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Making Parents Partners

WANTED: Parents for PS 123 Parent Association -- Flexible schedule needed because time and location for meetings to be announced one hour before meeting time. All meetings held in the middle of the day during working hours. No child care provided and no pay. You must speak English; no translations available. The district provides no funds to support the activities of this group. All major decisions impacting your child will be made by the professionals in the building but we still encourage your participation.

Welcome to parent involvement in the New York City public school system.

If you are a parent of a child in the New York City public school system, you know the drill all too well. And you know that it has gone on for decades, despite two significant governance reforms and countless other meetings and speeches and coalitions that were supposed to bring schools and communities together.

The good news is that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein appear to understand the importance of parental involvement in education. The mayor, in last week´s education address, identified parent involvement as the third leg of his stool for improving public education in the city. Chancellor Klein gave the responsibility for parent involvement to his deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. This high-level acknowledgment of the role that parents and communities play in student achievement is unprecedented.

The challenge is that bringing about real change will require a significant shift in thinking. Educational professionals have never learned how to consider parents as their full partners in education.

How do you change the expectation of parents and communities that their involvement will continue to be peripheral?

You hold people accountable for it.

* * *

In the late 1960s, low-income and black and brown communities and the school system were at odds. Community activists were not, as revisionist history has sometimes portrayed, fighting for decentralization or a seat on a community school board. Instead, they wanted control of their own schools. They felt that only they, not administrators or teachers, could hold their children to the highest standards. The debate raised the question: What should the relationship be between schools and communities?

The 1969 legislation that created community school boards was the result of a political compromise brokered to appease the community. The Decentralization Law offered them a voice in policy making. But instead of figuring out how parents and communities could and should collaborate, the legislature created a structure.

Unfortunately, this would not be the last time.

Fast forward to 1996. The disconnect that existed in the 1960s between schools and communities had not changed. Community school boards, the vehicle that had been created ostensibly to bring communities and schools together, were viewed as the culprit. So the state created a new round of legislation that stripped community school boards of most of their powers and created School Leadership Teams to give parents a voice at the local school level. The impact on the capacity of our schools to view parents as full partners: none.

No mere change in structure will repair the problem that parents feel that schools are not open to them. Parent believe schools do not consider them legitimate partners in the education of their children or view them as entitled to information about how their schools run and how their children are being educated. A principal who did not have time for parents would not last long at a public school in Scarsdale, guaranteed.

Some editorial pages, and even former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, pointed the finger at parents. This is predictable -- and sometimes correct. But always be wary when people with political power blame those who do not have any. Of course there are parents who have not done their part to support the education of children. But is that as relevant as the fact that schools, inherently public institutions, have isolated themselves from the very people they work for?

* * *

To many, parent involvement conjures up the image of bake sales. That´s fine, but not what we are talking about. The goal is not to engage schools in meaningful relationships with parents because it is the nice thing to do, but because it is absolutely critical to any movement to improve schools.

If you are a principal in a low-performing school and you do not reach out to or welcome parents, can you still be effective? Maybe, but the odds do not favor it. The same goes for teachers. Why? Because if you know anything about education, you recognize that there is a direct relationship between parent involvement and student success. You would know automatically that your classroom or school building cannot be transformed by educators acting alone.

As we have learned, legislation does not automatically improve schools. Leaders, teachers, parents and students improve schools. Just look at the schools that succeed in our city and you will see that it is possible for schools to work, even against the odds. In every one of the successful schools, a strong relationship to parents and community constituents allowed them to change and thrive.

Students with involved parents do better in school. They show up, they do their homework, they have higher expectations for their own achievement. Schools with involved communities have a culture of success that cannot be created by administrative fiat. A strong partnership attracts other partners and soon we have created cycles of success.

How can we replicate this? By growing it, from the roots up. Relationships, among schools and parents and communities, are essential to nurture the process. But such relationships can only happen if the educational professionals in each building understand the importance of opening their doors, receive training in how to do it most effectively, and are held accountable for the results.

It is for that reason that "From Governance to Accountability: Building relationships that make schools work," a paper written by the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy for the Drum Major Institute, concluded that it is time to hold school staff accountable. We proposed a Compstat-like tracking mechanism and a series of new performance standards to evaluate teachers, principals and even the chancellor himself on efforts to engage their most important partners. The expectation of evaluation becomes the incentive. Each time the system looks at student attendance, test scores, and teacher-student ratios in order to assess its own progress, it must also measure its relationship, responsiveness, and openness to parents and communities.

We shared the results of our report with Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott and Chancellor Klein in November and were gratified to hear that it made an impact. The mayor, in his address last Wednesday announced, "The entire school system, from principals up to the chancellor, will be held accountable for effectiveness in engaging parents and responding to their concerns. Parent engagement also will be a significant factor in principal performance reviews. This will ensure that it is viewed as a core responsibility, not as an ‘add-on´ or optional activity."

This is the right first step in undoing the distrust between schools and communities. For far too many years, this mutual suspicion was bandaged with legislation, structures and councils -- with everything but the hard work of opening schools up to the people most important to the lives of children: their parents.

Fernando Ferrer, former mayoral candidate and Bronx borough president, is president of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, where Andrea Batista Schlesinger, who assisted in this essay, is executive director.

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