In era of 'accountability,' parents get report cards, too

When report-card day comes at Harold Washington Elementary School on Chicago's South Side, parents are often as nervous as their children.

The reason: They get their own report card from the teacher. Tucked inside the same envelope as their child's results are grade letters for Mom or Dad's performance. A student's poor attendance or failure to turn in homework might earn parents a D in both areas.

"It's not a penalty thing," points out Sandra Lewis, principal of the 750-student school. There are no "failing" grades. But "nobody wants to get a D," she acknowledges. If that happens, she says, ideally it's a prod to action. "Parents and teachers then begin to talk. It opens up lines of communication about why things aren't happening."

Teachers have been issuing report cards at Harold Washington for seven years now. But in September, all 600 Chicago public schools will begin sending home a parent checklist, though not necessarily with letter grades.

It's all part of a broad effort to get parents engaged. And Chicago is not alone. Armed with research showing that involved parents can be a significant force behind successful students, schools and districts across the United States are looking for innovative ways to loop in often-disengaged families.

Everyone held accountable

Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, initiated the parent evaluations to increase accountability for everyone in his district. Citing a high percentage of at-risk children and young single mothers with little parenting experience, he says, "the school system has got to get into the business of educating parents."

He sees the checklist - which will go out once every five weeks and address areas including academics, healthcare, nutrition, and cleanliness - as a way to "instruct parents on what they need to do to be involved in their child's education, and also identify the things that parents are clearly not doing."

The Chicago initiative isn't sitting well with everyone. Johnny Holmes, a Chicago parent and advocate trainer with Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), calls the plan a "smoke screen," adding that it's "taking the focus off what the school should be doing."

Mr. Holmes acknowledges that "everybody is supposed to be accountable." But he says there's a difference "between being accountable and being a scapegoat for somebody else who didn't do their job." Many parents already feel unwelcome in the schools, he adds, and a checklist may exacerbate that feeling.

Joyce Epstein, the director of John Hopkins University's Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships in Baltimore, also comments that while an effort like Chicago's has good intentions, it might be a little one-sided.

"If there are ratings, it's got to be equitable," Ms. Epstein says. "If parents are asked to do something, they need to know that teachers are doing their part as well, and that youngsters, who have their role, are also doing their part. Schools can't just point to parents."

Epstein has developed criteria that help the 1,100 members of her center's National Network of Partnership Schools work effectively with families and communities.

Mr. Vallas emphasizes that the parent checklist isn't the only thing his district is doing to increase family involvement. In addition to giving detailed orientation packets and weekly homework instruction sheets to parents, Chicago has started a program called Parents are Teachers First, which employs more than 1,000 parents as truant officers, teachers' aides, and parent advocates.

Vallas plans to expand the program to include parent counselors. "If you have parents who are clearly not responding, they will visit the home and try to work with the parent to get the parent back on track. This will be parents counseling other parents."

Each school in the Chicago district will be free to implement the checklists in its own way, Vallas notes. Many schools may simply use the checklist for parents who aren't engaged, as a way of providing a first step before a home visit.

Building trust on both sides

But in Sacramento, Calif., a faith-based community group, ACT (Area Congregations Together), is approaching the issue from the other direction.

ACT leans toward grass-roots, bottom-up methods to effect social change in relatively low-income communities. Members of the group say the home visits need to come first, to create a safe environment in which teachers and parents can give one another feedback.

Sandy Smith, ACT's executive director, says her group started its successful home-visit program to address the deep distrust it found between parents and schools. Parents felt judged and excluded by what they saw as "white, middle-class teachers with white, middle-class perspectives," and educators assumed that parents in poor communities were lazy and drug-addicted. "It became a cycle of blame, and the child was caught up in it," says Ms. Smith.

ACT first met with parents and then brought in educators for face-to-face discussions. "As they talked to one another, we saw that relationships of trust began," Smith says. "The blame was not on the table."

One parent suggested that in her home, "on her turf," she'd feel less nervous and more accepting of feedback.

Fewer suspensions

Three years later, home visits have become standard practice for the 14 schools currently committed to the program (the number is expected to grow to 24 this year). Teachers make their first house calls in August or September, before they have any score cards on the kids. The visit "sets the tone," says Smith. "[Teachers] couldn't believe how the school year started. Behavior problems really dropped." One school that tallied 500 suspensions the previous year cut the number to 123. Now its number of suspensions is in the 30s.

The second home visit occurs in January. Armed with assessment scores and perhaps a level of trust that makes both parties more accepting of feedback, teachers can make suggestions related to academics, nutrition, or bedtimes. They're addressing the problems, says Smith, "but putting it in a context that isn't pointing to a parent's inability to [parent successfully]. They're looking at it as building capacity."

Learning to listen rather than talk at or down to parents is key. Smith has found that teachers who were initially fearful of the community now have a greater understanding of their students. Parents are impressed that teachers care enough to visit, and are more likely to volunteer in the schools as well as step up their performance at home.

Karen Mapp, president of the Boston-based Institute for Responsive Education, agrees that a healthy dialogue between all parties is the necessary starting point.

Ultimately, "we've all got to raise the bar in terms of our level of responsibility," Ms. Mapp says. "Everybody has a role. The teachers' role is to supply great teaching and learning in the classroom, but there's also a role for parents and communities."

And for parents at Harold Washington, their efforts might just earn them a spot on the parent honor roll.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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