Dear Decaturish – An open letter to school leaders and parents

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt August 17, 2016
A photo of Toomer Elementary students. Photo from TalkUpAPS blog.

A file photo of Toomer Elementary students. Photo from TalkUpAPS blog.

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Dear School Leaders and Parents:

I am a former middle and high school teacher and I have now spent over a decade studying and working with K-12 schools and teachers. Currently I am an Assistant Professor at Kennesaw State University in the Bagwell College of Education. Now that I am a parent myself, I knew the day would come when I would have to navigate the murky waters of when to speak up when I see things at my childrens’ public schools that do not fit with what I know are best practices for creating schools that include all children and their families. After moving to the Atlanta metro area for my position as an education professor four years ago and after much debate, my husband and I decided to move to a neighborhood within Atlanta Public Schools with a “highly regarded” elementary school – meaning the majority of families are well-off, white, and the school produces good test scores. After wrapping up our kindergarten year this past May with our oldest child, I walked away with an unsettled feeling.

First, I would like to say thank you to all of the schools leaders, teachers, staff and parents that contributed to a wonderful first year of public school. Our daughter had a fabulous year! Mrs. B, our daughter’s kindergarten teacher, was one of the most organized and consistent teachers I have met. Our daughter has grown leaps and bounds and is reading on almost the 3rd grade level. She comes home happy and talks about what she is learning. Fortunately, she is a kid that loves to learn and loves being at school.

There have been some things that we have experienced that have been concerning; not because they necessarily affected us in particular, but because knowing what I know, I am sure some families experienced exclusion and disconnect. As an educator focused on equity and social justice, I feel it’s important to share what I noticed from the parent perspective this past school year.

One of the largest, overarching concerns has been the tone in messages and announcements that suggests that most, if not all, families have the means to participate in fundraisers, attend last-minute classroom gatherings during the day, and costs associated with participating in field trips. I would have loved to feel that more voices were represented in the way that messages were conveyed. Perhaps there were concessions for some of these events/activities for those on free or reduced lunch; however, those were not conveyed publicly–which leads to the perception that “we are all the same” and all have the same means and opportunities. This was troubling to me and perhaps alienating for other families.

Fundraisers are necessary; however, I was concerned by the competitive nature of some of the fundraising activities. Our daughter would come home asking for money saying that her class, “had to win!” She kept trying to get us to donate. I told her we gave what we could but that we could not always participate. She wanted to be in the raffle to win special time with her teacher and she wanted to win the bike at the Fun Run. Unfortunately, as a one-income family, we were not able to purchase tickets. We do not receive free or reduced lunch and I am able to understand and navigate schools. However, this type of fundraising that puts kids front and center (and made to feel badly if they can’t participate) seemed off to me as a parent and educator. I am sure there are few tweaks that could be made to lesson some of this pressure felt by the students.

The field trips could be costly. In particular, the “Dads and Dudes at the Zoo” field trip was incredibly expensive. The expectation to have a “Dad or Dude” take off of work, purchase a t-shirt for child and adult ($30), and pay for bus and zoo ($40 for child and adult) is a hardship for my family and I am sure for others as well. Seventy dollars plus taking off of work if you are an hourly employee is just not feasible for many. Perhaps including language in all field trip communication that indicates that all children will be able to attend, regardless if they are able to send in the money or not. Including that language with the communication home is a safety net for struggling families and provides an option.

I volunteered to join the “Interior Enhancement Committee” at the start of the school year. I indicated that evening or after school times would be best for me as a working parent. The meeting happened during the school day. I sent my suggestions by email to the group and those suggestions related to what I know about creating inclusive schools that honor diverse backgrounds and cultures. I followed-up and was told that I would be included in the next meeting. I never heard back; which is fine, I have a busy schedule and I lost track. However, later in the year I saw that the committee changed it’s name to the “Pretty Committee.” To me this devalues the work of what this committee should be focused. Shouldn’t we be intentional in how we design school spaces to reflect the diversity of the students that attend? Perhaps it was just a fun name but those do have implications for how families and students feel welcome, or not.

Thank you for listening to these concerns as a new school year gets underway–I am sure you have already been thinking about these issues and plan to implement some changes next year. I hope so! I know that as a school leader and involved school parent you have a strong and positive presence at the school, I do not doubt that change designed to meet the needs of ALL children in Metro Atlanta schools is on the horizon.

Felice Russell, Ph.D.

Author Bio: Felice Russell is a parent of an Atlanta Public School student and an Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University.


About Dan Whisenhunt

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