We are the parents. Is anyone listening?

No Child Left Behind aims at a dialogue with parents. But reaching them has not been easy.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A decade has slipped by since a fiery group of mothers in the South Bronx set out to make their voices heard in their children's schools.

Lucretia Jones, whose two children are now grown, says that parents in her neighborhood had previously been viewed as outsiders, only as valuable as the cookies they brought to bake sales. Today, Ms. Jones says, at least she and her peers are "sitting at the table" with the school administrators who once locked them out.

From her vantage point - as a lifelong Bronx resident and founding member of Mothers on the Move (MOM) - parents have made genuine strides toward opening educators' ears and school doors.

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But she offers no credit to the provisions in the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that call for a deeper dialogue between schools and families, particularly in low-income communities.

In fact, says the seasoned community activist, "I really didn't realize parental participation was part of [NCLB]."

It's been a problem for the implementors of the new education law. Some of its key provisions prompt states, districts, and schools to notify parents about everything from their children's progress to their options for transferring out of low-performing schools.

But a study to be released this week, based on conversations with 26 grass-roots organizations, suggests that as of yet many parents - even those involved in their children's schools, remain unaware of these options, or bewildered as to how to exercise them.

Yet at the same time there is evidence that some districts and schools are making conscious - and promising - efforts to reach out to families as a direct result of NCLB.

If nothing else, NCLB has codified the crucial role that parent involvement plays in academic achievement, a role researchers have been promoting for some time.

Yet while a multitude of information, detailing everything from reading scores to graduation rates may be available, parents and organizers say few families know where to look, or how to parse the vast quantities of data once they do find it.

One problem may be with the way all this information is disseminated.

Many districts rely on websites. Yet to view a website, points out Lauren E. Allen, senior program director for accountability at the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a national network based in Chicago, a parent must have access to a computer - and know how to navigate the Internet.

Even the old-fashioned, paper letters can be confusing. Without a forum to "engage in face-to-face question and answering," says Ms. Allen, parents often feel lost.

"Testing, accountability, teacher quality - these are not bread-and-butter issues," she adds. "They're complex."

At this point, she says that communication between schools and families is best described as a one-way exchange rather than a meaningful dialogue.

In an effort to more clearly convey state test results to parents, Pennsylvania unveiled a new format last week for reporting scores. To be released in August, these "prettier" reports will also include suggested reading lists and activities that parents can undertake with their children.

The change wasn't "exactly spurred" by NCLB, says Brian Christopher, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, but he adds that the increased testing and reporting required by the law affirmed the need for a clearer way to communicate results with parents.

Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and a colleague, have found that districts and schools across the country are making similar efforts to connect with families as a result of NCLB.

Language and cultural barriers, which have traditionally stood between urban families and their schools, add still another layer of complication.

In Denver, where more than half of students are Latino, many come from families with parents who are recent immigrants, some undocumented.

Though NCLB recommends that districts and schools translate important materials whenever possible, Pam Martinez, codirector of the community group Padres Unidos, or Parents United, doubts that the parents she works with understand NCLB, let alone the options it offers them.

Of the country's urban school districts, Chicago parents may be best integrated into decisionmaking at their schools. In that city, parents elect a local school council that in turn hires a principal and controls the school budget.

Shortly after NCLB was in place, the Illinois branch of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the nation's largest organization of low and moderate-income families, resolved to determine whether Chicago teachers were "highly qualified," as required by federal law.

"We saw NCLB as a possible tool for parents to really improve the quality of instruction in the classrooms," says Madeline Talbott, head organizer for Illinois ACORN in Chicago.

Yet even for a savvy group like ACORN, just finding the state's definition of qualified proved problematic. Currently, highly qualified teachers are those who have passed a state test in their subject area and hold an Illinois teacher's certification.

But the hurdles encountered by ACORN underscore the challenges a parent trying to uncover this information on her own would face.

Today, the district regularly sends out letters about its teachers, says Ms. Talbott, but often they aren't particularly informative.

One laudatory note might sing the praises of a Yale educated teacher who earned his Master's from Harvard and taught students in South Africa - without any mention of his preparation to teach chemistry to Chicago schoolchildren.

"We have some tools, but we're still on this long march to get to the point where they're useful," says Ms. Talbott. "We're not there yet, but we'll get there."

John Beam, executive director of the National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University in New York - which, along with Cross City Campaign and the Center for Community Change in Washington, conducted the conversations with the 26 grass-roots organizations - wonders what happens once parents have discovered that their teachers are flawed.

"So we've demonstrated ... that we need to get better teachers in our classrooms," he says. "But nothing in No Child Left Behind makes it easier to do that."

In another effort to foster stronger partnerships between parents and schools, New York this year hired parent coordinators to act as liaisons in each of the city's 1,200 schools.

The degree to which they've opened lines of communication varies by school, says Gail Gadsden, who fills the position at PS 212 in the Bronx and is a member of MOM.

At her school, Ms. Gadsden boasts, parents now volunteer one day a week to tutor their children in their classrooms.

But most of the parents Gadsden works with understand only fragments of NCLB. They may know, for instance, about the option to switch their child out of a struggling school, but not how to go about doing that.

Whose fault is this gap in understanding?

"I'm not going to blame the government," she says. "They put the information out there, and we have to read it."

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