent, may have encouraged the test boycott by informing parents that they too were leery of tests? The officials even refused to punish those students who abstained from the state-mandated exams.

Meanwhile, the Ninth Street parents did not get off so easy, treated as they were with contempt by school officials who have become addicted to bilingual education funding. Yet protests like this one have fueled support for movements in several states to eliminate bilingual education.

The Scarsdale officials may have had it right. Schools should continue to encourage parents to become involved, and support them when they do. Boycotts and protests are harmless. The real threat to education is not from the rebels but from those parents who don’t care enough to kick up a fuss.


Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a syndicated columnist based in Dallas. E-mail: [email protected]

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