Want to Transform Public Education? Act Locally

Sure, schools need strong leadership and supported teachers, but what really makes a school work is plenty of parental and community involvement.

What does it take to transform a school? As a teacher and magnet advisor for the Environmental Studies Magnet program at Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood, I know there is no silver bullet solution. But I can share what has transformed King: strong leadership, supported teachers, and plenty of parental and community involvement.

I have been teaching at King for 13 years and we serve a 1,517 student population that is 86 percent minority. About 16 percent of students are English Language Learners and over 85 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch. I also live up the hill from the school, which gives me a different perspective on the transformation that’s happened here. Thirteen years ago my neighbors would not for a second think about sending their children to King.

"I would drive by King all the time," one neighbor recently wrote me, "and the school terrified me. I knew how my husband felt about public schools and that he was adamant that our daughter would go to public schools, but I wouldn't have it…not to King. It had the feel of a prison."

This mom did what many parents across America are doing. She "decided that I was going to find other moms who felt the same way and go about creating a charter middle school." And, "without really knowing these moms," she says, "I had tons on board with me."

The woman who wrote this is now a proud parent of a sixth grader at King. So what happened? What made her take a chance at King? She came on to the campus for a clean up event that was organized by the principal and community members. She did what many parents in Los Angeles need to do. She visited the campus and found out first hand that it wasn't as bad as she thought. People fear what they do not know. She came onto the campus and met with the teachers, students, staff and community members that were dedicated to this school. She realized that instead of giving up and forming something new, she would join in with the active parent community and help lift this school up.

Many great things have happened within the past five years at King. Last fall the newfound collaboration between King's staff, students, parents and community members made a tangible impact on the future of Los Angeles: We managed to help get Styrofoam banned in all 900 schools in the district.

But it wasn't until we had a leader in place long enough to see what the school needed—parent and community involvement—that we saw success. You see, in my 13 years at King we have had more than seven principals and about 20 (!) assistant principals.

This last principal stayed for more than a year—long enough to notice that neighborhood kids were not coming to the school and she decided to do something about it. She invited parents to campus and tapped in to the neighborhood's do-gooders—the folks who want to help, but just need to be asked.

As a teacher, having a change in leadership every year is, well, horrible. Instead of trying to do new and innovative things, such as form a club, a new elective, hold after school events, or start a garden, teachers just give up. Why bother, when there is no one there to give the OK you need, or to help you along and support you?

And yes, I believe the key to a good school is teachers who feel supported. But that support has to come from parents, community members, and administrators who care. The way to do that is to let teachers know everyone is behind them. Indeed, if you look at the successful schools in Los Angeles—or any other city—they are the schools that have lots of parent involvement, lots of community events, and community support. As they say, "It takes a village." I agree. Teachers cannot do this alone.

Still, I see too many good people in Los Angeles who are afraid of our kids. They are afraid to send their kids to an unknown school. All these people really need is to be invited on to campus, take a look around, and put that fear aside. These are our children—why are people afraid?

So if you want to transform education, find a teacher who needs help. Get on to that campus. Have a simple clean up event with teachers, students, and parents all working together. Invite the village. Bring coffee. Tap into the good in people. It's there, just waiting for an invitation. They are out there, just waiting to be invited

If you do it, trust me, the only direction that school will go is up.

Click here to add volunteering at your local school to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Image courtesy of Annemarie Ralph

Julian Meehan

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