Parent Involvement at Private Schools

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Do (should) parents have a say at private schools?

Jan 2006

Looking around for private schools I'm wondering what the position is of parents at private schools. Specifically I have the following questions for parents regarding the private school they send their kid(s) to:
1) As a parent, do you have a say in your school?
2) Should you have a say in your school (pros/cons)?
3) Does your school have an overall parent organization? If so, what is the specific role of this organization?
4) What is the relationship between administration, teachers and parents or parent organization at your school?
5) Are parents part of the Governing Body (decision making entity) of your school? If so, are they appointed or elected?
6) Can the proceedings and financials of your school be monitored by parents?
7) How does your school know if it's doing a good job? Is feedback solicited from parents? How?
8) Is there a grievances procedure in place? If so, please describe. Any other thoughts or opinions on the subject appreciated as well.

Parent involvement at private schools as a group varies widely , especially if you are seeking an open forum for ALL parents. You would think that paying high tuition would earn parents easy access. I've attended parent orientations where administrators say things like, ''If the parents will just stay out of our way, we will be just fine,'' or ''The children are never a problem, it's the parents who become the problem.''

It's quite shocking to realize how little value is placed on the knowledge parents uniquely have about their kids--and how condescending many administrators are to parents. One generally well-thought-of school, for example, made an extraordinary restructuring decision to go to mixed grade classrooms last year. Administration announced this decision as a done deal 3 months after most parents had signed contracts committing to the school. There was NO public conversation beforehand, no effort to engage parents in understanding the developmental reas ons (all perfectly well-researched and intelligent) until AFTER the decision was irrevocable. The arrogance is stunning, even if as a parent you might agree with the change.

Most private schools are registered nonprofits, 501(c)3 organizations with a board of directors which often has parents serving. I have never seen one that doesn't have an active parent organization for such things as ongoing fundraising (no matter how high the tuition, it is not generally enough to pay for quality teachers and special programs), clean up, teacher appreciation activities, etc. If they are nonprofits, the schools are required by law to keep public books, to have board meetings open to the public (not every board meeting must be open but some must be each year), and to have boards that are responsible for general fiscal and mission oversight. Boards are usually the place of grievance reporting if you have a problem wit h top administration.

Some of the administrators I've dealt with don't think parents know much about child development and don't have real conversations about it with parents (although most have lectures and workshops that are aimed at teaching parents how to think like the school). These trainings or lectures are often of very high quality, and give insight in to the school's philosophy and some of its pracitce--many parents I've worked with yearn for these workshops and find them extremely valuable- -it's just that the opportunity for genuine parent involvement generally stops at field trips and school clean up. Someone may post something here about a specific school that contradicts all this, and every parent's experience is legitimate. I believe that most schools, public and private, don't know how to partner with parents to understand the whole child. Some private schools seek immediately t o place ''blame'' on parents rather than to work with parents to understand a child's difficulties. It is not easy to have a say in most school's activities, but I have seen small groups of organized parents successfully demand attention be paid to issues that administrators are glossing over. More often than not, however, a parent trying to make change in a private school is labeled ''difficult'' (and sometimes worse).

If you think parents have more say at a private school than a public one because you are paying a premium for services, think again. Most parents choose private schools because they share a fundamental philosophy with the administration and teachers. You are unlikely to change a private school if you find yourself running counter to what you see, even if you join the school community in good faith, regardless of grievance procedures and accountability structures. The school doesn't need to keep you or your kid happy if it doesn't want to. There is no public requirement to treat every child equally.

I am not opposed to private schools (my children attend one now), but I do not find them necessarily more parent-friendly than public schools. As a professional working with teachers and parents to find common ground in support of high quality education for individual students, I have seen that a well- informed and well-supported parent-school partnership can happen in any environment where parents are truly invited. I just don't see general meaningful parental engagement happening systemically in private schools.

That may not be what you were looking for, but it triggered something in me!

My Two Cents Anyway!

We\x92ve been a St. Paul\x92s family for 6 years now. I\x92m happy to share my opinions about whether parents should and/or do have a say at private schools. However, I strongly encourage you to talk to the admissions office for the school\x92s official policy. In fact, I think these are good questions to pose to each private and public school you tour.

In general, I believe that private schools are inherently more responsive to parents than public schools can be. Public schools answer to politicians and are governed by a state-wide (and, as in the case of No Child Left Behind, nation-wide) agenda. Private schools like St. Paul's are driven by their mission and really do answer to the parents. If they lose their faith in the school, they will leave.

At St. Paul\x92s, I have felt that the administration cares deeply about its parents\x92 desires and opinions. Although the school doesn\x92t methodically solicit general parental feedback, there ARE multiple levels by which parents are encouraged to share their concerns and ideas with the staff. In all levels, the staff strives to be thoughtful, respectful (a big word at St. Paul\x92s) and responsive. However, they do not simply react to the whims of the parent body. The staff \x96 both teachers and administrators \x96 are experts in their fields with years of experience. They are paid to live and breathe education, and for the most part the parents respect their expertise. This is not to say the parents don\x92t speak up or even apply pressure at times. They (we) do. But we also try to understand the philosophy behind the curriculum and the larger issues contributing to certain school policies. It\x92s a two-way communication, as it should be.

Concerns and grievances are communicated to the school in multiple ways. Overall, the school encourage parents to direct \x93accurate information to the person who needs it.\x94 The communication methods vary according to the type of concern: For personal issues, such as those pertaining to a particular student\x92s academic or social situation, the school strongly encourages parents and teachers to just pick up the phone and call one another. The staff is generally very responsive to parents, although like in most organizations, it pays for a parent to be persistent and polite. If a parent doesn\x92t feel that the teacher has completely answered or managed the issue, the parent is encouraged to contact the lower or middle school head (aka, the teacher\x92s supervisor). From there, the school will turn to whatever other inside or outside experts are deemed necessary.

For more general issues, such as concerns or ideas about school- wide policies, events, or facilities, parents can call the appropriate administrator directly. Alternatively, they can attend a monthly \x93Parent Council\x94 meeting or ask their Parent Council (PC) representative to communicate on their behalf. The PC primarily acts as a fund-raising and community-building organization for the school. But, the monthly meetings are open to all St. Paul\x92s families, and are usually attended by the school head and/or other administrators. This makes the PC an effective means for parents to raise issues of general concern and get quick responses from the administration.

The head of school and other administrators also hold an annual \x93State of the School\x94 meeting in the Spring, and usually host or attend dozens of gatherings each year with parents to facilitate casual communication.

Finally, the school\x92s governing body, its Board of Trustees, is largely made up of current and alumni parents. Since the Board is responsible for the school\x92s finances, strategic plan, and the hiring /firing of the school head, it is a fairly powerful body with lots of oversight.

I hope this summary helps. Again, I encourage you to ask your questions of the admissions offices when you tour or apply to schools. Good Luck! - Happy St. Paul's Parent

I feel compelled to respond to this post...

I also agree that these are VERY important considerations when evaluating ANY school, whether it be public OR private. I currently have a child in kindergarten and I went through the ''kindergarten frenzy'' last year. I looked at both public and private schools trying to determine the right fit for me and my child. I was very nervous about sending my child to a private school for a number of reasons, but I was also nervous about sending her to a public school. I have to say that I've (we've) been really happy so far at St. Paul's. I feel everyone is very approachable and sincerely interested in hearing what you have to say. At every school event that I have attended including kindergarten-only functions, the Head of School, Director of Lower School and even Director of Admissions have all been present. They have always encouraged input and feedback from the parents. St. Paul's has an incredibly active group of parents (as do some of the public schools), who really participate greatly in the day-to-day operations of the sch ool as well as in special school functions.

I had some concerns about my daughter and when I sent an e-mail to both of her teachers, (each Kindergarten has 2 full-time teachers for 18 students) I promptly received a response and, much to my surprise and delight, I saw immediate results. I can only speak about my experience at St. Paul's, but I would caution against drawing gross generalizations without really checking out all the different schools that this area has to offer. Talk with lots and lots of parents attending both public and private schools. Visit the schools themselves; talk with the teachers, adminstrators and even the students. I will bet that you will be hard-pressed to draw broad conclusions about either public or private schools in the Bay Area. There is truly a broad spectrum of both types of schools. This in and of itself speaks to the wonderful div ersity of this area.
Another Happy St. Paul's Parent

My kids have attended both public and private schools, including parent co-op preschools. Parents have the most say at a parent co-operative. In fact, for me this is the one down side of a co-op: every year a new group of parents comes in with new ideas, and because the school is run by the parents, long-term practices can change abruptly with each new group of parents. Sometimes the new practices are good ideas, but sometimes they aren't, and the opinions of parents with little experience in running a school may take precedence over those of long-term teaching staff. This might be a great thing for some, and not for others. For me, it was very frustrating.

For elementary school, my experience is that parents have a much greater voice in public than in private school. Especially at the lower grades, active and interested parents can create entire new programs, and teachers and principals are usually very receptive to all sorts of parent input. In my experience, a small group of parents who are determined can really make big changes in public school. The downside is that if there is a district or state or union policy that you don't like, there isn't much a parent can do about it, and you may not have the option to change to a different school.

On the other hand, when you choose a private school, you are choosing it because it has a particular image or program that you want for your child. My expectation as a private school parent is that the school administrators will do their best to keep the school running smoothly without making drastic changes to the programs that attracted me to the school in the first place. I would expect that major decisions would be made primarily by the administration, which has the skills and experience and long-term interests of the school in mind, rather than by parents who will only be there for a few years. I would expect that these decisions would be transparent to parents. No back-room decision-making and big changes sprung on parents unexpectedly. The best private schools keep communication open with parents.

I would not very happy about parents at my kid's private school pushing for a change to a program that attracted me to the school originally. I would expect that when parents decide on private school, they choose a school that matches the style they want, and have trust in the administration to make the best decisions over the long term. If parents don't like the way the private school is run, they have the option to choose a different school for their child.

Of course in all cases, I would expect the administration to be responsive to new problems that come up, and to communicate with the parents at the school and accept input. No school is perfect, and change can be a good thing. But to parents who are seeking a very high degree of input, I would recommend a co-op school, or a public school. If you choose private school, pick one that most closely matches what you're looking for for your family. A mom