Oliver Thomas, chairman of the school board in Maryville, Tenn., says parents can make a difference by taking a positive approach to school problems.
"Schools are feeling under siege, especially from Christian groups. Don't perpetuate the stereotypes by blasting schools or administrators unfairly when you have a concern," says Thomas, a constitutional lawyer who helped draft government guidelines on religious freedom in the classroom.
What works? Here are Thomas' suggestions for voicing concerns or handling problems:
Examine the problem and the evidence carefully. If you are concerned about a particular textbook or curriculum, don't rely on what you hear. Get the textbook or find out for yourself what the evidence is. Acting on rumors breaks down trust.
Work your way up the chain of command. Don't start by complaining to the school board or firing off a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. If you have a problem with a teacher, start with him or her first. Then go to the principal and so on. This shows that you are serious about resolving the problem instead of simply attacking.
Stay focused on the issue. Don't attack the teacher or indulge in name-calling. These strategies call your motives into question and escalate tensions.
Be proactive by becoming involved in the school before there's a problem. Volunteer in the classroom, run for the PTA, ask administrators if you have a skill or service they can use. If there are problems, schools are more receptive to parents who have shown a commitment to the school.