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school leadership

Parents Are More Than Just an Extra Set of Hands, They Have the Power to Change a School's Culture

On a recent rainy Saturday morning, just up the street from my daughter’s charter school, a small group of us moms gathered around a wooden dining table laden with grapes, strawberries and Scottish shortbread still warm from the oven. We are American, Mexican, Lithuanian. Some of us just walked in the door last fall with our kindergartners. Others have been the moms you see at school every day, turning the compost, setting out the paint and brushes, listening to the struggling reader. A few of us have done these things with our school for most of the 13 years of its existence. We love Namaste Charter School. We love its commitment to balanced literacy, dual language, healthy food, movement and yoga. We know that every adult in the building wants to see each child grow as a reader and a mathematician, a scientist and a geographer. And we know that every adult in our building wants to see each child grow in kindness, responsibility and respect for self and others. Namaste is a charter school. That means that every mom at the table—and every family that drops off and picks up children at the building every school day—chose Namaste for a reason. Many of us have been or are now teachers in Chicago’s district-run public schools. We love the schools where we work. Even in these polarized times, it’s not a contradiction for us to say we love what Namaste has to offer our children and us. We love our community. But the last few years have been a rough ride for Namaste. Our visionary founder has moved on. Like many organizations in deep transition, Namaste has lost a bit of its footing. We’ve had staff and school leader turnover. At times, it feels like only we parents have not lost sight of the pillars that keep our school standing strong. Most of us at the table were present for one or more recent interviews for a new school leader. We sat together on Saturday and talked about what we are seeing—not just in the candidates, but what we see taking place within the walls of our school building.

Parents Know the Real Deal on Their Schools

Some of the things we see are not pretty. We know what it’s like when our kids tell us they are bored in class, or when what they do outside of school is more challenging than what happened in the classroom that day. We know what it’s like when our kid suffers because a teacher isn’t being supported to build a peaceful classroom environment. We know what it’s like when we get called on the carpet because administrators don’t have policies to protect families’ privacy. If you’ve been inside a school for more than five minutes, you know that’s a conversation full of drama. Who is buddies with whom, where the friends and the fault lines are, who’s great and who needs work. We talked about all of it; no holds barred. When the hard truths came out, we had a good laugh. Amazingly, we came to consensus around three key points.
  1. We want our new leader to have full authority, with unbiased advisors, to make informed decisions around budget and staffing our school for next school year. We don’t want our new leader stuck in a mold—even a temporary one—created by others that doesn’t work for her, for our teachers or for our kids.

    In the tight budget climate of Chicago and Illinois, every dollar must be directed prudently and strategically to support our vision and mission within and beyond the classroom. And no one can do it but the person we hire to lead going forward. No matter who gets the nod, we know that’s what is needed for the good of our school.

  2. We want everyone in our school to center ourselves in the core values that make Namaste special. We think this summer would be a good time to have our founder make a special appearance and train or re-train all the adults in our school in our six pillars: health, movement, peaceful school culture, collaboration, balanced learning and respect for the languages and cultures our families bring to school, especially in our Spanish-English dual language program.
  3. Most important, we want our board to come closer to us, the moms around that wooden table. We know it’s not our job to run the school. But we also know that we have depths of knowledge few others have about how our school really works. We want to support and advise our new leader so that person isn’t blindsided.
In schools of all kinds, parents are often relegated to the role of fundraiser or extra pair of hands. We know we can be so much more than that, given the chance. And sometimes, when we haven’t been given the chance, we have to step up and take it.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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