Hang around the education debates long enough and you’ll hear many times that schools are basically doing all they can to meet the needs of students, especially high-poverty students, so we should ease up on the pressure to do more. I don’t think that’s the case and you see a lot of variance in how well schools do with similar students.
In that spirit, here are three examples of ideas, some more more substantial than others – happening in some places but far from commonplace – that we could do to reach more students and families. It’s hardly an exhaustive list but it makes the point.
24-hour school: Many of our cities, and not just Las Vegas and New York, are 24-hour towns these days. Yet other than night school we still don’t engage students or parents that are on a 24-hour schedule. It would be absurd to make every school a 24-hour option but providing that option in places where many older students are, especially those who have left school, are working alternative schedules would help reach kids who are disconnected today. They are doing this in Vegas. And in this case what happens in Vegas, shouldn’t stay there.
Back-to-school day: I recently heard a school superintendent, a generally progressive guy concerned about equity, congratulating all the parents taking part in a “Back-to-School Night” style event in his community for being the kind of involved parents the school system needs to be successful. Problem was, the event was at 8pm and a not-small proportion of parents in that community were beginning their work days around that time, not wrapping them up. Back to School nights are an evergreen feature of our schools, and necessary for many parents who work a traditional 9-5 schedule. But for many parents, and not just those working nights, a chance to visit during the day would make school engagement more accessible. If we were really serious about meeting more parents where they are, “Back to School Days” (in addition to ‘back to school nights’) would be a lot more common than they are. And even easier thing to jettison would be policies that limit parent-teacher conferences to just a few minutes in some places.
Responding to parents: One thing that’s pretty common at high-performing schools is some expectation, guidance, or even requirements about how quickly teachers and other staff should respond to parental inquiries (and student emails). At other schools, even plenty of good ones, emails languish for days without even an acknowledgement. And like long lines at the DMV it’s one of those little things that really aggravates people and subtly turns them off. At In-N-Out Burger they make a point of reminding everyone on the team that they are there thanks to the customers – and that’s a burger joint! A little more of that ethos with regard to students, parents, and taxpayers is key to the long-term success of publicly funded education. Right now, any school or school district that doesn’t have clear expectations on fast-turnaround for emails and calls is leaving an easy and important one on the table.