You are the customer; are you demanding enough?

I sit on a committee that is designed, like all elected bodies, to represent the public. I consider the public my boss. I do not for a moment believe that my constituents and I will agree on every position I take, vote I cast, or policy decision made by the committee. I hope that we can, however, agree on the idea that parents could be the key to tipping the scales for better schools for their children.

Informed parents with strength in numbers are a force to be reckoned with and have been incredibly effective in other communities nationwide in demanding more from their schools. You have the right to question why your child is not getting a better education at his/her public school. Everyone agrees “bad” is unacceptable. But I submit that “mediocre” is an unacceptable standard as well. No parent dreams of a mediocre education for their child. Ask yourself: What adjective would you use to describe the educational product that you, the customer (and resident of Cumberland), are getting? There may be some who say great and I’m pleased that they are very satisfied. I am quite sure that many would have a different answer. If you, the parent, are not impressed by the education you see your child receiving, you deserve better. It is not okay to be “underwhelmed.”

It is my belief that parents and students need to see themselves as customers of the school department. You are paying for a product via your taxes and deserve to be treated as valued customers. You deserve to know that every adult affiliated with the school department, including the school committee, is doing everything in their power to educate your children well and to prepare them to be competitive in this ever increasingly global economy. There was a time when lack of school success didn’t seem an urgent problem because a job at one of the mills or in manufacturing was essentially guaranteed. Those days are gone. If your children (and mine) are to be highly skilled, employable, productive citizens for their families and their community, they need a great education. They need to be highly proficient in math, reading, writing, and science. They need to be critical thinkers. They need to believe that they CAN DO IT. They don’t all have to choose to go to college, but they all need to be college ready when they graduate from high school. They need to have a chance at the American Dream. With only 63% of our high school students taking the SAT, 82% graduating, 34% proficient in math, 25% proficient in science, 56% proficient in writing, and 51% of the students we send to CCRI needing remedial classes upon arrival, that dream is absolutely not within reach for every child. It is my promise that I will do everything in my power as a parent and elected school committee member to change the current culture and to instill a sense of urgency in those who are part of the process. We need to raise our expectations right now.
Michelangelo summed it up so well: “The greater danger is not to aim too high and miss the mark, but to aim too low and reach it.”
Vince Lombardi also offers words of how to get where we want to be: “People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society.”
Together, we can make high impact change. And by together, I mean everyone, including the new superintendent, the Mayor, the town council, the school committee, the parents, the students, the administrators, the teachers, the school support staff, and other community members who believe they have something to bring to the conversation.

I started asking myself how a school department shows that it values its customers and aims high on behalf of those customers. The following came to mind:
It hires great leaders who are effective and dedicated to problem-solving and measurable outcomes for students.
It hires leaders skilled at communicating, not only with the public (the customers), but also with faculty and staff.
It ensures that front office staff pleasantly greet parents and students when they enter their child’s school.
It ensures that teachers, administrators, and other school personnel respond to parents’ phone calls and emails in a timely, thorough, and effective manner.
It ensures that students of every ability are challenged to do their best and aim high.
It ensures that parents do not feel like they are ‘eavesdropping’ instead of ‘participating’ at public meetings (that they have taken time out of their personal lives to attend.)
Lunch Menus are spelled correctly.
Grounds are maintained and buildings are clean. We will never instill in our children a respect for learning if we do not show respect for the buildings in which we are asking them to learn.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Cumberland schools have some wonderful things happening: Holiday fairs, theatrical productions, summer study programs, successful afterschool programs, and happy basket programs are all positive and things of which students, parents, and school faculty should be proud. Academically, however, we are falling short and the brutal truth is that the academic program is the primary mission and responsibility of a school system. We are also falling short in the area of communication, transparency, and expectations.
All teacher, support staff, and vendor contracts are public. Ask for copies. Ask that they be posted on the school website. Other districts in RI have them posted online. Why don’t we? The customers certainly have a right to see the agreements signed by those who oversee the education of their children.
77 cents of every dollar we pay in property taxes goes to the schools; at the very least we should see what our money is buying. Part of the responsibility lies with us as parents; we must take the initiative to get engaged. Having documents public and posted is of no use if we don’t take the time to read them. Complaining behind the scenes without taking action will not have a positive impact on students. Have your voice heard! There is no guarantee that things will work out the way each of us may want; there is a guarantee that we can be part of the process. There is momentum throughout the state and nation to dramatically improve education. Cumberland must get on board.
Education Commisioner Deborah Gist is coming to Cumberland the evening of January 12th to not only update us on the state of education but also to answer questions from the community. Please come to learn and to be part of the conversation. Cumberland can be a leader in the process of improving RI schools; your attendance, energy, and contributions will help make that happen.
Education is THE ticket for all, and the ONLY ticket for some. We adults have an obligation to do everything we can to set every child up for success. Not to do so would mean that we failed our kids and I’m not okay with that. Are you?
(For a detailed look at the state of education in Rhode Island, please visit www.ri-can.org.)
What do you think?

2 thoughts on “You are the customer; are you demanding enough?

  1. This blog is much appreciated Erika, well done! I'm unable to attend many of the meetings and find this a valuable resource.

    I've been increasingly concerned about all the outsourcing going on…I question weather it's actually saving the town money. The companies we hire to handle the busses and building/facilites maintenance don't seem to show a vested interest in the community.

    If we had local people who answered directly to the superintendent, knew the town…someone who cared about the town, would we have all the issues we have seen?

    I work in Foxboro, MA, in a community that actually owns and operates their own busses, and has a facilites director that coordinates all maintenance, repairs, custodians, and renovation projects. He lives in town and has a sense of pride for his work. He has saved the town enormous amounts of money through researching cost savings, seeking our FREE consultants from utility companies, etc… I'm not convinced our outsource vendors pass along savings or care about the community as a whole.

  2. Thanks Mike. I think you raise interesting points here. It's tricky because we also have tons of faculty who do live in the town and in some cases, that pride still seems to be lacking. Everyone needs to step it up.

    We are already talking about having a live video stream for meetings, and we hope to move the meetings to a location with a community feel, the old cafeteria in the trans building.

    If you are free Jan. 12, please try to come hear the Commissioner. I think it will be an important night for Cumberland as we move forward together on behalf of ALL these kids.

    Miss seeing you. Hope our paths cross soon and thanks again for your help along the campaign trail.

    I think it would make sense to consider forwarding your remarks to at least Jeff Mutter (chair) and possibly the whole committee. A letter to the editor is never a bad idea either. Great ideas can come from anywhere and we don't want to miss them!

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