COVER

NEW ACTIVISTS

ANGRY PARENTS PRESS FOR CHANGE

JOHN DeMONT January 11 1993
COVER

NEW ACTIVISTS

ANGRY PARENTS PRESS FOR CHANGE

JOHN DeMONT January 11 1993

NEW ACTIVISTS

COVER

ANGRY PARENTS PRESS FOR CHANGE

JOHN DeMONT

When Christine Rieder called a meeting of parents with complaints about the quality of education in Queensville, a town 60 km north of Toronto, last February, she was expecting about 50 people to attend. But more than 250 showed up, and Parents in Action, the group which grew from that meeting, now has about 600 members. Across Canada, thousands of parents are banding together angrily in many organizations, demanding changes in the provincially run school systems.

had attended the institutions.

In most cases, the organized protest movement over the public schools has arisen from exasperation over the inability—or unwillingness—to address parental concerns. Hanson and two other Winnipeg mothers said that they decided to join forces after Winnipeg school board officials brushed off their questions about the quality of education that their children were receiving. Their petition demanding that the provincial government reform the Manitoba education system now has more than 3,000 signatures. In the case of Randall Hoyt, a moving-company executive and father of two grade-school-aged boys in Dartmouth, N.S., he felt compelled to act last spring after returning from a vacation and learning that the local school board planned to make massive cuts in spending. He and other concerned citg izens launched an organization called z PARENT. In late September, the new ° group sent questionnaires to the parents of every student in Nova Scotia schools in an effort to identify problems in the education system. “None of us have ever been what you would call activists,” explains Hoyt, 33. “We just felt that we had no choice but to do something.”

Although parental complaints are wideranging, most seem to be based on the belief that children are simply not being taught the basics. Their children, they say, do not know how to read, write or understand the fundamentals of mathematics. At the root of much of the problem, in their view, is widespread application of the teaching philosophy known as “child-centred learning,” which emphasizes that the child, not the teacher, determines the pace of learning in the lower grades. Students typically speak highly of the system. Vikki Rowden, for one, a 15-year-old Grade 9 pupil at Cornwallis Junior High in Halifax, says that there is still more than enough emphasis on the fundamentals of reading and writing. Said Rowden: “I think the teachers are doing a pretty good job.”

Despite their grassroot beginnings, many parent groups are proving to be canny tacticians. Well educated and politically sophisticated, parents say that they are energetically trying to build their memberships to a level that education authorities would be unable to ignore. The groups use petitions, newsletters and intense lobbying to attract support from politicians, school board members and parents.

However, most parent groups concede that their efforts have so far achieved little more than getting school boards and politicians to begin to pay attention. “They know that there are people out there who are unhappy and they are running a little scared,” says Rieder. And as long as the school system appears to be serving their children poorly, many parents say that they will keep up the pressure.

The disillusionment is deepening among parents, largely over drastic departures from the traditional methods of teaching reading and writing. A Gallup poll released in September showed that 56 per cent of Canadians were dissatisfied with the way schools were teaching their children. Discontent was highest in British Columbia (63 per cent of those polled) and Ontario (61 per cent). Many parents are critical of the techniques being used in the classroom, particularly at junior levels. And their outrage is finding expression that goes beyond just criticizing the school system; they also are organizing groups to pressure school boards and governments for change. So far, their success has been limited, but they have given voice to a new kind of educational activism.

Says Daphne Hanson, a Winnipeg mother of three and co-founder of Parents for Basics, a group that is lobbying the Manitoba government: “Parents just cannot afford to sit by quietly anymore.”

Christine Rieder’s experience with school officials in Queensville is typical of the complaints levelled by parents. She said that by the time her son, Charles, who is now 11, finished the third grade two years ago, he could barely read or spell. Worse, said Rieder, his teachers seemed unconcerned. “Every time I went to see them they said, ‘Don’t worry, everything will come together,’ ” Rieder recalls.

Dramatic: Concerns like Rieder’s have led increasing numbers of middle-class parents to stretch their household budgets and enrol their children in costly private schools. There are now an estimated 1,515 of those institutions across the country, up from 1,121 a decade ago. Private school enrolment has climbed to an estimated 256,140 in 1992-1993 from 223,687 then—a 15-per-cent increase. In the same period, public school enrolment increased by about five per cent. As dramatic as the increase in numbers is the change in the student body: because some middle-class parents are losing faith in public schools, the days are long gone when private schools were strictly for the children of well-to-do “old boys” who