Parents Make a Big Difference in School Quality. I’m Living Proof.

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Parents Make a Big Difference in School Quality. I’m Living Proof.

By Thomas Sheppard     Apr 4, 2019

Parents Make a Big Difference in School Quality. I’m Living Proof.

When I became a father, I promised to do everything I could to ensure my kids’ educational experience was better than mine. I’m a public-school kid. I went to P.S. 152 and I.S. 131 in the South Bronx and tested into Brooklyn Tech for high school. In the early ‘80s, Brooklyn Tech was one of the best schools in the country, but I was one of only maybe 30 Black kids on a campus of almost 10,000. Still today, New York’s education system is one of the most segregated in the U.S.

I believe education equals options. The more options you have, the less confined you are by what society says you should be. That’s why I’ve been a parent advocate for the past six years at P.S. 41. I serve on the District 11 Community Education Council in the Bronx, sit on the board of directors of the preschool my children attended and advocate for education issues with our community elected officials.

A few years ago, I was offered a job at a prestigious private school just a few miles from my daughters’ school. I was blown away by the quality of the facilities and the range of resources. After the tour, and during the drive to my kids’ school for a School Leadership Team meeting, I asked myself, “Why can’t all children have access to those same things?”

I went back to my kids’ school and sat down with the principal. “It’s hard to talk about how technology is shaping the future if you don’t have functioning computers,” I said. “Our kids have much less exposure.” With her blessing, I did a monthlong, schoolwide technology assessment and consulted the city councilman for our district on funding. We secured 450 new devices, I personally configured them and trained teachers and staff how to use them. Within two years, we launched a digital classroom and began integrating an online curriculum.

Because many students at P.S. 41 come from low-income households, our next challenge was to find a way to expand internet access so kids could continue their learning at home. I researched and found that some cable service providers offer basic broadband for free in housing authority buildings and that the Queens public library lets people check out internet access like a book. I’m in the process of creating similar partnerships in our community now.

Another barrier I’ve noticed for some families is parents’ own level of education. How do you support your child if you never learned the material yourself, or if certain subjects are so far in the rearview mirror you can’t see them anymore? I reached out to District 79, which oversees continuing and alternative education in New York City, to see what it would take to get a GED program in our school. We are currently building the program for P.S. 41, and exploring ways to provide this program to all public schools in underserved communities in the Bronx.

As a parent, you are your child’s first teacher. You cover language, colors and shapes. You model behavior out in the world. But once the transition to Kindergarten happens, it’s harder to remain an active partner. Parents, teachers and administrators need to invest in building relationships with the child’s best interest at heart. The school needs to be safe and welcoming. Trust and communication are key.

My priority was technology. For other parents, it could be a music program, the arts, a science lab. It takes a willingness to step in and stand for something. You have to have a priority. I believe that parents make a difference in the quality of education students experience. And, crucially, I believe parents and schools are partners.

Today, when I walk the halls at P.S. 41, I overhear fourth-graders talking about designing video games or becoming computer engineers. They have the potential to dream about things they couldn’t even imagine before. They have new opportunities to achieve greatness.

Hear Thomas Sheppard and other parents talk about the value of setting high expectations for kids.

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