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Shaq's Big Challenge

The gentle giant is schooled on schooling.

Educators and politicians alike bemoan a lack of parental involvement in public education. My experience has been that the local schools didn't want me anywhere near the holy compound. I know what you're thinking - having Stager as a parent must be a nightmare. Actually, I would have loved to be of service, but not only was I never asked, but my offers of assistance were rebuffed annually.

Each back-to-school night teachers detailed the budget shortfalls they faced. My partner and I told each teacher to call us if they needed anything. We offered to provide

math manipulatives, books, computers, music, art supplies and robotics material. Three children attended 13 years of school each, yet not one teacher ever took us up on our offer. In my experience, parental involvement was restricted to being a narc or an ATM. It was my job to enforce the school's policies and to write checks. Nothing more.

Thank You, Shaquille O'Neal

Is it just us or do others have difficulty contributing to school improvement? An unlikely messenger has convinced me that I am not alone. Who would have predicted that NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal would show America how hard it is to be involved in its public schools?

This summer, ABC broadcast a weekly reality TV show entitled, Shaq's Big Challenge. Concerned by the epidemic of childhood obesity, Shaq decided to use his money, resources and celebrity to address the problem. If Shaq could motivate a handful of overweight kids to lose weight and initiate healthy practices in one Florida middle school, he might be able to influence policy at the state level. The television network amplified this mission across the United States. O'Neal's tenacity, sensitivity and ability to differentiate instruction for each child were remarkable.

One-on-one, Shaq is no match for the lunch lady.

I know that readers who don't agree with me will say, "That's a TV show. They edited it to make the administrators look bad. It's not fair. What does Shaq know about education?" All I ask is that you reflect on your own experiences as a parent or educator and consider honestly whether Shaq's experience may be more common than you would like to admit.

Lights, Camera, Inaction

While Shaq's personal trainer, nutritionist, doctor and college coach worked with a handful of kids after school, Shaq visited the principal to lobby for mandatory physical education. Middle school P.E. hardly seems like a radical proposal from some crazy giant. Yet, the principal dismissed Shaq's plea by telling him that he didn't understand how things get done in schools and that he should come back when he has the sixbazillion dollars necessary to fund P.E.

After being taken to the woodshed by the principal, Shaq brainstorms with his team of experts. They suggest that 20 minutes of the 45-minute daily homeroom period be used for desk-side exercise led by the teacher playing an exercise video. The principal arranges for a faculty meeting at which this may be proposed. Cut to the faculty meeting where the teachers embrace the creative proposal like a skunk at a bat mitzvah.

Eventually, the teachers were persuaded to lead the daily exercise. The kids loved it. The teachers were happy to help. Then Shaq receives a phone call. The superintendent of schools has been replaced and the new guy wants the project to stop immediately. For good measure he threatens to have Shaq and his team arrested if they set foot on the campus.

Shaq spends several weeks trying to get a meeting with the superintendent or even have a call returned. The district's PR concerns are being realized, as they look stupid on camera. Eventually the district relents and allows Shaq's fitness efforts to continue in school.

Next, Shaq brings a world-class chef to school to improve the nutritional content of the menu. Despite endless praise for the hardworking cafeteria staff , the chef receives very little cooperation. One-on-one, Shaq is no match for the lunch lady.

The promos for next week's episode suggest that the new PE program has been canceled again. Stay tuned. As another school year begins, perhaps you can embrace the community and welcome genuine parental involvement.

Gary S. Stager,, is senior editor of DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION and editor of The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate (