We continue this week with my conversation with Dr. Lester Young. Dr. Young is currently serving his third term as Regent At-Large with the University of the State of New York, but between 1992-2003 Dr. Young was the Superintendent of Community School District 13. This week, Dr. Young discusses the role of the parent in the educational process.
Marlon Rice: From the educator side there are strategies and opinions available and up for discussion regarding how to best service our children with a progressive and necessary education. But from the parental side, what types of things should parents be doing day-to-day, not just with their children but in interaction with their schools and school district offices?
Dr. Lester Young, Jr.: The first thing I think is that parents have to be very demanding of their schools. There has to be a level of local accountability. One of the things that I’ve noticed as I have traveled around the state and around the city, for the sake of this discussion, I’ll just focus on the city, is that the highest-performing school district in New York City is District 26 in Bayside, Queens. And here is what we know. If you go into the schools in Bayside, Queens, those schools feel a high level of accountability to the parents and to the community. They are very responsive to the parents and the community. If you walk in and see the way parents are treated, if a parent has a question it gets answered. If a parent has a concern, it gets addressed. There are very high expectations for all of the children, so when you go into District 26 you don’t see parents fighting to get into one school. They know that they can go to any elementary school in that district and their child can get a great education. They also know that they can go to any middle school in that district and their children can get a great education. And while their children are taking the test for the Specialized High Schools, they know that if their kids don’t get into a specialized school their kids can go to Cardozo HS or Bayside HS, and from there to some of the best colleges in the country. That scenario doesn’t exist in Bed-Stuy, it doesn’t exist in Crown Heights, it doesn’t exist in Brownsville and East NY. And so I think what we have to do, we as educators working with parents, we have to be able to tell parents that they need to hold our feet to the fire. You have got to be more demanding and the system has to be more accountable. We have to have a system that responds to the expectations of the community. That’s critical, and I don’t think that exists right now. I think if you visit communities and talk to parents, they will tell you that they are the last ones to know what’s going on in their schools. The district changes principals, they add new schools, they close schools and the parents are the last ones to know. I just got a text from a parent yesterday and she is still trying to get her kid into a pre-K and they keep telling her that she has to go online. We are talking about a 4-year-old. How much sense does that make? The most personalized thing that you can do in preschool is the placement of a 4-year-old into a school. How do you do that online? What happened to a local community school mind-set? And I think this deserves some real attention, because if you go into the higher-performing districts in NYC, you will see that they have a system of good community schools. If you go into Park Slope you will see that they have a system of good schools. Parents feel like they have a choice. Here’s what happens. Choice is supposed to be about enrichment, so as a parent you’re selecting a school because that school has something you want for your child. It has a science program, it has a dance program, it has a gifted program, but it has something that you want. Well, in the more favored communities, choice is about enrichment, but if you go into communities where Black and Latino students are the majority of the population, choice is no longer about enrichment. Parents are not selecting schools because a school has a particular program they want. Parents are making choices because they are trying to get away from something. So, it’s moved from being about enrichment into a replacement strategy. So, we have got to fix that. And I think that part of it has to be that – and this is the way that I think about this is – the energy that we saw in the late 60’s in NYC when parents were demanding community control is the same energy we need to exercise today. Parents are going to have to stand up and be more demanding of the system and say enough is enough! And they have to not settle for this idea that we are going to fix one school at a time, because in a community we can’t all go to the same school. So right now, I know that in Bed-Stuy I understand that they have one gifted program. So what happens is that the program only helps the kids that can get into that program. So what about all of the other young people that, had they had the right preparation and the right access, could actually do well in a gifted program, but because there is only one they don’t have access. That’s not alright. So what we have to do, as parents, as a community, is to be more demanding.