At the Aug. 16 meeting of the District 65 New School Committee, Superintendent Hardy Murphy presented the results of a telephone survey of District 65 parents who reside in the potential attendance area of the proposed new school in the Fifth Ward. Parents were asked if they were satisfied with the school their children were currently attending and, if they had a choice, whether or not they would send their children to the new school.

ECRA, a firm that has previously conducted a survey for the District, called 569 households, made contact with 263 of those households, and completed interviews of 247 households.

In its report, ECRA presents the following general finding:

“The vast majority of parents residing in the 5th Ward are content with the schools their child(ren) currently attend, and believe their children are receiving a quality education. They are especially complimentary of District 65 teachers. Parents are open to the idea of a new school, but feel they need detailed information regarding what is being proposed and competing options before they are in a position to judge their support.

“Should the District choose to build a new school in the 5th Ward, the majority of parents feel they should have a choice as to whether to send their child to the new school – regardless of the type of school (magnet, charter, neighborhood, etc.). The greatest concern from parents regarding a new school in the 5th Ward is most do not want to withdraw their children from their current school, and do not want to disrupt their children’s education or the friendships they have formed.

“That being said, parents are not against a new school being built in the 5th Ward, and recognize there could be benefits, especially in the area of transportation, where there is discontent among many parents with length of bus routes. Parents would like additional information about exactly what is being proposed so they are in a better position to judge the likelihood of sending their children to a new school.”

If a new school is built, “parents value, above all, good teachers, quality instructional programming, and maintaining small class sizes.” ECRA’s report says other areas cited by parents were:

• “Better behavioral interventions and safety measures.

• More focus on ethnic and socioeconomic diversity and balance in the student population, including a reflection of that diversity in school staff, and an increased focus on multicultural education.

• More support and programming for special needs students.

• Better overall facilities and updated technology.”

Parents were asked if their level of participation in PTA or school programs would increase if their children attended a school in their neighborhood, versus their current school. ECRA’s report says, “Few parents responded in length to this question. Most indicated they participate in their children’s education, but are not actively involved due to work obligations and time constraints at home. Work and other obligations appear to be the primary reasons for lack of involvement, and there is no indication whether parents would increase participation or not if a school was built closer to home. Of those who indicated they are actively involved, nearly all felt they would remain involved if a new school were built.”

As to whether their children would be more likely to participate in after-school activities at a school within walking distance of their home, ECRA says, “Responses were split between “yes” and “no.” About half of the respondents indicated their children probably would increase participation if the school were closer to home, while the other half indicated it would not have an effect or that they are satisfied with where they are now.”

As to the importance of students being able to walk to school, ECRA’s report says, “Responses were evenly split on the importance of being able to walk to school, with half indicating it is important, and half indicating it is not important. Many parents prefer their children to be bused for safety reasons, but they are unhappy with long bus routes. Parents that indicated being able to walk to school is important also cited a number of additional factors that should be considered when deciding whether or not to build a new school.”

Dr. Murphy noted that about one-half of the parents said their children would probably increase their participation in after-school activities, if a school were closer to home. Jean Luft, a member of the Committee and president of DEC (the teachers union), added that research shows that participating in after-school activities is very important to school success.

Ms. Luft added that the survey supported the Committee’s view that parents and students would become more involved if a new school were built in their neighborhood.

School Board and Committee member Jerome Summers expressed reservations about ECRA’s comment about whether parent participation would increase. He said that at 10 PTA meetings he has attended, he has seen fewer than 10 African American and Hispanic parents in attendance. By comparison, he said, at events sponsored by the African Centered Curriculum program at Oakton School, many African American parents attend.

Betsy Jenkins, a member of the Committee, said she would like to see a breakdown of the ethnic make-up of the parents surveyed. She said many African American parents in the Fifth Ward have told her busing is an issue.

Lloyd Shepard expressed a concern about how reliable answers to a telephone survey would be, particularly if parents were hesitant to give candid answers to someone in a position of authority.

Kim Weaver, a member of the Committee and the Board, suggested that the parents be resurveyed after architectural drawings for the new school were prepared and a location selected.