Unhappy with the math curriculum at your child’s school or the principal’s homework policy? Take it up with your local school board. Although the primary role of the school board is to establish policies for your school district, board members are also there to listen and respond to the community’s concerns and ideas for improving schools.
What does the school board do?
The school board is a group of elected representatives who create a vision for local schools. This vision should reflect a consensus of board members, the community and district staff. Typically the school board chooses textbooks and approves curriculum, establishes and oversees budgets and decides how best to protect the morals and health of students. It’s then up to the superintendent and his staff to carry out the vision. The board also provides support and guidance to parents in the district — it is a higher authority that can recommend courses of action when schools aren’t meeting the needs of their students.
“Board members are elected to respond to your needs,” says Los Angeles school board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, adding that you should reach out to your local representative when there is a problem, “especially if your issue has the potential to affect more than one child.” (See the sidebar for what is and isn’t appropriate to take to the school board.)
Follow the appropriate chain of command
Flores Aguilar suggests that no matter what your issue is, try approaching your child’s teacher or principal first, because both should be made aware of your concerns. “The most important relationship is between the parent and the teacher,” he says. For example, if you and other parents in your class feel the reading syllabus does not challenge and engage your children, approach the teacher about choosing more appropriate material. If he or she seems unresponsive, bring your concerns to the school principal. If the principal does not act on your behalf and you firmly believe a new curriculum is vital, then it’s time to contact your school board member.
The school board intervenes on safety issues, too
In addition to dealing with curriculum and budgets, school board members regularly address safety matters. Take, for example, this situation that recently arose at an inner-city middle school in Los Angeles: A group of parents had grown exceedingly anxious about their children’s safety on campus. Adolescent gangs roamed the schoolyard and threatened other students in the restroom. One afternoon an alleged gang member pushed a student in the locker room and took his athletic shoes. It was then that the parents decided to act.
Individually, they brought their concerns to several teachers and, as a group, to the school principal, but while the administrator sympathized, she seemed unwilling to get involved. After several months students told their parents that the gang’s intimidation tactics had escalated, not declined. Even though the principal patrolled the campus, she rarely confronted defiant students about their behavior. That’s when the parents decided to take their issue to the school board. But first, they held parent meetings and carefully planned the presentation of their issue.
Present your concerns with panache
Here’s how to get your issue on the school board’s agenda and present your concerns in an engaging and effective way:
Find out who to contact on the school board. Get your school board’s Web site and contact information from your PTA board or the principal’s office. In most cases, your district will have specific school board members to contact. PTA presidents generally work with board members and often know who the most helpful people in the school board office are.
Band together. When researching your issue, find like-minded parents and pool information, talent and resources. More voices often make a bigger impact. Determine the expertise of all parents involved and give them appropriate tasks — a writer mom can pen a persuasive plan of action, an art director dad can give the presentation a professional look and a fundraiser parent can search for possible donors.
Prepare ahead of time. When you meet with your school board member, come prepared with data, research and the best possible solutions. Find out about other schools that have implemented successful programs (or dealt with related problems) and outline the steps that lead to a solution.
Bring material that will help your school board member visualize and remember your issue — handouts, Web links, even a PowerPoint presentation, if you’re so inclined. Tightly edit the material and keep the presentation to the point. Most school board members have to juggle their duties with full-time jobs and don’t appreciate reams of redundant material.
Place a call to one or more of your district’s school board members. If your first call isn’t answered, try again. Press for a group meeting at your board member’s office or ask to be put on the agenda for a short presentation at an upcoming board meeting.
Track the public appearances of your local school board members. Often board members arrange meet-and-greet sessions throughout the year. Most of these events include time for audience questions. Find out when the next event is, mark your calendar and show up.
Attend a few board meetings to familiarize yourself with the process. Cordially introduce yourself to board members if there is an opportunity to do so. At the end of meetings, most boards allow time for public comments, generally limited to a three-minute presentation of each topic. You can prepare to present your issue at this time.
Stay calm. Your issue may be emotionally charged, but keep your presentation rational and collaborative. Board members respond best to someone who approaches concerns in a positive manner. Using foul language or screaming are definite taboos. Plan to tackle the problem as a team, not as opponents.
Persevere. Follow up after the meeting with a detailed email, listing all points of concern and outlining step-by-step actions toward change. If you think your case is solid, keep calling your school board representative and pushing for a resolution. If the board green-lights your proposal, be prepared to make sure action is taken in a positive and timely way.
Perseverance brings results in Los Angeles
Flagging the school board’s attention brought positive results for the Los Angeles middle school suffering from gang violence. The district member, along with the rest of the school board, assessed the principal’s performance and realized that while she was a compassionate administrator, she didn’t have the experience to manage older students. The principal was transferred to an elementary school, and the middle school got a more suitable and seasoned leader.
The moral of the story: If your school has a problem that isn’t being addressed, the school board may be your best ally. Just bear in mind that it takes a clear definition of your issue, knowledge of the system, organization and preparation — and a healthy dose of perseverance.