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No parent left behind

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 2003


You might call it the science-fair syndrome.

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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 finding out."

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 issue.

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 efforts.

But it's only recently that many schools, districts, and states have been taking concrete steps to help what's often a tense relationship.

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 goals.

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 strategies.

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 centers."

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.