If you want to glimpse true parental devotion, head to the local mall in Vicksburg, Miss. Just past the JCPenney and the KB Toys, right across from the Corn Dog 7, you'll find a storefront occupied by Redwood Elementary School. A mannequin in the school's red-and-blue uniform presides over a spread of student-made dioramas and papier-mache, painstakingly displayed by Redwood parents in an all-day decorating marathon. On a recent Saturday, the school's choir serenaded shoppers while a troop of parent volunteers was on hand with brochures extolling the virtues of a Redwood education--and urging shoppers to sign up their kids. "I can already see the day when parents of newborns will call me up and say they want to register their kids at Redwood," says principal Butch Newman.
Just a year ago, Vicksburg parents weren't such loyal customers. Like most school districts along the lower Mississippi, Vicksburg's had long hovered outside the orbit of education reformers. It was still largely segregated, and year after year its test scores stagnated. The schools were so overcrowded that at one building three teachers held class in the gymnasium at the same time. So parents took to voting with their feet. And their skin. Many white parents fled to private and parochial schools, while others began home schooling. Some black parents, convinced the schools in their neighborhoods were worse off academically, gave the district fake addresses in order to attend majority-white schools. Those parents who stayed in the system often did so with a sense of resignation that turned to apathy. "You'd hold a meeting, and maybe one parent would show up if you were lucky," says Diana Brokaw, the mother of a second-and a third-grader. "It was pitiful."
So how did Vicksburg win its parents back? By giving them both a greater say in which elementary schools their children would attend and a greater hand in shaping the district's affairs. Perhaps more important, the district confronted its longtime racial standoff, engaging the black parents and wooing the white parents back into the system.
"You have to treat parents like shareholders in their children's education," says now retired superintendent Robert Pickett, who designed the plan. "We did whatever we could to get them to buy in." That meant closing down five schools that were in the worst disrepair, renovating the rest and building two schools from scratch on the outskirts of town. The district installed parents on its strategic-planning committee. Then it increased the rigor of its curriculum, asking parents to vote on an academic focus for each of the schools. At one writing, communication and technology school, for example, students keep a daily journal starting in kindergarten; at a math and science school, students study botany in a state-of-the-art outdoor classroom. To reach the most disengaged parents, the district mounted a full-scale media blitz, postering walls from the city health department to K Mart and taking flyers door to door. The individual schools sent home mass mailings and bought competing ads in the local paper. The district even promised free rides to parents who had trouble getting to their children's schools.