Parents worry about changes

Both sides seek more communication, input as plans to revamp elementary school take shape
Friday, April 16, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:45 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting to correct errors.]

Parents have been appointed as crucial players in restructuring West Boulevard Elementary School, but some parents say they are floundering to define their new role, mostly because they don’t know what it entails.

Earlier this week, West Boulevard Elementary was chosen to be restructured into a model school to help student achievement efforts. On Thursday Phyllis Chase, superintendent of Columbia Public School District, addressed questions at a meeting with about 30 parents.

Parental involvement, teacher replacement, high-achieving students, class size and corporate structure were some of the issues voiced by participants. Kathryn Clevenger, president of West Boulevard’s PTA, said she wished the parents had a bigger role up to this point and wanted to see more specifics of what is expected of parents in the future.

“We’re excited that West Boulevard is getting the attention we deserve,” she said. “But there is a lot of enthusiasm and not a lot of ideas, and therefore many people are skeptical.”

Some parents said they feel as though they and their children are a little like guinea pigs being directed in an experiment with little input and no idea what will happen.

“The whole way this has come about, we’ve had no say,” said Ken Leija, father of a first-grader and a fifth-grader. “We need the resources, but it doesn’t have to be a totally new program.”

Assistant Superintendent Cheryl Cozette said she was glad parents are voicing worries and questions.

“It’s natural to be concerned when change like this is occurring because change is unknown,” Cozette said. “We expect there to be skepticism and questions and some concern.”

Chase tried to define some of the expectations she has for parents in this new model school.

“This school will require a strong partnership with parents,” she said. Chase gave examples such as parents ensuring children are in school, having quiet time to study, signing off on homework and things outside of school, such as making sure children go to the library.

Parents said the school has struggled with parental involvement and they are skeptical of the administration’s plans to increase it.

“I’ve been here nine years and it has always been a problem,” said Marta Holmes, whose daughter is a fifth-grader. “We’ve tried everything. I think the reasons include a lack of education, apathy and people just not knowing how much they should be involved.”

Clevenger said many parents work long hours and have single-parent households, which makes it harder for them to be active in the school. She wants to see a parent task force organized that would go out into the community, door to door if necessary, and encourage parent participation.

Leija said the fact that West Boulevard hasn’t been a strong parent school is part of the reason it was chosen.

“If the district had chosen a school that does have a lot of parental involvement — like Fairview Elementary, let’s just say — and there was a lot of parents against it, the district would be careful about the changes,” he said. “I’m concerned that we as parents are going to get run over.”

Parental involvement could be hurt by the fact that new administration and new staff will be hired.

“I really hope there is an effort to retain current teachers and faculty as much as possible,” said Clevenger. “There’s so much dedication and positive relationships, and if we lose teachers willing to stay here, that will be a real loss.”

Clevenger will participate as the parent representative in the interview process for the new principal next week. She is looking for someone who is a firm leader and empathetic to problems associated with lower socioeconomic status in a small school.

One of these problems is class size. She said there has been an increase in behavioral problems this year because of increased class sizes and thinks money would be well spent in getting more teachers.

At the meeting, Chase said smaller class sizes wasn’t a priority for model school planning because she wants to concentrate on teaching.

“Delivery of instruction is the important change to the school,” she said.

Several parents were concern by literature from around the country that describes model schools as being based on a corporate model, with teachers as the managers and pupils as the employees.

Chase responded by saying administrators have read and based ideas on many sources, but want a program unique and tailored to West Boulevard.

“We’ve gotten ideas from a lot of different places, but we don’t have a model set in stone,” she said. “We want the principal, staff and parents to decide what they want.”

She reminded parents of the current deficiencies of the system. Almost half — 48 percent — of students did not score proficiently for their grade level on standardized tests last year.

Some children, however, are successful and their parents worry the changes to the school concentrate too much on helping others catch up. Chase said the model will encourage students to progress at their own level, but some parents feel like this is still unclear.

Applying to transfer is one option that can be considered Administrators said they realize many questions still exist and hope parents give time for the details to evolve. Pam Conway, interim principal of the school, is the current liaison between parents and the administration.

The school will incorporate more instruction time, a new principal and staff and parental involvement to help students boost test scores, administrators say. Next year, the extended schedule will affect only the staff — for four extra hours a week and one or two weeks at the beginning and end of the school year.

Discussions will continue at the West Boulevard PTA meeting at 6 p.m. Monday. The district also plans to have more discussion sessions with parents.

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