OP-ED: The Seattle Times, August 24, 2004

New school policies, more than promises

A flurry of revamped policies from Seattle Public Schools are intended to bridge the disconnect between the schools and parents. But if they are to succeed, they must usher in a cultural shift at district headquarters.

Guiding principles, new vision, a new mission statement and an almost completed five-year plan are important pieces of the puzzle. As is the new Family Partnerships Policy the School Board promises will go beyond previous efforts such as school site councils, parent-teacher-student associations and building leadership teams. The goals must be more than promises; parents deserve guarantees. It's understandable that the School Board — especially members recently elected — want to distance themselves from the chaos and missteps of past administrations. Most incoming members were elected to improve service to various constituencies, such as high-achieving students and African-American children.

But unless the hostility to change and innovation that has plagued those working out of the district's Sodo headquarters disappears, new policies are not worth the paper used to print them.

Some of the district's belief statements needed updating. Others were vague without prescriptive measures. Some new goals grew out of a need to reach out to minority families. For example, the district's acknowledgment of institutionalized racism and its impact on school children is critical in a diverse city like Seattle.

Yet, a healthy amount of cynicism is an appropriate way to greet the board's latest efforts because they seem so disturbingly familiar. Take, for example, the partnerships policy. The emphasis on closer ties between families, communities and schools is not new. For nearly a decade, the district has instituted one strategy after another, from Partners in Public Education to site councils. Yet, a gulf between schools and families remains.

The partnership policy is crystal clear about expectations of principals and teachers in encouraging parent participation. Good. But it should have included sanctions on schools that don't live up to expectations.

The School Board should bear in mind the true challenge set before it: ensuring every student achieves, at a minimum, at his or her grade level. The new policies nibble at the edges, but don't get to the heart of the matter.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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