It’s one thing to argue that parents know what’s best for their children’s education. It’s another thing — a refreshing, affirming, wonderful thing — to watch them prove it.
For the past week, moms and dads have been doing just that at redistricting hearings for Atlanta Public Schools. I’d heard friends from other neighborhoods talk about their meetings and, Wednesday night, dropped by North Atlanta High School to see it myself. I wasn’t disappointed.
First, “dropped by” is the wrong way to put it. After seeing cars stream out of one parking lot that was already full, I reversed course and turned down a side street … only to find the curbs lined and another parking lot packed. I finally joined others in a parking deck at the church across the road. Suffice it to say, anyone who thinks folks in Buckhead don’t care about public schools is sorely mistaken.
I found one of the last empty seats in the auditorium — eventually, there was a line of parents waiting outside for seats to free up — and settled in for the hearing. The agenda: a slideshow by demographers, followed by public comments.
Now, when you write about politics for a living, you become accustomed to a certain Way Things Are Done at these hearings: one speaker rising patiently after another to make a few points in a calm, level voice. I’ve even heard someone running such a meeting threaten to have security remove people who make audible, even barely, their opinion of things said.
The tie-dyed T-shirts some parents wore, and the matching, pre-printed signs others carried, should have given away the game Wednesday. It seems there’s nothing like feeling ignored to make people scrap the Way Things Are Done.
When one of the demographers mentioned the move of one neighborhood out of its current school zone, the bloc of parents from that school shook their signs at him. When he made a point that parents from another school didn’t exactly appreciate, they booed him.
But what struck me wasn’t that these parents were being rude or churlish (and there actually were few such disruptions on the whole). As the evening went on, it became quite clear that they were so bold because they knew at least as much about the data — school sizes, building capacities, projected enrollment growth — as the experts on the stage who produced them.
More than that, they clearly had given great thought to the guiding principles APS laid out for this project. They could point to ones that hadn’t been met and explain persuasively why some principles should be prioritized over others.
They knew from experience what it had taken to bring the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum to all the schools in the cluster. They knew what it would mean if some students were thrown out of it while a new middle school ramped up to adopt it — and the disadvantage dealt to students from outside the cluster who might be thrown into it halfway through their school years.
They knew these things in a way the experts didn’t. Not because the experts were dense or flippant about these matters; clearly, they were competent at and invested in the work they were doing.
The problem wasn’t what the experts didn’t know, but what they, as a limited number of people removed from the daily lives of these schools and students and parents, couldn’t know.
It is ever thus in systems of government. And that’s another good thing to be reminded of.
– By Kyle Wingfield