Parent Left Behind
by Amanda Paulson, The Christian Science Monitor, October
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You might call
it the science-fair syndrome.
Every year, remembers Julie Woestehoff, "my husband and I would
be [at the school], asking when the science fair was, wanting to
help. And somehow it was always Sunday night at 10 o'clock -
'Oh, I need a show board, I need this, I need that.' It was
supposed to be done over two weeks' time and we'd just be
It's a familiar scenario for many parents, and a memory Ms.
Woestehoff laughs at now.
But the point it highlighted for her - the abysmal communication
that often exists between schools and parents - is a serious
Educators have recognized for some time that parent involvement
plays a critical role in student achievement. Especially in
urban districts it has become increasingly clear that failure to
enlist parents as partners seriously hampers any school-reform
But it's only recently that many schools, districts, and states
have been taking concrete steps to help what's often a tense
Particularly in urban areas, school officials often complain
that parents are too busy or not sufficiently caring to get
involved at their childrens' schools.
Yet at the same time many parents say they feel threatened or
unwelcome, and that what many principals mean by "parent
involvement" is really bake sales and book drives. The result:
open hostility between people who ultimately all have the same
To improve this unhappy state of affairs, the sweeping 2002 No
Child Left Behind Act has for the first time put in place laws
intended to foster parent involvement. The mandates included in
the federal act range from better communication on such things
as test scores and parents' options to requirements that schools
develop a "school-parent" compact and a plan to involve parents.
At this point, most of the reforms still exist more on paper
than in practice. But just formally recognizing the importance
of the issue - the need for involvement that's truly
collaborative - is a step in the right direction, say educators.
"People in the [school] community have to see that communicating
well with families is part of their professional job," says
Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and
Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
"That's explicit now. If No Child Left Behind really were
implemented as intended, it would really be quite exciting."
A number of states and districts are also trying out their own
In Arkansas, a new law requires all districts and schools to
write plans for involving parents, and to designate a "parent
facilitator" at each school. It encourages everything from cards
with tips to help children succeed - included in local
businesses' paychecks - to setting up local "parent information
New York City is going even further, spending $43 million to
hire a full-time parent coordinator for every school in the
city. That means 1,200 coordinators, plus a support network.
"Before, we had 32 people working with parents. Now we have
1,300," says Jean Desravines, director of New York's Office of
Parent and Community Engagement. He says the decision came after
months of meetings with city parents revealed that most felt
unwelcome and uninformed.
Here in Chicago, parents have had a greater voice than in any
other urban district in the country. Reforms that year created a
local school council for every school in the city, with
authority to hire the principal and renew his contract, develop
an annual school-improvement plan, and set the school's budget.
Each LSC has a parent majority - an aspect that Woestehoff's
organization, Parents United for Responsible Education [PURE],
fought hard for when the law was passed. (Other members include
teachers, the principal, and nonparent community members.)
"It sort of puts Chicago parents on the same level with a
suburban parent," says Woestehoff.
"A suburban parent comes in with a sense of entitlement: This is
my child, and this is what's going to happen. Big-city parents
don't usually have that edge. But with the local school council
behind you, they're not as likely to try to blow [the parent]
Some LSCs have also been key to helping turn their schools
around, and to changing the relationship between the
administration and the parents.
South Loop Elementary is a prime example.
The 400-student, red-brick school, which sits in a neighborhood
of small, well-kept homes just south of Chicago's dramatic
skyline, has undergone big changes in the last few years.
Lauren Rhone, a South Loop resident for 12 years and a mother of
two young children, says just a few years ago the school felt
closed off, middle-class families didn't want to send their
children there, and there wasn't a single map or globe in the
She and other community members helped elect a strong new LSC
that replaced the principal and reached out to families. They
got a tuition-based preschool, an after-school program, and a
summer school in place.
From the beginning, Pat Baccellieri, the new principal, was
determined to make parents an integral part of the school. He
started an open-door policy that encouraged parents to meet with
him, and had teachers send home monthly newsletters and make
themselves available to families.
He also invited parents to afternoon workshops where teachers
would demonstrate how they were teaching math or reading. "The
traditional model for school-parent relations is that when their
child is in trouble, the school contacts them. We're trying to
contact them for other reasons," Mr. Baccellieri explains.
It's that change in mind-set - a shift from seeing parents as
nuisances to recognizing them as potential partners - that seems
to be key.
Todd Jungenberg, whose oldest child is in kindergarten at South
Loop this year, says he or his wife talks to his daughter's
teacher several times a week, by phone or e-mail. "When she asks
for volunteers, she gets 12 parents."
But even with the school's commitment to reaching out, there
have been challenges.
Ellen Lorden, secretary of the South Loop LSC and the mother of
a second-grader, says the family-involvement group she serves on
has had a much harder time bringing in parents of older
children, used to the system under the former principal.
"It's one thing to welcome parents that are going to be engaged
anyway," she says. "It's another to engage parents who aren't
involved.... We've got a long way to go to make everybody feel
In New York, Suzanne Howell took on the role of parent
coordinator at Brooklyn's P.S. 38 this fall.
Ms. Howell says she's found that face-to-face interaction, often
as simple as talking to parents when they drop their kids off at
school, is one of the best ways to reach uninvolved parents.
"I've realized a lot of parents just want you to listen to
them," she says.
The program has had some skeptics, who wonder if coordinators
will serve as an unnecessary buffer between parents and
principals, or whether schools that already had good parent
involvement might have to put the resources to better use.
But Howell doesn't see how having parents in the schools more
often can fail to help. "In the end," she says, "everything we
do can only benefit the children."
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