By Paula Coulahan
When Dr. Dennis Thompson was superintendent of the Rockford Public Schools, I was just beginning my teaching career. He spoke at the new teacher training, which was held in the auditorium of my alma mater, Jefferson High School. His speech was called “It’s The Teacher. It’s The Teacher. It’s The Teacher.” His point, of course, was that the teacher makes all the difference in the classroom and in the success of the students.
While teachers agree that it’s all about setting the right tone in the classroom and teaching students to value education, I think most also agree that sustained student success depends on the emphasis that parents put on education. It’s the parents. It’s the parents. It’s the parents.
As a former classroom teacher in the Rockford Public Schools, I recruited a dedicated group of family volunteers every year. Parents, grandparents, aunts, and even cousins gave many volunteer hours, which allowed me to conduct Literacy Centers better while teaching Guided Reading, host special classroom events and awards ceremonies, plan holiday celebrations, and carry out messy science experiments and pumpkin carvings. These activities are much more successful with parent participation. More importantly, parents get to take an active role in their child’s education, and that forms a bond.
It will take much more of this kind of parent and family involvement to keep classrooms running smoothly in the near future. With budgets coming up short, personnel reductions, and an increase in class sizes, it will “take a village” to continually improve the quality of education. Local employers should allow parents to use a fraction of their time each year to volunteer in a school of their choice. The quality of education and the quality of business in a community are always connected, and many businesses in Rockford have already formed successful partnerships with schools.
The Rockford Public Schools debacle, over the past year and a half, brought out the best in dedicated parents. I admired the investment that parents made in their schools and, ultimately, in their community. As impassioned speakers at school board meetings, parents, students, and community groups such as Watchdogs for Ethics in Education, were the only voices of reason in what has amounted to the corporate raiding of our school district. Their efforts undoubtedly kept some school buildings open and contributed to the departure of Dr. LaVonne Sheffield.
One of the best examples of parent outcry was when the Gifted Program hit the chopping block. That was a turning point. While it became clear that inciting parents is the key to change in our schools, parents exceeded my expectations as an educator and community member. I am pretty certain that they exceeded Dr. Sheffield’s expectations, too. The group of protesters was relatively small, but loud enough to be heard, and they made a difference.
Still, personnel and programs continued to be put on the chopping block with no basis for elimination, except a phantom $50 million deficit that we still can’t put our hands on with any certainty. Once community groups and parents got involved, there was a new level of recognition that taxpayers need to take responsibility for public schools and remain vigilant.
When groups of parents from many schools became vocal, it also set an example of civic responsibility for their children. Showing that community action can make a difference is an important part of educating children. Without these efforts, we would cultivate only apathy and raise children who would be an easy mark for the lack of ethics that is being displayed frequently in the field of business and, more recently, in education. I hope students will remember what they and parents achieved or attempted to achieve together. I hope those parents will continue to teach their children that, as Irish musician and activist Bono says, “In our freedom, we slumber.”
Most importantly, the battle to save educational programs and to keep schools open is not over just because some of the players have exited the stage in Rockford. Parents will find themselves speaking out for their children throughout their school careers. Awareness and constant advocacy have to become the norm. Communities have to stand their ground and not let schools fall into the hands of the unscrupulous. It takes “guts.” It takes everyone. It’s the teachers. It’s the administrators. It’s the business people. It’s the legislators. It’s the parents. It’s the parents. It’s the parents.
Paula Coulahan is a former teacher in the Rockford Public Schools who lost her teaching position in the first round of budget cuts in 2010, one day from being tenured. Coulahan has a bachelor of arts degree in journalism/public relations from Northern Illinois University and a master of arts in Teaching Children (MATC) from Aurora University.
From the May 11-17, 2011 issue