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Hanging Up on Parents?

by Gail Robinson, May 22, 2006
 

Nothing that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has done on education in the last four years has drawn as much protest as the enforcement of the ban on cell phones in schools. It has spawned demonstrations, petitions and bills in the New York City Council and New York State legislature, and threatens to overshadow every other issue in education.

Many of those opposing the ban have focused on the safety of students who travel long distances to and from school. But for some, the cell phone issue is emblematic of a deeper issue -- the Department of Education’s reluctance to involve parents in decision-making in the schools. “The cell phone policy is not an isolated incident,” Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum told the City Council. “The Department of Education routinely changes things without keeping parents in the loop.”

At a recent City Council hearing, witness after witness said that parents had little opportunity to influence innumerable actions that Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have taken, such as shutting some schools and moving others; refusing to promote students who have low scores on standardized tests; and changing rules for gifted and talented programs. The system of mayoral control adopted in 2002, they said, had shut parents and others out of any meaningful involvement in school decision-making.

"There is no place to have your voice heard beyond your local school, " Diane Ravitch, a New York University education historian, told a meeting of parents and educators in 2004.

“There is no true consultation. It’s more, 'We will brief you,’” said Council Education Committee Chairman Robert Jackson.

And that, Klein might say, is just as it should be. Consulting with parents can create “gridlock,” the chancellor once said. "For every issue in which you think there is parent agreement ... there are wide ranges of very different views."

Even many of Bloomberg’s critics concede that the school system he inherited had failed many city children for decades. Dramatic change has been essential. But is it possible to make sweeping reforms, and still consult parents along the way?

WHO’S INVOLVED AND HOW MUCH?

Almost everyone gives lip service to encouraging parental involvement. But while “the easy response” is to agree that parents should play a great role “practically speaking it gets very difficult,” said Elena Silva of Education Sector, an independent think tank.

For some, involvement means little more than helping parents make sure their kids get to school on time and are prepared every day. Even this can be difficult in a city with many single parents, parents who work multiple jobs or parents who do not speak English. To help them, the city translates report cards, registration forms and major notices into eight languages. Earlier this year, following a mayoral veto, the City Council and Bloomberg worked out an agreement to expand such services so immigrant parents could be more involved in their children’s education.

Staff can be reluctant to engage parents, said Silva, and conflicts may arise among parents – between the “ins” and the “outs” in the parents' association, for example, or among different racial and economic groups.

To encourage involvement in individual schools, the Department of Education has placed full-time paid parent coordinators in all but the smallest city schools. Last year, according to Jemima Bernard, executive director of the Office of Parent Engagement, parent coordinators had more than 2 million contacts with parents – including at least 630,000 face-to-face meetings. Parents, Bernard said, were generally pleased – giving 96 percent of the coordinators a favorable rating.

The parent coordinators help parents with paperwork, field questions and do other things that help parents support academic success, said John Beam, executive director of the National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University. “These are important things but they are not at all about power-sharing,” he said.

Critics charge that, since parent coordinators are hired by the principal, they sometimes are not responsive to parents' needs. “Parent coordinators are looking over their shoulders constantly, being concerned about what the principal is going to say,” Sherri Donders, president of the Staten Island federation of PTAs, told the City Council.

If there are problems in individual schools, there are even more complications on the level of the Community School District or the Department of Education as a whole. While parents are involved at many individual schools, Don Holly, an active parent, told the City Council “at the next level up, parents do not have a seat at the decision making table.”

DOES DEMOCRACY MATTER?

When they took over the school system, Klein and Bloomberg repeatedly explained why they believed consulting with parents –- and with unions and others as well -– could derail education reform. “There’s just a limit to how much you can consult,” Bloomberg said on “60 Minutes” in 2003. “The way to stop progress is to say, ‘Yes, I love it, but’ – and there’s always a but. And society can't focus that way. If you ever saw a system that was broken, it was our public school system.... [W]e consulted an awful lot but we never did anything.”

But others argue that, as sloppy as it may be, democracy – and particularly parental involvement – is simply the right thing to do. “One of the fundamental human rights is participation of parents and students in decisions that affect them, ” said Ellen Raider, co-founder of Independent Commission on Public Education, an advocacy group.

And there are practical benefits as well. A raft of studies indicates that children whose parents play an active role in their educations – from helping with homework to going to PTA meetings – do better in school than other kids.

Parents who are involved are more likely to insist schools deliver the kind of education their children need. Some schools, of course, might see that as a mixed blessing. When schools shut out low-income parents from the school, it limits their ability of those parents “to hold schools accountable for educational failure,” Elizabeth Sullivan wrote in a report on parent participation.

When parents are involved, they are more likely to support the school system. “Anything that distances public education from society is not a good thing,” said John Beam of Fordham University.

This goes beyond supporting more school spending to becoming vested in educational programs and reforms. Without the help of parents, Silva said, “We're not going to see a real improvement in what’s happening in the classroom.”

THE CELL PHONE CONTROVERSY

“You don’t get good decisions if you alienate people,” said Raider of the Independent Commission on Public Education. “This is not even a good corporate model."

To many, the cell phone controversy is a case in point. The announcement that the Department of Education would begin enforcing the long-standing but often ignored ban on cell phones came as school was about to close for spring vacation. Parents had not been consulted -- and many were not even around to learn about the change.

When they did hear about it, many reacted angrily, saying the school system seemed unaware of the need for parents to contact students traveling around the city.

Klein and Bloomberg say cell phones make it easier for kids to cheat on tests, take pictures in locker room and bathrooms, arrange drug deals or call in reinforcements for schoolyard fights. In a radio address, the mayor likened cell phones to guns and knives.

With parents' views seemingly ignored, the incident has revived the picture of an autocratic mayor, out of touch with people who send their kids to Department of Education schools. “I don’t know who [Bloomberg’s] constituency is. I suspect they’re private school parents,” said Councilmember Letitia James, who has introduced a resolution to overturn the ban. “My constituents are public school parents and a lot of them are single female parents who need to be in touch with their child.”

To other parents, the issue went gone beyond the phones to a question of parental -– and student -– involvement in decision-making. “The people who picked this up early on are people who think they have helped build a certain school culture that didn’t involve metal detectors,” said Beam. “It wasn’t just a violation of parent involvement in terms of consulting but in terms of creating a school culture.”

With bills to overturn the ban in both the City Council and the state legislature, the council has scheduled a hearing for June 14.

But Public Advocate Gotbaum, for one, thinks parents and school officials should try to work out a compromise. In a similar vein a city education advocacy group has launched a contest to find a solution. (For a student perspective on the controversy, see related story.)

INVOLVING OR IGNORING

The cell phone conflict is straightforward. But many issues present a more complicated view of how parental involvement can help – or hurt.

As an example, one could go back to the early 1990s and school chancellor Joseph Fernandez’s efforts to institute the “Rainbow Curriculum,” a course of study designed to address all cultures including gays and lesbians. The move met harsh criticism. More than 1,000 parents attended a district meeting in Staten Island to express their opposition. Parents protested elsewhere as well, forcing Fernandez to back down on part of the curriculum. The uproar led to his ouster as chancellor.

PARENT VERSUS PARENT

Disagreements among parents present a particular challenge as the chancellor has learned on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Affluent parents, most of them white, prized the neighborhood's elementary school gifted and talented programs. But black and Latino parents charged the selection process for the program left their children out. To address this concern, the Department of Education made changes, saying it would no longer give preferences to children who live in a school’s immediate vicinity or who have a sibling in the program. This enraged another group of parents, who felt their wishes have been ignored.

“The protesting parents are treated like stage mothers, and the educrats’ defenses are swallowed whole,” wrote Henry Stern. “The West Side parents are relatively powerless. Their only remedy appears to be a lawsuit.”

CONSULT AND INFORM

Not surprisingly in a city with a perennial space crunch, city parents become particularly wrought on issues involving which school should be located where. This issue has become increasingly heated, as the city struggles to find space to house all of its new small schools and charter schools. Parents have charged that they are not consulted about– or even informed of -- Department of Education decisions.

Parents at P.S. 137on the Lower East Side have protested plans to move that school from its building on Cherry Street to make way for the Shuang Wen Academy, a small school with classes in English and Mandarin. “All these changes happened in secret,” one parent of two PS 137 students has said.

And parent consultation might have made a difference. Lisa Donlan, a parent member of the local Community Education Council, told the Times, “We should have been able to come around a table and say, ‘How can we make this a win-win situation for everybody?’ But there was no table.”

Parents and the principal at NEST+m – New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math – reacted with outrage when Klein announced he wanted it to share space with Ross Global Academy, a new charter school, until the academy finds a permanent home. Charging that it had not been adequately informed of the decision, the PTA said it "is riled, frustrated and demanding action." Parents worry that having the Ross School in its midst will force NEST+m to admit fewer students or face overcrowding that could jeopardize its academic success.

Similarly, parents and teachers at P.S. 154 in Harlem have protested plans to move a charter school, Harlem Success, into PS 154’s building on West 127th Street. The parents worry about overcrowding but, the Amsterdam News reported, are "equally upset about being kept in the dark about their new neighbor. "

FROM COMMUNITY CONTROL TO MAYORAL CONTROL

No one would argue that it is easy to create meaningful parental involvement in a system as huge as New York City’s. The pendulum in New York City has swung back and forth between a decentralized system designed to give parents power and a more centralized approach.

When Bloomberg became mayor, he saw a system with 32 elected community school boards. Some had been accused of corruption; others handed out jobs to political cronies. Few New Yorkers would be willing to hold these elected bodies up as exemplars of democracy.

But when the community boards worked, said Kavitha Mediratta of the Community Involvement Program at NYU’s school of education, “they were a real avenue for participation…There was a structured way for people to have a role.”

Voter turnout was always low, but thousands of people did participate in school board elections. And because parents who were not citizens could vote, it gave a voice to people who often struggled to have their views heard. It was “one of the few places where Asians have gotten their votes heard and their candidates in," attorney Khin Mai Aung told Newsday.

Bloomberg decided to eliminate the boards and focus on parents. “Because of the mayor’s conviction that parent views are fundamental to our reforms, he advocated for parent-dominated bodies to replace the community school boards,” Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott testified before the City Council.

As a result, a number of groups exist:

Community Education Councils
Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council
School Leadership Teams
Parent’s Advisory Councils for Title 1, the program for low-income students
Citywide Council on High Schools
Citywide Council on Special Education

Some think this works. “I have nothing but accolades for the Department of Education” on parent involvement, a parent from the Highbridge section of the Bronx said. “This administration has done more for parent involvement and outreach than I can ever remember being done,” City Councilmember James Vacca said, although he added, ”Some parents may feel that on policy issues they may not be involved.”

But many people active in these groups – a number of whom testified at the City Council hearing this month -- say they have no clear role and little real authority or even advisory ability. “This chancellor views parents as the enemy rather than partner in education,” Tim Johnson, chair of the Chancellor’ Parent Advisory Panel, testified. And, said Kavitha Mediratta of NYU, many of these structures give parents the “authority to advise and to be ignored.”

People have not exactly flocked to their ranks. According to Carmen Colon, president of the Association of New York City Education Councils, 37 percent of community education council members did not return for a second term. In December, the Times reported that there were 70 vacancies on councils across the city.

Some advisory council members, though, say they have had successes. "I've been empowered to a degree I wouldn't have thought possible," Jeffrey Guyton, a council member from District 30 in Long Island City, said in a letter to the New York Times.

INVOLVING OTHERS

The current system does little to involve people who are not parents – and active parents at that. It tends to ignore students, and there is no role for people who do not have children. While in other communities all voters can chose school board members or vote on school budgets, in New York about all most citizens can do to express their opinions on schools is vote in the mayoral election.

While this is not necessarily integral to a system of mayoral control, it is part of New York City’s model, which features “a particularly high level of mayoral control,” said Silva.

The law creating this system expires in 2009, and so the issue will go before the state legislature again. With that in mind, many education advocates are looking ahead to how to change the system.

How extensive should the parents and community role be? “There is a role for parents and the community in education,” said Fritz Edelstein, a senior consultant to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “Is there a role for them to run the system? No, that’s not their job.”

But what is?

For More Information

Organizations

Association of New York City Education Councils
Created by parents and other activist to provide support to the councils.

Community Involvement Program, Steinhardt School of Education, New York University
Provides training support, organizing strategy, data analysis, and policy research to support community-based action for school improvement in urban areas.

Independent Commission on Public Education
Seeks to create a “human rights vision” for New York City schools, including greater parents and student participation in decision-making.

National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University
Works to strengthen grassroots support for school reform. The site recently conducted an on-line poll on cell phones in schools.

Articles and Reports

Report on Civil Society and School Accountability: A Human Rights Approach to Parent and Community Participation in New York City Schools

From Governance To Accountability: Building Relationships That Make Schools Work (in pdf format)
This report concludes that "developing a new community accountability system that anchors the essential relationships between schools and communities in ongoing efforts to improve schools is one of the most critical tasks before us."

The Underside of Bloomberg's School Reform How the Mayor's Top-Down Revolution Locks Out Communities

 


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