If you listen to Republican presidential hopefuls like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, you will hear that the American public education system is filled with adults trying to brainwash kids and steal them from parents.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a growing number of public schools nationwide are using an innovative strategy to increase parent involvement in school, with promising results for students.
And no, I don’t mean the growing moral panic about the need for “parental rights” because of so-called “Critical Race Theory,” “groomers” or the “woke mind virus”—each of which spring from rhetoric that’s been heavily manufactured by conservative think tanks and action groups funded by wealthy donors.
“We’re going to be making sure that time in school is being spent learning and not just being targets of indoctrination,” DeSantis said before the passing of his Stop WOKE Act last year. Not to be outdone, at his first campaign visit to Iowa in March, Trump promised, “I will bring parental rights back into our school system.”
Those talking points are part of a right-wing strategy that, along with charter schools and private school vouchers, seeks to weaken and take control of public education. The truth is that public schools from the suburbs of Tampa, Florida, to Oakland, California, are listening to parents about their childrens’ needs in and out of the classroom, and it’s working remarkably well.
These schools are using what’s called the “community school” approach. Community schools are public schools that offer a range of support for students’ well-being to make sure they are healthy, well-fed, safe, and in the best position to learn. They also intentionally listen to parents about what students need to thrive, whether it’s dental services or more streetlights.
Yes, streetlights. After becoming a community school, Florida’s Gibsonton Elementary learned from parents that many students felt unsafe walking to and from school in the dark before sunrise. The school, in response, organized an effort to have the local government install new streetlights near campus. Attendance immediately increased—which, along with other factors, helped improve test scores.
Wheaton Woods Elementary in Montgomery County, Maryland, became a community school in 2019 and soon learned that its low-income students needed something different than school leaders had expected. “We started off thinking our families needed things like food assistance and English classes—providing what we assumed families in poverty need,” the school’s principal told journalist Jeff Bryant last year. “[But] we found out that what we didn’t have was enough out-of-school time and activities for their kids, not enough athletics.”
In Erie, Pennsylvania, McKinley Elementary School created a walking school bus after learning from families that students had to cross dangerous roads and intersections to get to school. Adult volunteers began escorting students along these routes each school day. During the 2018-2019 school year, before the program began, 73.5 percent of students regularly attended school, below the statewide average of 85.7 percent. By the end of 2021, attendance had jumped to 86 percent.
Oakland International High School takes teachers and staff on community walks and home visits to discuss families’ questions, concerns, and hopes for their students and the school. This has helped its students—all of whom are English learners—achieve much higher graduation rates than other English learners across Oakland’s school district.
In 2019, 93 percent of Oakland International’s students graduated within five years, and 59 percent had passed the rigorous courses required for admission to California state universities. By comparison, English learners district-wide had a graduation rate of only 62 percent and a college and career readiness rate of 26 percent.
These are just some of the many stories of public schools nationwide using the community school approach to meet the true needs of their school communities. But they are being drowned out by conservatives stirring up controversy to win votes. As University of California, Berkeley law professor Ian Haney López has documented, political and economic elites exploit fear of people of color, immigrants, trans people and others to “hijack government for their own benefit.”
With states like California investing more than $4 billion in community schools, and President Biden increasing federal funding for the approach, we’ll likely see more and more schools including parents in making sure what happens at school benefits students. And we need to make sure those stories are heard through all the noise.
Jeremy Mohler is a writing fellow at In the Public Interest and a therapist. He previously served as ITPI’s communications director.
This column was originally produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.