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No parent left behind

(Page 2 of 2)



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.)

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"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] off."

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 entire building.

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 comfortable."

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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