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Parent Engagement Boards: Five Principles

(Excerpted from Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott's testimony to the Task Force on School Governance Reform on January 16.)

To build community and parental involvement, the Department of Education has embarked on a comprehensive effort to listen to the ideas of parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, community-based and civic organizations. More than 50,000 parents and community members have been engaged in the process. This outreach has enabled parents and communities to have a voice and be a crucial part of this ground-breaking school reform effort.

After listening to the many people who have attended these meetings and receiving information from parents, school board members and academics, we have established several key principles that guide our thinking on the replacement of community school boards.

Most importantly the replacement body should make the school system more accessible to parents and guarantee that parents' views on their children's education are heard. Thus our first and most crucial recommendation is that we replace community school boards as they exist today with what we are calling new "parent engagement boards," consisting entirely of parents and chosen by parents of those school children.

Community school boards that were conceived with the intent to give a voice to the underrepresented have failed to give the voice to those with the most at stake. In the last election of community school board members, approximately 3 percent of those eligible voted. This paltry turnout demonstrates the lack of connection that most people in the community feel with their local community school boards.

The members of the parent engagement boards must be true representatives of the schools in the district. And they must be those with the most at stake -- parents of public school children elected by parents.

While our focus is on the parents, we recognize the critical role that community groups play in the school system. Community organizations can provide us with a critical range of services both during and after the school day. To that end, we will announce a comprehensive strategy to partner with community organizations that will focus on youth development, family, health and after-school programs.

The second principle is honoring not only the requirement of the [federal] Voting Rights Act, but also its spirit. We are confident that our proposals will enhance the level of involvement in meeting these goals.

The third principle is taking the politics out of the process. Changing these structures to parent-only entities is critical. We cannot risk a return to the highly politicized situation that existed in many districts for the last 30 years. I envision these new boards, because of their parent-only design, will stay above the political fray and focus on the challenge of educating our children.

The fourth principle concerns the role of Parent Engagement boards. These boards should have real influence. This means serving as a forum to hear the concerns of parents, providing clear input into the plans, and as a resource to the superintendents and chancellor.

The fifth principle is a coherence between the schools and the district-level boards. We should create a bottom-up parent structure by aligning the activities of the Parent Engagement Boards with the current school leadership teams. As part of the Department of Education's efforts to increase parent participation in school boards we will provide effective training with parent members on school leadership teams to ensure that all aspects are effective. In sum, these principles will allow parents to have a more meaningful role in their children's education.

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