'A communications problem of the highest priority'

John, single and 31 years old, is a computer circuitry teachnician employed at one of Massachusetts' famed Route 128 high-tech firms. Susan, also single and 27, runs her own advertising company in Los Angeles.

Bob and June, white, a working professional couple (no children), live in western Montana.

Leon and Betty, black, both work for the federal government in Washington. They send their two children to a Roman Catholic elementary school, even though they are not church members.

The Andersons retired three years ago and then moved from New York City to Naples, Fla. They have no grandchildren.

Some 70 percent of the adult population in the United States has something in common with these people -- no children in a public school. Most are either childless or have no school-age children.

They represent the communciations challenge public schools face in the '80s, i.e., the challenge for support and understanding.

No longer can educators rely on a constituency framed in the personal daily contact of a child with a teacher and a principal. Nor can they count on the automatic support of an interested parent to communicate to the broader community what it is that is occurring in schools. And if this nonparent constituency presents a challenge to all of public education, it only intensifies in large city school systems.

The absence of face-to-face communication between a majority of the providers (taxpayers both individual and corporate) and the consumers (students) of education threatens a second- or even third-class status for city schools.

If the problem is one of communication, then, according to many educators, the solution, too, is one of communication.

It means getting the message out about the needs of city schools as well as the good things they are doing. Remedies can be found in at least three areas:

* Society must realize and accept its own vested interest in the importance of city public schools. As this is realized and accepted by a majority of citizens, positive results will follow.

* City schools must communicate what the public needs to know, rather than what the school wants to tell. The focus must be aimed equally at nonparents and parents. The contact must be both through and around the electronic and print media.

* The nation's media must evaluate the way they cover city schools and what the cumulative effect of their coverage communicates. Failure to seek a balance by reporting only negative stories without positive examples may create its own self-fulfilling problems.

Society's stake:

"The public schools, especially the large urban school systems, cannot tolerate a political climate that does not have an interest in public education, " says Terry Herndon, executive director of the 1 1/2 million-member National Education Association (NEA).

Mr. Herndon says the large proportion of individuals no longer directly involved in education, "or so they believe," represents a communications problem for schools of the highest priority.

"If the middle class does not support the ideal of public education for all children and the community thinks it can write off city schools," he adds, "it will pay for the neglect somewhere else down the road, be it in lost economic productivity, welfare payments, or even the high social and economic costs of criminal incarceration."

"What Americans must realize," says Scott Thomson, executive director of the 35,000-member National Association of Secondary School Principals, is that "everyone, whether he has a child in school or not, has a stake in education. Well-educated individuals -- not new oil or mineral discoveries --are going to be our society's primary natural resource if we are to compete in the world. New wealth will be the ideas of our people."

What schools can do:

Ann H. Barkelew, public information officer for the Los Angeles County superintendent of schools and president of the National School Public Relations Association, told a group of principals meeting in Atlanta, "If all the public is getting are the bad things that occur in schools, a climate of negativism will permeate the community."

School programs must "include major efforts to let nonparents know what we're doing and how -- and why," she says.

Simple and inexpensive ideas exist. One example Ann Barkelew recommends is an announcement board next to a school building and in full view of what in cities are often heavily used roads.

She cites such a billboard at Burbank (California) High School, where the message is changed twice a week. Last June a passing driver would have read, " 432 seniors graduated . . . 184 received honors . . . but 86 failed." Response to the fact that schools were still failing students, in effect that standards were being maintained, came as a pleasant surprise to many members of the community, and helped counter the mistaken belief that mere attendance would guarantee promotion.

(Those interested in learning more about these communication ideas may write for the booklet "Building Public Confidence," National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1904 Association Drive, Reston, Va. 22091.)

A strong sense of authority is one issue city schools must communicate. For many parents and citizens, officials say, the school is still a human institution and the face of authority is the principal's.

Chuck Mason, a public high school principal in Atlanta, sets the tone he feels must exist when he says, "If I can't say to a parent, a school board member, business people, or a reporter, 'Come to my school anytime you want, don't call me, just come,' and then let them visit without me handpicking the classrooms they go to, I'm not in control of my school.

"I like to ask the first student passing by to show our guests around the school, let the student take them wherever they ask or wherever the student thinks they should go. It's the student's school, and when the public sees it through the student's eyes, the support will follow." He says that only a principal confident of his or her staff, confident of the good things going on, could make such an open offer. The public would quickly get the message.

Tom Yount, magnet school coordinator for the Gompers secondary school in San Diego, says: "We put out the red carpet for students and parents. Students chose to come here and they can choose to leave if what they are learning is not what they expected. We have to be responsive."

Mr. Yount goes on to say, "In a city school, especially an inner-city school, the first concern of parents is how safe will it be. Only by having the parents and the press actually come down and see the school, see the neighborhood, and realize the protective measures we have taken can we allay fears."

Media responsibility:

It is the communications media, and print media in particular, that provide many nonparents their only source of information about city schools.

For the NEA's Terry Herndon, it is crucial that the media balance their reportage. Highlighting the seriousness with which his organization views the media's role, he says, "Schools of the '80s will be the beneficiaries or the victims of the mass media.

If you were to just look at the effect of all the two-minute TV spots about violence in the schools, or teacher strikes, and not about the real problems faced in city classrooms and the real learning on many levels, no wonder our schools --administrators -- are held in such low regard by the public."

Many city educators feel the media would be helping tremendously if they just communicated the difference between the mission of city schools and that of suburban and private schools.

The large cities are where the non-English speaking refugee children come; a disproportionate share of low income families concentrate; more youngsters whose mothers are on ADC (aid to dependent children) reside; with so many transient pupils who stay for a week, a month, or half a term; where the facilities for the multiple handicapped exist and where children in need of these facilities flock.

"Urban and suburban, it is comparing apples and oranges," Mr. Herndon says. And he poses this thoughtful question: "Without an electorate at least informed on he differences, what hope can these city schools have?"

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