Montgomery County parents are learning the power of social media.
Just a few weeks after an online petition asking for later high school start times went viral, another petition now is circulating that asks the school system to change its new curriculum and go back to allowing schools to separate high, average or low performers in mathematics into different classrooms.
Both petitions ask the Board of Education to make substantial policy changes, and both gathered hundreds of signatures in less than a week.
As parents find new ways to communicate their concerns, the school board must find a process to address them, board President Shirley Brandman said.
“As forms of input emerge and evolve, we are going to have to keep emerging and evolving what our processes are,” Brandman said.
In one week, nearly 700 parents and community members signed the new petition on Change.org. The parents take issue with the new curriculum, Curriculum 2.0, which asks that teachers adapt lessons for students of all abilities in one classroom.
“My social circle of parents were talking about how dissatisfied they were,” said Philip Giordano, who started the petition. “They thought the new differentiation had serious flaws. ... We put the petition together so the board of education would understand that it was an issue countywide.”
Residents from Damascus to Bethesda jumped at the chance to sign, Giordano said.
The first petition on SignOn.org continues to gain support from students, parents, medical professionals, and others. By Friday, one month after parent and social worker Mandi Mader of Garrett Park started the petition, more than 7,500 people had signed on.
Even if the petitions do not end up persuading policy makers to make a change, they do get the issue on everyone’s radar screen very quickly, said Terra Ziporyn Snider, co-founder of startschoollater.net.
Her organization started the first national petition for later start times in all schools; there now are five local online petitions on the organization’s website.
“[An online petition] gives us a peg for publicity,” Snider said. “It lets people know — legislature and policy makers — in a very quick and effective way that there is a huge interest.”
Snider said she was skeptical of online petitions at first, but she now realizes how powerful they can be.
Giordano said he was surprised at how quickly word got around about their petition.
“I definitely didn’t send out 600 emails,” he said.
The school board values all forms of input, Brandman said.
Although online petitions convey sentiments of a large group, other forms of comment — such as an email or phone call — may allow an individual to better explain why that issue is important to them personally, she said.
“The more you share about how the issue affects you, the more we are able to consider your position in our decision making,” she said.
Giordano said parents want the school system to change its policy immediately, allowing for performance-based math classes, and allowing teachers to give students work that is above their grade level once they have mastered the grade-level concepts.
“The children are in class and their time is being wasted because they do not have the instruction and feedback from the teacher they need,” he said.
Giordano and Mader said they are gathering support and intend to make a formal request to the school board. Mader said her group intends to go to the board’s Dec. 11 meeting. Giordano said his group has not yet set a date to present its concerns.
The curriculum is built around the new Common Core State Standards, which encourages deeper knowledge and comprehension of subjects, schools spokesman Dana Tofig said.
A select number of students will be accelerated under Curriculum 2.0, but not as many, Tofig said.
The board has no standard way to address ideas and concerns that arise, Brandman said. Once presented with an issue, board members could bring up the topic during a board meeting, request that staff look into issues, or ask other communities for their perspective, she said.
“It is something that boards grapple with, in terms of how you consider the things that are presented to you, and also not lose sight of your work,” Brandman said.
Mader said she could not have generated as much interest with a paper petition as she did with an online petition.
Although it was a good form of advocacy for her, she doesn’t know if it would work for all issues.
“You can’t run a school system on petitions, and on everybody’s pet issues,” Mader said, “but ours has lots of policy behind it, and it is not just one small group of parents.”