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.
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