Parents, Schools & Community Organizing In Maryland

Churches, school system look to build partnership is a recent newspaper headline in Maryland.

It describes a meeting held between members of a community organizing group, Partnership for Renewal in Southern and Central Maryland. and a Superintendent of Schools.

This is just another example of the kind of parent engagement we talk about in our book, which has a chapter on schools, parents and community organizing.

“Parents Union” Begins In Chicago

A group of parents have begun what they are calling a “Parents Union” to push for improvement in Chicago’s public schools. You can read about it at Parents hope to form a more perfect union in dealing with CPS.

It’s particularly impressive to me because its focus is to improve public schools, and is not allied with private groups that want to create charters, which is the focus of a similarly named parents group in Los Angeles.

All I know about the group is what the newspaper article says. It sounds like it’s a completely independent group, which may make it difficult to sustain over the long-term. I spent nineteen years as an organizer working to build “organizations of organizations” for a number of reasons, including because of the long-term problems involved in creating new groups. Bringing like-minded organizations together that have been around for awhile provides financial stability and relationship “glue” that can help with sustainability.

But, whatever their situation is, I hope the Parents Union has success!

Community Schools

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Education Secretary Duncan spoke at a conference yesterday designed to support the creation of more “community schools” in the United States.

Typically, community schools are ones that host multiple social services, as well as regular school classes.

A report on community schools was released at the conference.

The Harlem Children’s Zone is the most well-known example of this kind of school in the U.S.

I think community schools can be a great benefit to the local community. I also believe that they can be an even greater benefit if they do two things differently from how they usually operate. One, if they look at parents more as partners instead of clients and, two, if they work more closely with multiple local community groups. I’ve written about this issue in an earlier post.

There may be an effort to create a school like this in Sacramento as part of a nation-wide effort to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone. I’ve had conversations with some people who are involved, and they seem open to looking at these two issues and making them a priority in what happens locally. It’ll be interesting to see what develops.

Parents & Schools In Los Angeles

Over the past two days, there has been a lot of media coverage about a recent decision by the Los Angeles School District to “to allow parents to initiate school reforms” (as the LA Times put it).

Here are links to two articles about it:

L.A. Unified to allow parents to initiate school reforms

L.A. Gives Parents ‘Trigger’ to Restructure Schools

Based on what I know about what is going on there (which is not a whole lot — I’m trying to find out more, and would love to get more thoughts from readers in the comment section of this post), I have mixed feelings about this plan.

On one hand, yes, I think it’s good for parents to have more power in school decision-making. One problem in schools is that school staff sometimes feel that power is a finite “pie” and that if parents get some power, that means staff have less. In fact, the more power parents get, the more possibilities and opportunities are created, and the “pie” gets bigger.

On the other hand, based on the articles (correct me if my impression is incorrect), parents are getting the power to do just one thing — if 51% of them in one of thirty schools signs a petition, then an outside operator can come in and turn it into a charter. It’s part of a controversial plan the District announced earlier to turn these thirty schools into private charters. It also sounds like the District may not be doing this in collaboration with teachers and administrators, and, in fact, may not even be working with parent groups on this program — just with charter school operators.

I can’t help but wonder if the District might be doing this to gain a little more political cover for what might be a hasty and unwise move to try to privatize a good number of schools. Why not work with parents and multiple groups with whom they’re affiliated (along with teachers and administrators) on exploring various ways parents can have more power in school-site decision-making, and not just on the charter question?

I can understand a desire to try something like this out at a small number of schools first to work out the “kinks,” but it seems to me if you want true parent engagement, doing something as limited as this in such a controversial context may not be the way to go.

Again, I’m all ears if you would like to differ (or agree)…..

Alliance Schools

One of the chapters in our book highlights the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation in developing Alliance Schools in Texas. The IAF, as far as I can tell, were the first to begin talking about the difference between parent involvement and engagement almost twenty years ago.

If you’re interested in learning more about them, you can access a draft version of a paper describing the Alliance Schools and its philosophy here.

Some Of These “Parent Academies” Just Don’t Get It….

“Parent Academies” appear to be “in” this week…

TIME Magazine has just published an article titled Parent Academies: Helping Mom and Dad Face School Too. This follows on the heels of several other recent media articles on this topic (you can see the last few posts on this blog).

Unfortunately, at least as far as the article describes the programs in various school districts (and I understand that they might not be entirely accurate), it appears that they are missing huge opportunities. They all seem to be bringing parents in to train them on what the districts want to train them on and talk about the topics they want them to talk about it. There is no indication that they are asking what the parents want to do or learn.

The TIME article itself has a particularly condescending comment:

“Of course, there’s no guarantee that the people who need these programs the most will actually take advantage of them — you can’t force parents to care, no matter how many free classes you offer.”

Come on, just because parents who might be facing huge time, economic, family, and health challenges don’t want to come to a meeting to talk about what the district wants them to talk about doesn’t mean they don’t care!

Plus, the final sentence from a Harvard researcher demonstrates what a huge disconnect there is between “parent involvement” (which I would use to describe these types of academies) and “parent engagement” (which I would use to describe what Elisa Gonzalez has done at our high school’s Parent University by asking parents what they wanted to learn about and building the curriculum with them):

“Family engagement is a shared, reciprocal partnership between educators and parents,” she says. “It’s a two-way conversation between home and school.”

Yes, exactly, a conversation. Often, these types of parent academies tend to be more a one-way “communication” to parents as opposed to a two-way “conversation.” That doesn’t make them bad — any kind of further parent connection can help students.

So much more could be possible, though. And that makes them lost opportunities, too.

“‘Parent academy’ offers dividends to children”

The Toronto Globe and Mail ran an article today headlined ‘Parent academy’ offers dividends to children.

It focuses on a new effort in Toronto  that has this as its goal:

“In effect, schools would become de facto community centres for whole families, offering programs to help parents with their most pressing needs – from finding work and getting fit to understanding Facebook and navigating the school system.”

It sounds good.  My concern, though, is that — based on what the article says — they’re basing what they do on responses to written surveys instead of upon individual conversations.  Written surveys are never good barometers of genuine interest, nor can they be used to identify potential leaders who have energy to “carry the ball” and who have a “following” in the community.

Community organizers know that writtens surveys are good for one thing — to be excuses to initiate conversations with people.  The real “meat” occurs in the listening and talking.

Without that kind of interaction, whatever is created can become a typical social service program where well-intentioned school staff provide services to parents, which might or might not be their priority community concerns.   Leaders are not developed, and it can easily peter out.

However, I certainly know enough to recognized that the article might not be giving an accurate impression of the parent academy, and the school district might very well be using other tactics to connect to parents besides a written survey.

Book Update

Building Parent Engagement In Schools, my first book (written with Lorie Hammond), was published earlier this month. You can learn how readers of this blog can get a discount by reading this.

You can read two “previews” of the book:

One is an article I wrote for Public School Insights in April titled Parent Involvement or Parent Engagement?

The other is one I wrote for the Library Media Connection. It was published last month and is titled Family Literacy, English Language Learners, and Parent Engagement.

You can read the first review of the book at The Tempered Radical by Educational Leadership columnist Bill Ferriter.

In September, Joyce Epstein and I were guests at Education Week’s “edchat” on engaging parents. If you’re interested, you can read the chat transcript.

I was interviewed on the Parents as Partners webcast a few weeks ago, and you can read about about the conversation at Irritate or agitate – what’s your parent engagement like? You can also listen to the webcast at the EdTechTalk site.

“Reaping What We’ve Sown: How Schools Fail Low-Income Parents”

Renee Moore has an excellent article in Teacher Magazine titled Reaping What We’ve Sown: How Schools Fail Low-Income Parents (free registration is required to access the whole piece, but it’s a quick and easy process).

As John Norton accurately describes it, the article:

“…challenges those who question whether low-income parents as a group care about their children’s education. All too often, Renee writes, it’s not a lack of caring but a community-wide sense that inequities in the system that have been perpetuated for generations will not change.”

“Online Resource Kit for Developing Partnerships”

The California Department of Education has an Online Resource Kit for Developing Partnerships to Close the Achievement Gap.

It includes a short piece on the role of families.

I’m not sure how helpful the resource is (though I did learn about the California Parent Center through it), but it never hurts to be able to point to some official wording supporting what you want to do if you’re pushing to connect schools and families.

“Valley Interfaith And School Reform”

The Industrial Areas Foundation began making the distinction between parent “involvement” and parent “engagement” during its community organizing efforts in schools during the 1990′s, and Professor Dennis Shirley wrote about it in his 1997 book Community Organizing For Urban School Reform. Even though a chapter in our book focuses on the IAF’s work (I was an IAF organizer for the majority of my nineteen year organizing career), I’d encourage people to read Professor Shirley’s book.

After he published that book, he wrote another in-depth study on the work of just one IAF organization in Texas — Valley Interfaith And School Reform: Organizing for Power in South Texas . If you go to that link, you can see the table of contents and read the introduction. I’d encourage you to do so.

“In Philadelphia, Reaching Kids by Teaching Parents”

In Philadelphia, Reaching Kids by Teaching Parents is the title of an article in this week’s Education Week. It highlights efforts Philadelphia schools are making to connect with parents.

It particularly talks about their “Parent University.” It’s unclear, though, how much parents participating in developing its content. One of the main things, I think, that makes the “Parent University” at our school more “engagement” than “involvement” is that Elisa Gonzalez, its coordinator, made sure that parents determined what they wanted to learn, and then our school and the University of California at Davis worked with them to help deliver the content.

Getting Our Students & Their Families Thinking About College

(Cross-posted at Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites Of The Day)

I recognize that going to college is not necessarily the best choice for everybody. However, I also think it’s important for students — both our English Language Learners and those in the “mainstream” to be knowledgeable about college options so they can make a decision with all the needed information.

In the majority of our home visits to parents, we’ve found that parents might theoretically be interested in having their children attend college, but are very uncertain about many of the “how’s” — tests that need to be taken, ways to make it financially feasible, etc. Many also have concerns about their kids going to a school far way, and the idea of them doing it for four or five years “when we need money now.” Finally, since many ELL’s don’t pass the English portion of the California High School Exit Exam, they don’t end-up with a high-school diploma, and don’t necessarily believe that college is still an option (it is, especially with our local Community College).  All these issues are understandable, given that college is outside the experience of so many of our families.

Given these issues, I’ve begun meeting with Leticia Gallardo, an exceptional counselor at our school, to develop a plan to get our students and their families considering these questions now — when they’re in the ninth-grade — and not wait til later in their school career. It’s a simple one, and I’d be interested in getting feedback and other suggestions from readers about their own experiences with this issue.

I wanted to do something that could be easily integrated in our classes, be done over the course of the school year, and not take up too much time — a handful of class periods. Here’s what we’ve come up with so far:

In the next week or two, have students develop questions they have about college. In addition, part of the assignment will be to have them get questions from their parents, too.

Next, have them begin to research the answers to those questions. One good source will be The Best Sites For Encouraging ELL’s To Attend College. They would write up those answers, share them with their parents, and also write about their parents’ response.

Thirdly, students would write about the types of careers they might want to consider going into and ask their parents to share their own thoughts about what they might want their kids to do. In home visits, often parents seem surprised at this question and appear to have never thought about it before.

After that, students will research the different careers and the kind of formal education that would be required in order to enter them. The Best Websites For Students Exploring Jobs & Careers is a good source for this kind of information. Again, they would write up what they learned, share it with their parents, and get a response from them.

We’d end-up with a visit to a local four-year university, which would include separate orientations for students and parents.

What do you think? What might be missing? How could we make it better — without increasing the time commitment by much more?

What Is Mayor Bloomberg Thinking?

According to a newspaper interview published yesterday, New York City Mayor Bloomberg said:

parents need only be involved in the micro issues of their child’s education, like the child’s attendance, behavior and grades. It does not make sense for parents to be involved in larger issues

If that is an accurate representation of what he said, it’s sad to see that he doesn’t really understand parent engagement.