Parent Revolt, MoCo Style: With Power Point!
Once upon a time, when parents at a school had had enough, they would write a letter to the superintendent or pack a PTA meeting to make their case.
And of course those time-tested methods of parent revolt still happen and still occasionally work. But in Montgomery County, where parents are more likely than just about anywhere else on the planet to have advanced degrees, media training and at least one lawyer living in the house, parent revolts tend to have a character all their own.
So school system officials have grown accustomed to hearing from lawyers about the kind of classroom problem that in most places gets handled in a teacher-parent conference. And now, at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Gaithersburg, an unusually large and insistent parent uprising about a principal who allegedly has lost control of her school comes complete with Power Point presentation.
The parents' case rests on what they say is unusually high turnover among the school's staff, an inability to deal with bullying and other disruptive behavior in classrooms, an administrative decision to reward poorly behaving kids by removing from the classroom not the bully but the victims of such pushing around, and a complacency on the part of the administration (one top school official is quoted as telling a complaining parent, "It's 2006, kids talk back to adults.")
In a petition that won support from more than 330 parents, in a stream of letters to community newspapers, and in meetings with Montgomery schools officials, parents have argued that principal Mary Wilson is unable to manage the students at her school.
But Wilson and some of her supporters initially fought back by claiming that the parents' complaints were racially motivated, a result of a rising proportion of black students at the school. According to the Gazette newspaper's account, Wilson, who is black, has described the complaining parents as a small group preoccupied by the increasing black student population at Marshall:
''We are a community where we have an apartment community and where we have homes," she explained. ''Since I've been here, I've been trying to bring that community together. A lot of the problem from my end looks like they have to do with the demographic shifts," the principal said.
Marshall's student body is 49 percent white, 20 percent Asian, 19 percent black and 12 percent Hispanic. The school does well on standardized tests, but there is a considerable numbers gap dividing high-achieving Asian and white students, and middling-scoring black and Hispanic students.
The Gazette quoted Wilson as saying that the real bullying was coming not from children, but from the parent group:
"Bullying is bullying, and I've seen that in this group of parents," she said. ''I think they need to be concerned with how they address other parents."
More recently, Wilson is trying to reconcile with the parents, and she and several of her teachers will take a course at the end of this school year on managing student behavior.
School systems have a tendency to rally around besieged principals--which is understandable given that mob rule is not exactly the message that superintendents want to send about how their schools are governed. But when well more than half the parents in a school take the time and trouble to speak out, something is clearly wrong. And a little training session for the principal is never the right answer. Strong school systems find ways to bring in respected, assertive leaders, if not as principal then in another supervisory position (someone to create a new disciplinary approach, for example.) Defuse the situation, then give the superintendent's staff a chance to figure out what leadership is right for the school.
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