Many parents feel powerless when dealing with their public schools; this is especially true of parents with highly gifted children. The end-point comes when they recognize their school system is not responsive to the needs of students, parents, and community members and they find they must take radical action. The less a child's needs are being met by the school system, the greater the likelihood the parent will work for long term and widespread change. The strength of that drive is not based on any abstract philosophical or political theories but on one of the fiercest instincts on earth -- protecting one's children. I have four sons, all identified by my district as intellectually gifted and each entitled by Oregon law to receive instruction at his individual rate and level. I reached my end-point the day I realized I had a file drawer full of records of meetings, phone calls, and letters with school officials going back six years. For six years I'd tried to get school officials to understand that not challenging my children and others like them was hurting them. They hadn't listened. My children were still suffering. All the letters I'd written could have been resent to the same people changing only the dates. I'd played by their rules and wasted an enormous amount of time and energy trying to change an indifferent system. I eventually turned to homeschooling but at the same time continued to serve on district committees and attend school board meetings. I wanted school officials to be very aware that I was still there, still watching what they were doing, still asking hard questions, and demanding answers. I was not going away.
I found three other mothers in my district who had reached their end-points at about the same time I had.
We live in a small, rural community and had known each other since our children began school. We began meeting in each other' s homes on a regular basis to drink tea and complain about the schools. Soon our discussions turned to what we could do. These mothers had highly gifted children; some also had children who were learning disabled. The Tea and Terrorist Society was born. We realized we needed to understand our community. One mother's family had lived here for generations. She knew which people were related, who had known each other since childhood, and how well they got along. We learned A and B were cousins and very close, for example; something a casual observer would never have guessed, and that it would not be wise to ask neighbors C and D to work together because, while cordial to each other in public, they had been feuding for years. We recognized the culture of our community was rural and what that meant. Most of our school board members were farmers. They distrusted technology, did not question the administration, and had trouble seeing beyond what their eyes told them was there. The nature of our community had begun slowly shifting in the previous few years and while we were and are still quite rural, an influx of small business owners, commuters, and retired folks who were outspoken and active in community affairs, including the schools, had joined us. We knew they could help to effect change in the schools. One mother saw the world in visual terms and gave us ideas about what to wear and why, how to hold our bodies, and use our eyes, voices, and hands. Each of us took turns sitting next to her at meetings and listened as she whispered to us what was really happening based solely on body language. The third mother was adept at conversing with anyone. Her skills were key. I worked to keep us focused and organized. We shared what we were good at with each other and then shared what we'd learned with others in little bits and pieces and in small and subtle ways.
Our first goal was giving parents hope. We worked at empowering others. We didn't hold public meetings but looked at individuals' skills, the level of risk taking they were comfortable with, the level of frustration they felt with the schools, and gave each person encouragement and personalized ideas. Some parents took everything we gave them and went further, adding more ideas. We noted the techniques which were successful and helped spread them. We included the community's traditional leaders by encouraging their involvement in ways that worked for change.
Much of our information was passed along in what appeared to be informal and spontaneous conversations. These casual discussions at the end of phone conversations with neighbors, friends, and acquaintances, after football and basketball games, outside the local grocery store and post office, before a school or community meeting, or while waiting to pick up children from school were, in actuality, all carefully planned. We made many lists but little of our communication was written. We found ways to bring the topic of conversation to the schools and then shared the ideas we had, checking the points on our lists off mentally. When talking about the school board, for example, we let it be known that their names and phone numbers was available from the district office. We shared information about how to talk to them effectively -- call after dinner time, ask if they have a few moments to talk before starting, stay calm, speak quietly and clearly, and state the problem or concern concisely. Most of our board members were men. We noted that they paid closer attention when other men spoke so we encouraged women to persuade their husbands to go to meetings and speak up.
We shared advocacy tips: Decide what you want from the school for your children and develop a plan, deciding beforehand on the minimum you'll accept. Recognize you always have options. Persistence is essential because school officials know that most people will give up after a few obstacles are placed in front of them. Document everything in writing. If we had time and the person was interested we'd give brief examples, showing how these ideas had been effective for someone they knew. As parents became more sophisticated we gave them more ideas. When a teacher appears to be ignoring a letter you've sent about a problem, send another thanking him or her for working to resolve the issue and ask for an update, making sure to send a copy to the principal. If you're told something can't be done because of a district policy, a law, an administrative rule, or research ask to see it in writing; oftentimes it's been misinterpreted and sometimes it doesn't exist. We analyzed letters we received from school officials for style and content and added any effective techniques they used to our repertoire. We allowed them to teach us and then we went out and taught others what we'd learned.
There's an old country saying that you can't act like a skunk without someone getting wind of it. Holding school officials accountable in public for what they did and didn't do helped everyone better identify the source of the smell. We insisted the district comply with state records and meetings laws. After making several long-distance phone calls to the State Attorney General's office, we discovered we could purchase a copy of the Public Records and Meetings Manual for less than twenty dollars. It became an invaluable tool. With access to records and meetings which had formerly been denied to us, we began to ask more and harder questions. As the current reality became clearer and parents began to believe they could change schools to meet their children's needs, they developed visions of what could be and began to work to make those visions the reality.
We avoided personal vendettas, recognizing that school officials do what they do because they are trained to make and follow rules and regulations. It's part of who they are and how they think. We aimed to give them ways and reasons to think differently and if they couldn't then to find ways to replace them with others who could. We used what was in the system and made it more effective. For example, in our district a parent is included on the interview committee when a new teacher or administrator is to be hired. We didn't try get on these committees ourselves but rather we'd wait until someone had volunteered or been appointed and then gave that person ideas about what questions to ask. Often we'd talk briefly to several people we knew that parent knew and trusted and let them discuss it with the committee member.
What we did could never have been accomplished by just one or two individuals. Not only did we need each other's skills and insights we needed each other when we became discouraged and tired. We learned to laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves too seriously. We analyzed what had happened when things went awry and brainstormed to find new directions and tactics. Our husbands provided financial support and cheered us on. They also provided us with additional insights and techniques.
The Tea and Terrorist Society was active for four years. Our district has a new superintendent, new principals, and new school board members. A number of teachers have decided to go to other districts. The current school board chairman is a retired IBM executive with an MBA. There is constant attention to finding ways to change and improve. Our district's goals are determined with community input, measurable, and continuously examined to ensure they are reached.
Parents worked with administrators and the board to develop innovative options. A public alternative school, which is in direct competition for the district's students, is in its second year of existence with support from the district. Parents also have the option to sign an alternative education contract. After determining the best program for the student and developing an individualized program for him or her, utilizing a combination of in-school courses, computer and satellite dish classes, the parents, superintendent, and student sign an alternative education contract. These students are public school, alternative education students even though some of their work may be done at home. We made sure not to cut any special, secret deals. All the programs are in policies adopted by the school board. This helps protect them.
My sons have gone back into the public schools after having been subject and grade accelerated. The district has added advanced courses through distance learning and community college classes. The children of the other members of the Tea and Terrorist Society are attending the alternative school or having their needs met in the public school. We've continued to closely monitor what is going on in the schools and the community. We recognize there are still problems and that the district could slip back into old habits. We understand that neither success nor failure is ever final.
Things didn't always work out the way we planned. Sometimes unexpected twists and turns brought us to new and marvelous places we'd never have thought to go. Sometimes serendipity came to the rescue and a problem was resolved without our intervention. It was hard work, time consuming, and emotionally exhausting. It had to be done over and over again because people moved away or their children grew up and out of the schools.
The public schools do not belong to administrators and teachers. They belong to us. Parents have enormous power, much more than they think they do. They just have to use it. If you want change in your school district and are searching for a leader look in a mirror and smile. Then find a few others like yourself and get to work.
Reprinted with permission of the author. Originally published in Highly Gifted Children, The Hollingworth Center, http://www.hollingworth.org/.
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