Advocating for your child in local schools can be a daunting challenge for some parents and a battle cry for others. But the goal should be for educators and families to work together to create successful students.
That was the conclusion of several local teachers and school administrators, who were asked to give parents advice as to how to appropriately and successfully advocate for their students.
Advocates range from parents of gifted children seeking ways to advance their talented students to parents of children experiencing a variety of physical, emotional and learning challenges.
“The best form of advocacy works like a ladder,” said Jeremy Adams, a longtime teacher at Bakersfield High School and adjunct instructor at Cal State Bakersfield. “You start with your own child. Can my student correct or confront the problem he or she is encountering on his or her own? Are they able to advocate without the parent?
“If not, then the next step up would be to ask is this the type of solution a teacher can address? This would usually be behavioral or related to class environment or grades. If the issue is one of school policy or needing an IEP (Individualized Education Program) then find the appropriate member of the administration.
“Finally, if it is a broad topic, like curriculum or wanting to rename a school, as South High is currently doing, then contact a trustee. The biggest mistake is skipping steps, or going straight to a principal," Adams said, nothing that principals are likely to delegate the call to other staff members.
Educators interviewed for this article stressed the importance of parents helping their children become “self-advocates.”
“Teach your child from a young age to advocate for themselves,” said Michelle Moses Beck, a longtime teacher in the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District, who now substitutes in the Kern High School District. “If there is a question about a grade, a missing assignment, etc., the child should be the one to approach the teacher first.
“Yes, even primary students. It’s very good practice for them to be independent and take responsibility for their own learning. After all, the child is the one enrolled in the class, not the parent.
“Practice with your child how to approach the issue. You can say things like, ‘Ask your teacher when he/she is not explaining things to the class,’ or ask your teacher politely using words such as, ‘May I retake that test for a better grade?’ Or, ‘I don’t understand why I got this grade. What can I do to get a better grade next time?’ You don’t need to be the intermediary here.”
Students need to be their own advocates as they age.
“As kids get older, it is a good idea to teach them to move toward self-advocacy,” said Diana Wentworth Greenlee, a veteran Kern High School District English teacher, who now works as a school psychologist in San Diego. Greenlee recalled that many of her high school students would explain their learning challenges and she appreciated receiving the information.
“Most teachers appreciate the heads-up," Greenlee said. "We want your children to be strong and independent moving forward as they learn to accommodate challenges into adulthood."
Kern High School teacher Whitney Weddell shared a similar sentiment.
“Parents should strive to empower their students to advocate for themselves, too, as part of growing into maturity,” Weddell said.
Other “parent advocacy tips” given by local educators include:
“To successfully advocate for a child in school, it is best to get to know the educators,” said Peggy Dewane-Pope, an eighth grade English teacher at Earl Warren Junior High School. “When we build positive connections — before there are concerns — goodwill is already in place when issues come up.”
“Become familiar and build relationships with your child’s teacher and principal even before school begins for the year,” said Michelle McLean, who retired in 2018 as the superintendent of the Arvin Union School District, after a long career in the Bakersfield City School District. “Read the parent handbook and become familiar with the polices and practices of the school.
“Help your child’s teacher get to know your child — what they like and don’t like; how they best learn; what they are interested in; what motivates them; what they are afraid of, etc.”
McLean urged parents to talk to their children about school events and volunteer, if possible, in school activities. “Respect the rules of the school and the classroom, and teach your child to do so, as well.”
Understand your child’s challenges.
“Make an appointment with the family doctor to discuss your child’s challenges,” said school psychologist Greenlee. “Ask the teacher, counselor, or administration for a meeting with the student-study team” to develop a plan to support your child, which might involve testing for special education, or for certain health issues that could result in implementing a plan to remove barriers to education.
Document your concerns.
“If a parent thinks a problem is developing, consider documentation,” said Dewane-Pope. “For instance, if it’s a social and emotional concern, note specific behaviors like eating or sleeping pattern changes, self-harming, emotional outbursts, and the like. While data may seem like a cold way to start, a parent armed with statistics gives a clear indication of the problem and how it has changed over time. Parents should clearly note their concerns. Ask yourself, ‘What am I seeing? What data is a concern?’ Often, schools have support services that can be tapped if the concern is clear."
Don’t give up!
“If the parent is unsatisfied with the response a teacher gives, parents should go up the ladder to a dean, or principal, and then to the school district if necessary,” Weddell said. “Parents should not give up.”