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Pushing parents to get involved in kids' education

South Gate resident Mary Johnson, who sent her four children to college, has a code of parental responsibility. It works at both under-performing urban schools and high-achieving campuses.

September 03, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Mary Johnson tells parents that while they have a right to demand the best from schools, they have an obligation to hold their children accountable.
Mary Johnson tells parents that while they have a right to demand the best… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

Scads have been written the last few years about education reform, teacher evaluations and funding shortages. But relatively little has been written about two parties with huge control over the quality of any child's education.

The student and the parent.

Anyone up for a national conversation on parent evaluations?

Last week, I went to South Gate for a visit with Mary Johnson, a grandmother who knows a thing or two about how parents can step it up. It was her own grandmother, in fact, who provided the early training.

Johnson and her six siblings lost their mother when Johnson was just 2. So all seven of them went to live with grandma Emma Bessix in Dover, Del. The house had no electricity, but it had an established place where all the kids had to do their homework — or else.

Johnson later moved to California, studied at El Camino College, and, as a single, working parent, sent all four of her children to college. That was the expectation for the kids, and they knew it, just as they knew that until they graduated from high school, their mom would be on campus, volunteering for this or that, investing in her kids because nothing mattered more to her.

That work led to the formation of Parent U-Turn, a nonprofit advocacy and training program, and Johnson has been tapped by both UCLA and Pepperdine University to train parents and teachers. Her focus has always been on under-performing urban schools, but her code of parental responsibility works for schools on both sides of the tracks.

Parents aren't doing their job, says Johnson, if all they do is drop their kids off at school, and principals aren't doing their jobs if they don't encourage constructive involvement by parents. Johnson has been known to lead marches on schools and organize strikes, but she tells parents that while they have a right to demand the best that schools can offer, they also have an obligation to hold their own children accountable.

If school starts this week and you haven't already gotten your child eating healthier food, going to bed earlier and dusting off the backpacks, Johnson would say you're not doing your job. She suggests that when you first meet your child's teacher, you hand him or her a card on which you've written your phone numbers and email address. Then Johnson would have you say something like this to the teacher:

"I know how my kids behave at home, but if there's any kind of behavior problem in your classroom, I want to know about it. If A's and Bs are about to become Cs, I want to hear about it, because colleges are only interested in A's and Bs."

Johnson has a grandchild who's about to start kindergarten at Montara Avenue Elementary in South Gate and another in preschool. On the first day of school Wednesday, Johnson will stand before Montara parents and invite them to get involved in their children's education both at school and at home, no matter how economically stressed they might be.

John Rogers, a UCLA education professor and one of Johnson's mentors, makes a fair point about the limitations faced by parents, many of whom might be less interested in joining the PTA than in figuring out how to get health insurance or dental care for their children. Meanwhile, school funding in California has shrunk, class sizes are growing and there could be more of both before we get halfway through this school year.

Still, roughly nine out of 10 K-12 students in the United States attend public schools. And no matter what the challenges are from one school district to the next, every parent can make a difference, whether it's by marching on the halls of power to demand a reinvestment in children or it's by clearing time each night to check in with your child.

And if you ask your precious little scholar what he or she did in school and the answer is the ever-popular "nothing," you might consider a follow-up question, or a review of the homework assignment, or offering to email the teacher to determine whether, indeed, nothing at all happened in school today.

Johnson recommends talking to kids about college even when they're young, "just to plant that picture in their heads" and reinforce the idea that you've got high expectations. And if you hear about a field trip to a zoo, says Johnson, raise a ruckus.

"All the animals are just lying around, sleeping. Why don't kids take field trips to colleges?"

Johnson and I also talked about a topic that will be a subject for another column. As an African American in a mostly Latino part of Greater Los Angeles, Johnson has been to school meetings that were conducted in Spanish, with an interpreter available to her.

I'm sorry, but that's ridiculous.

Holding on to your native language is terrific. But parents who make no effort to learn English are limiting their own job prospects, hindering their ability to monitor their children's education and giving their kids an extra burden if they enter school with limited English.

On the other hand, said Johnson, who watches telenovelas to brush up on her Spanish, "It's time for African American families to wake up" and realize the social and economic benefits of encouraging their children to learn another language, and I wouldn't limit that advice to African American families.

As I said, more on that later. Until then, as we begin another school year, remember that it isn't just the kids who have to answer the bell.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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