A former Navy pilot and strategist targets a middle school and changes a culture

A reader kindly sent me this link to a Baltimore Sun editorial, which I wanted to share with you as it speaks to the power to transform a culture in a school.

This Sun editorial is based on a news story, which I also recommend that you read. I think you will enjoy both pieces about a former Navy pilot turned U.S. Naval Academy history professor who refused to give up on his local middle school. Here is the editorial:

An elementary school has a new playground because of a parent who raised the money, helped design it and even stored the bricks to build it. A father mentors troubled middle school boys on everything from substance abuse to anger management. A mom lobbies county government to limit housing development that might lead to classroom overcrowding.

The importance of parental participation in Maryland’s public schools is critical, as anyone with children in them can attest, but too often overlooked and underappreciated. There is no better example of this than Jeffrey Macris, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the U.S. Naval Academy who has helped rejuvenate two Annapolis area middle schools.

Earlier this month, the Maryland Department of Education recognized him as winner of the Comcast Parent Involvement Matters Award. What did he do? He started by refusing to believe that the answer to low-performing schools was to avoid sending your children to them.

As Sun education reporter Liz Bowie recently chronicled in this newspaper, when Mr. Macris and his wife moved to the area, he was advised by everyone from real estate agents to friends and colleagues to buy a house in the suburbs or plan to send his kids to private schools. As a Maryland native, he was outraged — and decided to buy in Annapolis anyway.

Although his eldest child was only 3 years old, he quickly set his sights on low-performing middle schools. He discovered that one of their most glaring needs was that they simply lacked advocates. He and other parents went to the school board seeking changes — better order and discipline in the schools, better, more experienced teachers, and a magnet program to attract top students.

That coalition worked wonders. The schools have improved markedly, and even suburbanites are looking to send their children there. It didn’t cost Anne Arundel County more money, but it did require more focused attention on the schools’ needs.

How many other schools might be improved if parents opted to pitch in instead of relocating or sending their children to private alternatives? Baltimore has seen its share of success stories. Many neighborhoods in the counties have, too. But too often the prevailing view is why take the chance? School failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Recently, a Vermont-based company announced plans to create school boundary maps for the Baltimore metropolitan area. Potentially, these are tools to perpetuate this kind of destructive behavior. Call it white flight or rich flight that can be as much a cause of, as a reaction to, bad schools.

Mr. Macris concedes that turning around schools is not an easy task, but he notes that the means to do so — chiefly the ton of statistics covering everything from U.S. Census results to test scores — have never been more readily available. What it takes, he says, is a critical mass of concerned parents who won’t accept the status quo.

“Parents are the ultimate bosses of the school system,” says the father of five. We couldn’t agree more. Like any business, schools work best when those bosses step up to the plate and take responsibility for what happens there.

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May 18th, 2010
10:39 pm

What we’ve come to realize in my district is that parental involvement is the heart of any school success. We have to reach out to those trying to reach in if lasting, substantive improvement is going to work. What a great story of how active parents, with their sights on building a coalition to work together for the good of a school, can be the force for change. We can only hope that will begin to happen everywhere. In my district, the budget planning sessions the BOE has offered have given parents a chance to begin asking what they can do to help. Schools are part of the community they serve and can be a big part of a force for change. This is part of what gives me hope that we’ll make it through the budget crunch and be better off if parents will get this involved.

Middle Grades Math Teacher

May 18th, 2010
10:57 pm

This article is but one piece of evidence to prove what teachers and involved parents already know: when parents are behind their kids (and others’ kids), schools and communities thrive!

Real culture change needed but not likely

May 19th, 2010
12:10 am

For anybody really committed to real culture change in Georgia schools, the following by Dr John Trotter should be required reading. Until we are ready to look at the issues Dr. Trotter raises, we will continue to do a great disservice to Georgia students, and continue to be one of the laughingstocks of the nation.

Unfortunately Dr. Trotter is probably right in that real culture change will not happen, just like he was right in talking about cheating years before any other educational leader in Georgia, and just like he was right about the corruption in DeKalb County, again years before anyone was willing to talk about it.

What Will The New State Superintendent Do About The “War Zone Schools”?

By Dr. John Trotter

I see that Kathy Cox has stepped down. She’s had enough. I am sure that Kathy is a nice person, but from the beginning she was in way over her head. She won simply because she had an “R” next to her name. The same for Linda Schrenko. Both are pleasant enough to be around but entirely clueless when it comes to improving education in Georgia, particularly in the urban areas like DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb, Atlanta, Clayton, Fulton, Muscogee, Richmond, Dougherty, Chatham, Bibb, et al. Some school systems in Georgia are doing just fine, despite the State cutting large sums of monies from the systems. But, where education is failing is largely in the urban school settings…where teaching there can be like teaching in a war zone.

In the “War Zone Schools” (perhaps I can coin this phrase like my “educrat” and “snoopervise” phrases, eh?), there are some salient features which plague them. At MACE, we have been talking about these “plagues” for years, but this is not popular to talk about and borders on being “politically incorrect,” which is something with which we don’t too much concern ourselves. Here are the “Four Horsemen of Failing Urban Schools” (ooh, I like this phrase also; I see that I easily impress myself — ha!): (1) Defiant & Disruptive Students (Thugs); (2) Irate & Irresponsible Parents; (3) Angry & Abusive Administrators; and (4) Systematic & Widespread Cheating. There you have it. These are the crucial issues, and each and every candidate for State Superintendent will blithely ignore all of them and proceed to offer up some pedagogical pabulum and platitudes which, first of all, will be theoretically and practically unsound, and second of all, will not make a scintilla of difference in these “War Zone Schools.”

Why does MACE thrive? Because we tell the truth about these “War Zone Schools,” and we do not candy-coat the problems. We address the problems head-on. This is what GAE and PAGE refuse to do — in fact, CANNOT do because they cater to the whims of administrators who are also their members. No matter who gets elected as State Superintendent of Georgia — John Barge, Roger Hines, Richard Woods, Beth Farokhi Sandra Cannon Scott, Brian Westlake, or Kira Willis — he or she will not do one thing to improve these “War Zone Schools.” Oh, Harris County will be O. K. Fannin County will be O. K. Bremen City will be O. K. But, what about Sylvan Middle School in Atlanta? What about Fain Elementary School in Atlanta? What about Indian Creek Elementary School in DeKalb? What about Tara Elementary School in Clayton? What about Lindley Middle School in Cobb? What about Shiloh Middle School in Gwinnett? What about Columbia Middle School in DeKalb? What about Mays High School (yes, the once storied Mays which is now floundering) in Atlanta? What about Clarkston High School in DeKalb? What about Randolph Elementary School in Fulton? What about these schools? What will the new superintendent do about these schools? Nothing. (c) MACE, April 18, 2010.


May 19th, 2010
5:53 am

I’m glad things worked out for the Macris family, but what if things didn’t work out. What would be your backup plan? Are you willing to sacrifice your childs education because you as the parent wish to joust windmills?

When my youngest came up, we pulled her out of the public school and enrolled in private. Best decision I ever made. You can say we “fled the system” or “abandoned the system” if you like. End of the day, she got a far better education than if we had left her in a dysfunctional school and fought the system. BTW, we did fight the system for a while. Decided what was best for my family and paid the tuition.

As far as Trotter, it is easy to sit on the sidelines and throw dirt clods. Toss your name in the hat and run for State Superintendent since you think you have all the answers.

k teacher

May 19th, 2010
8:31 am

More proof that parental involvement is a must for school success.


May 19th, 2010
8:33 am

Enter your comments here

V for Vendetta

May 19th, 2010
8:36 am

I’m going to agree with Lee on this one:

I would do absolutely ANYTHING to secure a top-notch education for my children. I would take any job, move anywhere, and live anywhere no matter the cost. I think my kids’ educations are one of my most important responsibilities–perhaps the MOST important.

What I would NOT do is move into an area I knew was not in the best interest of my children simply to prove a point about where I grew up or how I wanted to help. Bollocks. I admire his intentions, but I am not interested in gambling with my children’s educations.

APS Parent

May 19th, 2010
9:18 am

Thank you Mr. Macris for being a supporter of public schools! As we’ve seen here in Atlanta all it takes are dedicated parents and administrators to build great schools. Our graduates are getting accepted to top notch schools and we’ve recieved over $20 million in scholarships. Public or private is a personal decision for a variety of reasons, sometimes not just what’s in the best interest of the child. When you look at where the kids are going to college it makes you wonder who got the best education?


May 19th, 2010
9:51 am

From the articles, it sounds as if both the school board and the schools were receptive to change. That isn’t always the case. Talk to the parents who founded the Museum School in Avondale Estates about how receptive Avondale Elementary was to community members who wanted to help improve the school. Talk to any DeKalb parent who has attended a board meeting or two about how receptive their board members are to community input. Yes, community involvement can work wonders for a school, but only if the school and the district are willing to embrace change.


May 19th, 2010
11:34 am

The Grady cluster of schools has benefited hugely from precisely the kind of involvement that Mr. Macris described: well educated, commited parents who used their expertise to work with administrators and teachers (who can all too frequently be the “fifth horseman” that Mr. Trotter avoids mentioning) to pull those eight schools to the top of the APS tree. This has been done in the teeth of as much resistance as APS could offer, and despite skirmishes with those who prefer the ease of business as usual.

I was one of those parents, and I built on the successes of those whose children came before mine just as parents of younger children improved on what my group did. It’s a satisfying evolution which has benefited the thousands of kids in the cluster. Parent involvement demands more of teachers, adminstrators and students, and provides the extra tools (money, time, expertise) to achieve.

From that experience, I have long thought that public schools should require parents to participate, assigning responsibilities just as students and employees carry. The key requirements would be:
1. To have your child to school on time
2. To have your child arrive adequately fed, rested and in good health
3. To be sure your child’s homework is done (correct or not, the effort has been made)
4. To insist that your child behave in such a manner that others can learn and teachers can teach
5. To volunteer a minimum of 6 hours per semester

These requirements are not financially onerous, and in fact are basic parental duties. School districts spend a great deal of time and money providing social services to compensate for the lack of this kind of parental supervision. If parents are not able to meet them, their children should be sent to schools that are constituted to provide these services, and that run from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., with homework and extracurriculars, to ensure that teachers are not burdened in the classroom with unprepared, unsupported students. If parents agree to the stipulations, students can choose to attend schools in which the funds that would be spent on social services are instead directed to enrichment beyond the standard curriculum.

Taxpayer money would be better spent, children would be better served and education would improve. Since parents reap the benefit of all taxpayers’ investment in schools, more should and could be asked of them to make the overall funding pay off.


May 19th, 2010
11:50 am

Way to go Mr. Macaris! Most people in education have always said it takes parental involvement to improve the school system and you just proved it. If only we could all have parents such as you and the ones who managed to help make the changes, public schools would all be wonderful. SHAME on the parents who don’t believe in this and take their child(ren) to a private school instead of trying to turn around the ones in their neighborhood(s). What a difference they could all make.

B. Killebrew

May 19th, 2010
12:09 pm

Amen, cgregister.

And there prime examples of this in the Metro Atlanta area…

Sutton Middle
Clairemont Elementary (late 80’s/early90’s)
Ridgeview Middle
etc. etc. etc…

V for Vendetta

May 19th, 2010
12:48 pm


HAHAHAHA! Good luck. I teach at one of the “good” schools in metro Atlanta, and we have over half our school population on free/reduced lunch and breakfast programs. If you saw my district, you’d realize that it was a complete farce. There isn’t a home in this area that needs assistance paying a buck or two. However, they still arrive hungry, tired, and completely unprepared.

Are you saying that the parents are to blame for this!?!??! Wow, and here I thought it was all my fault . . . :-)

B. Killebrew

May 19th, 2010
2:16 pm

Right on, Shar.


May 19th, 2010
2:58 pm

It is sad to say, but the system that Shar describes seems to be to coming about – with charter, magnet and theme schools enforcing and requiring parental involvement, discipline and providing additional enrichment opportunities, while the “traditional” public schools devolve into glorified daycare facilities.


May 19th, 2010
4:52 pm

My understanding is that around 2 decades ago, a group of Morningside parents decided to push for improvements in APS’s Morningside Elementary. Today, Morningside Elementary, Inman Middle, and Grady High are terrific places for a kid to get an education.


May 19th, 2010
7:26 pm

@cgregister, re “SHAME on the parents who … take their child(ren) to a private school …”

No, shame on the politicians, educrats, administrators, and yes, teachers who have allowed and often perpetuated the sad, dysfunctional state of affairs many of our public schools are in.

As for me, my daughter got a great education at her private school and I feel no shame in the knowledge that I provided that for her.

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