Going Public: Helping Your Child Thrive in Public School
Kathy dreaded the meeting with Brian’s teacher. She had requested it to try once more to end the almost daily bullying her nine-year-old son endured. Instead of recognizing the behavior as bullying, though, the teacher treated these as "normal" schoolyard fights, punishing both boys equally. She interpreted Brian’s withdrawal and sullenness as defiance, rather than as symptoms of depression and fear. Kathy prayed that this time the teacher would listen and take steps to protect her son.
A group of parents in Marin County, California had an entirely different problem. Their elementary age children, some as young as seven, had been taken to a series of school assemblies where dramas advocating acceptance of homosexuality and transsexuality had been performed. The school officials had chosen to disregard the forms parents had signed "opting out" of such instruction, and the Novato School District is now being sued.
Across the country, whether goaded by episodes like these, by the shootings in Littleton or by the pathetic academic performance of many schools, parents are saying enough is enough and pulling their children out of public schools. Homeschooling now accounts for almost 2,000,000 children, up exponentially from 40,000 just a generation ago, while Christian schools and private schools also experience similar enrolment increases.
Parents who enrol their children in public schools can easily feel besieged. At church, they face close friends who have pulled their children out of the system, leaving the unspoken accusation that sending kids to public schools is akin to throwing them to the wolves.
Yet even with this pressure, most Christian parents today still opt for public education. Some parents do so because they believe it is the best way to influence those around them for Christ and to ensure their kids don’t grow up in a Christian cocoon. Other parents believe part of their calling is to make the schools better for all children—something they feel is hard to accomplish if the "good" families jump ship. Finally, some beleaguered parents keep their children in the public system only reluctantly, because they do not have access to other options. No matter what your reasons are for having children in this system, you can take steps to make sure their education is as beneficial—and as safe—as possible. Here’s how:
Teach Your Kids the Basics
When the national test scores are announced, most of us long to bury our heads in the sand. In 2000, The National Assessment of Educational Progress exams (NAEP) found that the percentage of grade four students that had mastered the material intended for that level was only 26% for math, 32% for reading, and 17% for history.
Regardless of the causes of this abysmal performance, the simple fact is that most children do not have an adequate grasp of important concepts, a situation that will only worsen as they age. Studies show, though, that one of the best predictor of children’s academic achievement is parental involvement. When we consider ourselves responsible for our kids’ education, their scores improve dramatically. The state of Kentucky, when forming new goals for their schools, emphasized increasing parental involvement, because, as they put it: "parents play the most critical role in a child’s education." By placing a high value on learning, taking an interest in what they’re studying, reading to them and encouraging them, we can motivate our kids to learn in a way a teacher is simply not equipped to.
Monitor the Messages your Child receives
Our principle concern with the public school system, though, is usually not with the academics our kids are taught but with the accompanying messages. Whether it’s permissive sex education, evolution, values clarification, or even the more recent "understanding Islam" curriculum, we’re naturally scared of what our kids will hear. Darrel Reid, executive director of Focus on the Family Canada, says that in some ways this may work to our benefit, since it can spur us to action. "We know we’re in a war," he asserts, "so we know we have to be vigilant to ensure our kids have a solid faith foundation."
Our kids need our prayers that they would "not be conformed to this world" (Romans 12:2), but they also need us to help make that actually happen. Monitor what they’re hearing by asking about the books they’re reading and reviewing the assignments they’re given. Then explain to them when these messages violate Scriptural principles.
Our job, though, is not only to react to what they’re exposed to. Remember, often the best defence is a good offence. Reid points out that Deuteronomy 6, which instructs us to teach our children about God at every opportunity, was directed at us as parents, and not at teachers. "It’s our responsibility to ensure that our kids are prepared to deal with what they may encounter before they step into the school," says Reid. Teach them Scripture at home, so that they will easily recognize lies when they hear them. It’s a big job, but one for which parents are uniquely selected.
Monitor Your Child's Friends
Preoccupied as we may be by what our children are taught in school, the biggest negative influences they encounter may actually be their fellow students. Peers can exert a tremendous amount of pressure on even the most independent child, influencing their behaviour and attitudes in ways that can make us cringe.
Peter Kenniphaas, a senior pastor in Belleville, Ontario, and his wife Barb make it a policy to have their children’s friends over as often as possible. "We need to get to know their friends to make sure the influence is going in the right direction," Peter explains. "It’s taken some family adjustments, because we have to live with mess and often chaos, but this way we get to know who the boys are hanging out with."
While monitoring which children our kids play with is important, we also need to directly encourage positive relationships. When we are part of a vibrant church, the tendency is to socialize primarily with people who belong to that church. If our kids don’t make friends at school, though, they may act inappropriately to try to gain popularity. On the other hand, if children have a number of "good" school friends, not only are they less likely to be influenced negatively by peer pressure, they’re also less likely to be victims of bullies, who prey mostly on loners.
Take what opportunities you do have, especially when your kids are young, to encourage positive relationships in school. When my daughter Rebecca was in kindergarten, she made fast friends with a girl who tended to monopolize all games, formed clubs to exclude other children, and in general was rather bossy. I went into the class and met some mothers of other little girls, and invited them over to our house. Soon Rebecca had other friends to play with, and the bossy one diminished in importance without me having to say anything to Rebecca about it.
Act as Salt in the School
Forrest Turpen, the Executive Director of the Christian Educators’ Association International, believes that perhaps the most effective thing we can do to help our children’s educational experience is to bring Christ into the schools by being present ourselves. Schools are increasingly facing the crunch with regards to what services they can offer, and volunteers can help plug this gap. A side benefit of our involvement is that as we become known at the school, we build positive relationships with the school officials. If a problem occurs, instead of thinking of Mrs. Smith, "the mother of that problem child", the teacher or principal pictures Marjorie, whom he or she has known for years, and who is a big asset to the school. They will want to help resolve the issue.
To cultivate this kind of relationship and to help create a caring school community, volunteer in the classroom. If you can’t be involved during the day, you can still make yourself indispensable by joining the school’s parent and community groups and serving on committees. Sometimes, just by being available, we are given opportunities to make tremendous changes.
Three women in Vancouver, British Columbia, became very influential without specifically setting out to do so. They simply felt called to serve the teachers in that school. They brought donuts to the staff room, made the coffee for meetings, helped out with fundraising, and did whatever they could for the teachers, with no strings attached. They earned such a positive reputation at the school that when they became concerned about some sex education content three years later, the principal was eager to hear the parents’ viewpoint. He even invited them to serve on a curriculum review committee, yet it all started because they heeded the call to be "salt".