MAXWELL:  Parents can save a school

3/30/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Among ordinary citizens, some of the most powerful people are parents of school-age children who have organized to protect their children. And if any single group can save the nation’s public schools, organized parents are that group.

No better example of this notion can be found than at predominantly black Oxon Hill High School in Maryland’s Prince George’s County near Washington. Long a troubled public school, Oxon Hill High sank to its nadir in December 1995, when 17-year-old Charles “Chuckie” Lewis Marsh Jr. was gunned down a few yards from campus during an attempted robbery.

Instead of throwing up their hands in defeat, parents here decided to honor the memory of Chuckie Marsh by making a positive difference in their school.

Each school day since the tragedy, four to five parents, officially dubbed Parents on Patrol, have wrapped yellow armbands around their right wrists and have volunteered in various capacities at the school. They wear the armbands to identify themselves as parents who care, who are willing to personally sacrifice. About 25 parents belong to the group, and all have demanding jobs and busy personal lives.

Physicist Peter Moore, for example, revamped his work schedule so that each afternoon he can keep tabs on the buses picking up children, the cars coming and going and the doings of students taking the shortcut through the back alley.

Gwendolyn Driggins, 54, whose five children graduated from Oxon Hill, said: “We determined that we were going to be a presence in this school. We’re taxpayers. We own this school, so we must be actively involved.”

Driggins, who operates a before-school and after-school day care in her home, certainly knows what she is talking about. Each morning she arrives at Oxon Hill at 10 and stays until 1:30 p.m. She works the crowded hallways and side doors. Her duties include asking students to observe campus etiquette such as removing hats and caps inside the building and keeping the noise down. She also checks student identification cards, which is important because many of the most serious discipline problems are the result of outsiders being on campus.

Parents Margaret Greene and Lorraine Watkins are ubiquitous, inspecting all the students’ favorite hide-outs, such as stairwells and bathrooms. John Alderson, a retiree and a father, greets visitors from behind a desk at the main entrance. He also keeps a wary eye on student movement.

Nearly everyone agrees that security _ the biggest concern of most parents _ has vastly improved since Parents on Patrol began its work. Even many students, who rarely want parents around, compliment the activities of the patrol. “I think they do a good job of keeping us safe and making sure what happened last year doesn’t happen again,” said Sean Newman, a 15-year-old sophomore. “But sometimes I think they can be overprotective.”

Jean Young, the former music teacher who organized the group, offers one reason for their success. “No one can fire us,” Young told the Washington Post. “We can tell the truth about what happens in this building like the teacher or janitor cannot because they may lose their jobs.”

Ron Curtis, the school’s parent-administrative liaison, has seen all of Oxon Hill’s recent troubles and believes that Young, Driggins and others use parental instinct to solve problems that have escaped administrators.

“These parents _ black and white _ are the extra eyes in the building,” Curtis said. “Extra eyes always work as deterrents. During every hour of the day, we have parents here. Whenever they have suggestions on how to do things, we listen to them. Young and Driggins are diehards: They know the students by name. And although they’re always cordial to the students, the students aren’t always cordial to them. They have made it a communitywide program _ a real collaboration between the teachers and staff, the students, business people and parents.”

Although principal David S. Stofa sometimes disagrees with Parents on Patrol, he, too, gives the group top marks. Fewer scuffles occur in the hallways, fewer students are skipping classes, and many parents are beginning to feel that the campus is safer.

“Now maybe some real learning can start happening,” said a single mother, whose 15-year-old son is seriously doing homework for the first time. “Miss Driggins spends lots of time talking to him. He even carries his ID card with him now. I mean, I feel better about everything.”

But some members of Parents on Patrol also experience disappointment when students refuse to listen or disobey or talk back. Driggins, however, has become tough and philosophical about her mission and about public education in general.

“Sometimes, you have to be willing and able to be ignored and survive it,” she said. “This school is a good school in a good community. But we want a world-class school system. We can’t settle for anything less. If we have strong public education, we will have a strong nation.”

Because word of Parents on Patrol’s success is spreading to other districts, Driggins believes that similar efforts will become the norm everywhere. “We’re showing that parent involvement can make all of the difference in whether a school succeeds or fails,” she said. “It takes a lot of commitment. But our program is too good not to be copied.”