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Far Together: What Parent-Teacher Innovation Can Be

My daughter's elementary school is applying to become a School of Innovation. This designation provides public schools with a freedom to innovate that is often reserved for charter schools, while enabling them to remain "in the fold" of the district.

I dragged myself to a parent meeting about this change last week. I had resigned myself to sitting in an uncomfortable chair to receive information read verbatim from small print on a screen, and I was fervently wishing I'd drunk more coffee that afternoon.

This wasn't that kind of meeting. Instead, parents immediately broke into small groups to share their visions for what the School of Innovation could become. A parent in each group took the lead in facilitating the conversation and recording the ideas, which were remarkable.

Our children could learn Chinese and Spanish each day, taught by parent volunteers and members of the international community at the University of Arkansas--which is just a few minutes' walk away.

The students could take dozens of field trips to the campus during the year, enhancing the school's STEM/Arts focus with the opportunity to experience science labs, architectural models, and sculpture exhibitions. Professors could bring the world to the kids' classrooms too--entomology exhibits of rare insects, instruments from West Africa and Indonesia.

One parent pointed out, "The University has a world-class computer lab a five-minute walk away, and a brand new performing arts center. What if the kids walked over there each week for Computer Lab, or to rehearse a school play? Maybe instead of seeing these experience as 'field trips,' the University could become an extended part of the school itself."

The ideas kept coming. What if students started the school day 20 minutes later, so they came to class better rested? What if we developed an outdoor classroom, where the school garden is integrated into science classes? What could Leverett Elementary become?

The population at my daughter's school is diverse in every way you can imagine--by race, nation, language, and socioeconomic status. Last week she was running around the playground after school with three friends, one of them Arab-American, one Chinese-American, the third Indian-American. The school has a world map in the hallway with dozens of pins marking the kids' countries of origin.

The parents who showed up for the meeting reflected that diversity, and it shaped the input they gave. A Chinese father who came to the U.S. a few years ago talked about the importance of conversational practice if our kids learn a foreign language, since his experience of learning English in China involved too much rote memorization. A mother born in Taiwan offered to teach Chinese to the students once a week. Several students joined the discussion groups, too, including a 5th grader in our group who wants the school to focus more on Social Studies, since state tests have shifted so much attention to Reading and Math.

From the time my daughter started kindergarten this year, I have felt a deep and abiding gratitude to her teachers for the dedication, talent, and compassion they bring to her experience of school. Dozens of teachers voluntarily attended the evening meeting, including her classroom teacher, art teacher, music teacher, and the school counselor. Leaving the meeting, that familiar gratitude was imbued with a new sense of possibility.

Parental involvement can sometimes come down to teachers and principals telling parents what to do--how to fill out the nightly reading log, what time students must arrive at school--and parents complying with those directives. On the flip side, parents can be guilty of only visiting our child's school when we have a complaint to make.

Last week's meeting was a remarkable example of what results when parents, teachers, students, and principals truly collaborate instead. Mutual respect, an open exchange of ideas and experiences, and a shared vision for what school can become.

Students dream big. I realized last week that their parents can dream big, too. We just need the invitation, the opportunity, and leadership from talented principals like Mrs. Putnam at my daughter's school. These leaders are capable of speaking eloquently, but they have also learned to listen eloquently. They build their vision of what a school can be, but they don't build it alone.

Thoreau has a line I've always loved: "If you have built castles in the sky, let not your work go to waste. Just build the foundations under them."

Over a hundred parents and teachers built those castles in the sky last week. As a result, we're ready to come together in the harder labor of constructing the foundations.

The proverb has it right: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

The children at Leverett Elementary have the great fortune of attending a public school shaped by a community that will go far together. I'm looking forward to the journey.

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