Today, my three very different children attend three very different schools in the Anchorage district – a neighborhood middle school with a wonderful principal, a high-performing charter school, and an alternative curriculum, back-to-basics school. But it’s taken a lot of sweat, time and tears to find these fits. It baffles me how Alaska parents are expected to navigate an absurdly complex K-12 education system. If parents embraced school choice and schools more clearly explained their offerings, education could improve drastically.
Currently, choosing a school is incredibly confusing for families, and parents often do not understand what they are choosing through the jargon. For instance, perhaps you enroll your child in your neighborhood school. Unbeknownst to you, you live in one of the five areas of Anchorage where neighborhood schools have adopted “alternative curriculum schools” and your child now attends a Montessori school. This method may work well for your child, or it may not. Learning philosophies are very different, with real implications for children’s behavior.
I remember being a naïve young mom when my oldest child began kindergarten, trusting that every neighborhood school is a good school and all schools are about the same. Over the past 11 years, I’ve volunteered hundreds of hours in schools, and realized just how mistaken I was. It has felt like nearly a full-time job to try to truly understand how the education system works and what different schools offer. This is why many parents let go of trying.
But abandoning choice is not helping any of us win — kids, families or schools. If parents and educators work together, we can change the experience of choosing a school to be much smoother and bear more fruit in student happiness.
If I could wave a magic wand over our school district and change one thing, it would be that our district embrace the importance of teaching parents their options for schools in an extremely simple way. School websites need to be much simpler, communicating choices to parents in a clear, easy way so that everyone can understand their options. Parents also need to be taught how to speak up for their needs at school boards and encouraged that their voices are valued.
The importance of parental involvement in education is not being communicated enough, yet it holds the potential to enrich the entire educational process. Parents are the closest people to their children; they know best their individual child’s temperament, needs, and strengths. Parents’ voices play a vital role in guiding the education system to realize children’s interests.
And parents, if you aren’t choosing, know that someone else is. In the absence of parental involvement, someone else –be it a labor union, government or state organization — will interject its own opinions about the way your child should be educated. Someone will choose — shouldn’t it be you?
While parents currently face an education system that is far too complex, I believe there is much we can do to take practical steps toward improvement. We can create avenues—community organizations and resources — that help parents identify three vital parts of school choice: 1) knowing their child’s learning style, 2) knowing the different school options in their area, and 3) knowing how to enroll in the school they choose.
School choice can create the momentum for all these pieces to fall into place for educational improvement. Parents desperately want the best education for their children. We need to eliminate the absurd complexity so families can bring their gifts to the education table and work with schools for the good of kids. Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing for Alaska education?
Annie Massey is a mother of three in the Anchorage School District.
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