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Originally published Sunday, January 10, 2010 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

Race to the Top, but don't forget the parent part of the equation.

While pursuing federal Race to the Top money and working toward these reforms may be beneficial for the continued development of our local school systems, other chronic problems lie beyond legislative reach, writes guest columnist Stephen Woolworth.

Special to The Times

MUCH has been made of how poorly positioned Washington state is to contend for the federal "Race to the Top" funds — the $4.35 billion incentive plan for public education made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. State officials didn't even apply for Phase I and are focused instead on making a number of legislative adjustments in preparation for Phase II applications in the spring.

While pursuing this money and working toward these reforms may be beneficial for the continued development of our local school systems, other chronic problems lie beyond legislative reach.

For example, neither money nor legal maneuvering will bridge the deep cultural chasm between parents in low-income neighborhoods, the professional educators who teach their children and the community advocates demanding educational justice. If "turning around our lowest achieving schools" is to be something more than just a platitude in federal and state plans, then teachers, parents and community representatives must engage one another as the natural allies we are in the decades-long struggle to educate and empower our most marginalized young people.

Let's start with parents. It's a rare thing to meet a parent who doesn't care about the education of his or her children. Sure, you can always find a few troubled knuckleheads who are not committed to their children's learning, but they're the exceptions. The fact is a good many parents in poor communities are single moms thinly stretched in every way imaginable. Many parents are also themselves survivors of dysfunctional schools that never provided the intellectual nourishment they needed to soar.

Becoming involved in their children's schooling, therefore, entails returning to the scene of the crime — that is, the school — where many endured the persistent racial and/or class humiliation of being denied the opportunity to succeed. Owning your child's schooling might not be easy but there's plenty of room for many parents to be more engaged, attentive and mindful about it.

While financial incentives to lure and keep good teachers in high-poverty schools are emerging, the road remains steep mostly because it's not individuals alone who will make the difference but teams of teachers working together in a well-coordinated fashion. Teachers — especially those at the elementary level — would also do well to steer clear of the persistent parent blaming that permeates the profession. Sorry, I'm spilling an insider secret here, but it's true. Teachers routinely gripe about parents.

Poor attendance at back-to-school nights and teacher/parent conferences are just the beginning of many teachers' complaints. While some of the criticism is no doubt justified, how many school staff members really devote time getting to know the neighborhoods they serve? How many try different engagement strategies when year after year the same practices prove ineffective? How many have ever gone the extra mile and paid a visit to a student's home?

Community advocates are focused on closing the achievement gap but have a penchant for doing so outside the system we're trying to penetrate.

Case in point. A few months ago I attended a dropout-prevention summit, one of the 105 across the nation sponsored by America's Promise — the organization founded by Gen. Colin Powell in the late 1990s. More than 100 people participated in breakout sessions, listened to panels and speakers, and engaged in forum-type discussions about everything from the persistence of educational inequities to ways schools can be more responsive to community needs. It was a spirited affair indeed. The only problem was you couldn't find a single teacher in attendance. Why? The event was held during a school day!

So, yes, federal resources and enlightened leadership at the state and local level are critically needed in Washington state. But without a triangulation of efforts between and among parents, teachers and community advocates, sound financial investments and mostly good-sense policies will only go so far, which in the end, won't be far enough.

Stephen Woolworth is the associate dean in the School of Education at Pacific Lutheran University.

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