MAXWELL:  Responsibility rests with the parents

3/18/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Since the woodshed has lost favor as a viable option for improving public education among children in Pinellas County, we need to move promptly to the next best option: active, realistic, excuse-free parental concern.

I am raising this issue because, in recent public meetings on school busing and related matters, hostile parents, most of them black, have blamed Superintendent Howard Hinesley for their children’s poor academic performance and disruptive behavior.

Most of these parents want Hinesley and School Board members to outline specific strategies for improving black student achievement, decreasing suspensions and ensuring that more black students get into gifted classes. Currently, the perception is that too many black students are being dumped into classes for the troubled.

Obviously, as the trustees of the system, Hinesley, other administrators and board members must be held accountable for much of what goes on in our schools. But parents who expect officials to be totally responsible for their children’s learning need to have their heads examined.

Parents, not teachers, are the single most important influence on what, how and when their children learn. Learning is an individual, private experience. In fact, it is a family and personal value in every sense _ a value that parents can most effectively instill. The inculcation of the love of learning occurs in the privacy of the home, around the dinner table, curled up in bed with a good book, on the laps of mothers and fathers and grandparents. A home devoid of this love is a wilderness, a wasteland.

Indeed, teachers can inspire children to learn, but, as I have said, the love of learning and the appreciation of acquiring knowledge are family matters.

My own life and that of many of my schoolmates are examples. As poor children attending inadequately equipped, all-black schools, we faced every conceivable disadvantage to learning. Yet, we learned and were eager to do so. We learned because our parents _ wanting us to “become somebody” _ made us complete our homework before we did anything else, forced us to be home at “a decent hour,” demanded that we respect adult authority, especially that of our teachers.

I do not recall anyone who was suspended. Expulsion was unimaginable. Our parents did their best to send a “good product” to school. My mother, for example, knew that teachers have an inherently tough job and do not need the added burden of peeling back deep layers of apathy, anger, unruliness and other antisocial behavior.

“Them teachers don’t have time for your mess,” my mother would tell us. “Don’t make me have to waste time comin’ to that school to see ’bout your behinds.”

We knew what she meant. Today, I know only a handful of black parents in St. Petersburg who worry about the kind of “product” they are sending to school. I see far too many parents whoare uninvolved in their children’s school lives.

Most distressing is a scene I pass almost every day during my morning walk. Three or four boys, no older than 14, smoke pot while waiting for the school bus. These children are going to school stoned. What on earth can Hinesley do for them? Imagine the trouble the teachers face.

To help improve black student achievement _ and to his credit _ Hinesley has distributed to principals the names of underachieving students and has requested that officials establish ways to track the students and try to improve their progress.

And what is the response of black parents? Unfortunately, the blind defensiveness of Kim Saunders, a businesswoman and the mother of a kindergartener at Cross Bayou Elementary is typical: “As a black American, I . . . feel insulted that the School Board feels like they have to have a special plan to help us learn.”

Well, of course, a special plan is needed. Why? Because too many black homes lack a special plan, too many parents fail to discipline their children, and too many children have no sense of the long-term benefits of an education.

Meanwhile, Hinesley and other officials must hold their tongues. They are forced to devise quixotic academic improvement plans and pretend that they can perform miracles with children whose parents let them perpetually goof off. Nothing could be more unfair to these people and the many fine teachers who perform a thankless job.

One of these days, Hinesley may muster the intestinal fortitude to tell these parents to start taking responsibility for their children’s rotten attitudes toward learning.