Nurturing confidence in schools

GOV. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts announced that state aid to public education is a major initiative for 1984-85. Few question the need for state intervention. Recent reports by national foundations and educators confirmed that our public schools are in need of serious revitalization.

The task is greatest for the inner city school boards. The challenge of providing a good education to children who are eager to learn, well fed physically and intellectually, and racially and socially homogeneous is not remarkable. The real challenge is to attract the disparate populations of our inner cities, who have been accustomed to regarding the public education system as a necessary evil. Turning an urban school system around is difficult but not impossible.

Consider Pittsburgh. Recently hundreds of city parents lined up in front of public schools to enroll their children the following morning. Many parents stood in line for over 24 hours simply to get their children's names on enrollment lists for a limited number of openings in the city's magnet programs.

The real miracle was that these parents represented all segments of a diverse community: middle-class parents who were removing their children from private schools, welfare mothers and unemployed fathers, all races and linguistic minorities; in short, people who had previously perceived the public schools as inferior.

Now, the Pittsburgh schools are enjoying a popularity that they have not experienced for at least two decades. Because parents believe their schools are good, children and teachers feel more committed. Reports indicate that behavior problems, racial tension, and indifference have been reduced and morale is high throughout the system. People believe that public schools are a place where good students can get the best education, and not a last resort for the poor or the low achievers.

It's helpful to consider what factors turned the school system around. Much credit goes to the new magnet programs. Marked by their innovation, these magnets offer what parents want: various language immersion opportunities, a performing arts middle school, a classical academy, a full Montessori elementary school, special programs for the gifted. Also, they provide an element of choice; parents can select from the menu of offerings for each child.

Admission to programs is selective, but fair (first come, first served). Parents must actually apply for the programs, and demand outstrips supply. Therefore, parents and children in the magnets feel ''privileged.''

Magnet programs alone might not be sufficient to instill enthusiasm throughout a system. The board has recently introduced new programs in the basics of reading and math to ensure higher performance overall. Taken together, these innovations have reassured parents that the public schools are directed by a board that is bold, imaginative, and concerned.

However, the most important factor in parent satisfaction is not creative programming, attention to basics, or choice. What parents liked best, when queried, was: ''the amount of individual attention children get.'' This was the most frequent response from parents as the reason for selecting private education. Apparently people have come to despair about getting individual attention in public schools; the reassurance that one's child is being monitored closely - that problems are recognized early and dealt with immediately and that talents do not go ignored - is critical to parent satisfaction.

To increase satisfaction and confidence in our public schools it is necessary to have: more parental involvement in the placement of children and greater flexibility in changing assignments when they are not working well; assignment of children to work groups on the basis of ability in each subject beginning in elementary school; wider application of student testing when concerns arise that children are overwhelmed or understimulated; more parent/teacher conferences and greater detail in quarterly student evaluation.

If public school boards would invest more of their new state monies in individualized student planning regarding class and subject assignment, parent feedback, and ongoing monitoring and evaluation, confidence in our schools would increase significantly.

Parents of all backgrounds are eager for good public education. This is confirmed in Pittsburgh, a reputedly tough steel town, where people traditionally queue up only for Super Bowl or World Series tickets.

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