By Stephanie Reeves
Orange County Public Schools; Orlando, Florida
Our high school sits nestled in the back of a low-income neighborhood, bordered by a Catholic church and run-down houses, many with jacked-up cars sitting in carports lined with discarded appliances and other paraphernalia of living.
It’s a neighborhood I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable walking in after dark.
Sending my boys off on a bus early, early every weekday morning felt like sending them into a chasm. The only previous schooling my kids had known was in a small, parent-involved Christian school where I worked and even taught for at least two days a week over seven years. Their teachers were often the moms of their friends. It was safe. It was close. It had an excellent reputation. And it was small. Very, very small. As in, my oldest’s kindergarten class only had six students, of which five were girls. But that school only goes through eighth grade, so we had to make the switch when my kids graduated from middle school.
Our high school is a Title I school, which means that it receives federal money to offer supplemental instruction and support services. Colonial High School’s population is 70 percent Hispanic, many of whom come from immigrant families recently arrived in Florida. That presents some challenges to higher achieving students as classes can be geared more toward those who struggle rather than those who excel.
So why did we choose this school over another that was in a more affluent area and offered better options for our kids? Because we wanted to be the light and life of Jesus to that place. Jesus didn’t hang out with those who thought they were sanctified. He hung out with the needy, the outcasts, the hungry, the marginalized.
We wanted to be able to be a positive influence in our school. For instance, before our third year at the high school, a new principal was hired. We learned that there was some controversy in his past. I was able to contact him directly and ask some pretty pointed questions. I also researched what I could find online. I was comfortable enough with what I found out that I hosted an open house to invite parents and students to meet him before he started work that fall.
That was an open invitation to a relationship with the man in charge of the direction of the school. Over the next months he spoke at our church to invite us to be involved in mentoring and tutoring. He welcomed the faith community to be a part of the lives of his students.
Our boys both graduated from this brick and mortar school and are in college. Our daughter is enrolled in a virtual high school, which is part of our public school system. Even though it’s online, I’m determined to be present. I am a member of the PTSA, even serving as its secretary at the physical school. I am also involved with the virtual school’s School Advisory Council, helping to make decisions about how money is spent. Nothing beats involvement.
Here are 5 ways you can be involved in your kids’ public school experience:
1. Attend open houses. These are great opportunities to meet teachers and spend some time interacting with them. Sometimes we were two of just a handful of parents in a classroom which gave us the teacher’s undivided attention.
2. Attend parent-teacher organizations’ meetings. These are normally held monthly and are usually very small groups. Administrators and teachers remember that you’re there. It gives you a much stronger voice and influence when they know you care. Positive action means more than criticism.
3. Get to know your school board member. Each district within a county has an assigned school board member. If you have a chance to meet with them and get to know them, it can be a big help. I was able to talk to her to advocate for one of my son’s friends when he was in trouble.
4. Volunteer. Nothing is more appreciated by teachers than parents who volunteer their time to help in the classroom, on campus, or with events. Don’t be one of the 80 percent who don’t do anything. It’s easier to let others do all the work, but it’s not what’s best for the school. We have helped clean up the campus and work events in which our boys were involved.
5. Let the teachers know you appreciate them. They work hard. The vast majority of teachers really care. At the end of every year, my boys wrote thank you notes to all their teachers (yes, even the ones they didn’t particularly like). We included a gift card, too.
Yes, it takes time and energy, but the benefits of involvement definitely outweigh the investment.
THESE WORDS BROUGHT TO YOU BY: Stephanie Reeves, a freelance writer in Orlando, Fla. She and her husband of 27 years have three kids: one in high school and two in college, and one new baby grandson. Family and marriage are kind of big things to her. Check out her blog at www.stephreeves.wordpress.com, or connect on Twitter (@stephcreeves) and Instagram (@stephaniereeveswriter).