Schools strive for 'no parent left behind'
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Even this school, which tries hard to connect with parents, finds it difficult at times to keep them engaged in broader decisionmaking, say staff members who attend a monthly parent-council meeting at Tobin. About 15 parents usually attend, but on this frigid February night, the staff sat for nearly an hour munching on a dinner that's provided, waiting in vain for any parent to show up.Skip to next paragraph
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A state legislator in Texas, frustrated by what he sees as parents' lack of engagement, is taking a hard-nosed approach. Rep. Wayne Smith (R) proposed a law recently that would fine parents for failing to show up at a parent-teacher conference without a legitimate excuse. Schools would have to send a certified letter proposing three dates for the meeting.
Organizations like the National PTA, on the other hand, prefer the carrot to the stick. It has designated this week as its second annual Take Your Family to School Week. Hundreds of parent-teacher associations responded with ideas ranging from a parent-teacher basketball match to parents shadowing their children in abbreviated classes.
One bright note as awareness on this issue grows: The percent of parents who participated in a general school meeting rose from 75 percent in 1993 to 85 percent in 2003, according to a recent report by the national Center for Education Statistics.
By the time students are in high school, it's particularly difficult to get parents to participate, says Michelle Walden, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Central High School in Capitol Heights, Md., a participant in the "family" week.
"A lot of the parents just truly don't know" of the activities going on, she says. Sometimes they refuse to be on e-mail lists because they're unsure what kind of e-mails they'll receive, or their kids forget to give them announcements. "A lot of them are kind of like, 'I don't get involved,' unless it relates directly to them," she says.
When it comes to giving parents options if schools are failing, one key is for them to receive clearer and more timely information.
The Appleseed study looked at reports on school performance that go out to parents and found "some that were, frankly, truly awful," Mr. Darden says; they were packed with statistics and jargon. "A parent shouldn't have to pick up the phone to ask someone to decode [the report]," he says.
Other reasons for low transfer and tutoring rates cited by various experts include a lack of better performing schools into which students could transfer; a strong desire to stay in neighborhood schools; and poor communication with parents about tutoring options.
The US Department of Education acknowledges the need for improvements in these areas. "There are about 1,800 schools today ... in this chronic underperformance category," said Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in a conference call last month unveiling proposed changes to NCLB, which is up for reauthorization in Congress this year. "We all have to answer the question ... what are we gonna do about that? No Child Left Behind must be a promise that is lived out and met for these families."
Her proposals include providing more money for supplemental services for students who live in rural areas, have disabilities, or are learning English – three groups that have been particularly underserved. "Promise Scholarships" would give an additional $2,500 to $3,000 to eligible students to help them to transfer to better public schools (even outside their district) or private schools, or to receive intensive tutoring.
Federal education officials are planning to visit 14 districts to focus attention on parental involvement and supplemental services.
An independent bipartisan commission also released recommendations for improving NCLB this week. They include a requirement that public school districts create an office or designate a contact person for parents to talk with about options for their children.
Meanwhile, some grass-roots groups around the country have already been advocating for schools to do more to include parents in their decisionmaking. The Boston Parent Organizing Network, for example, lobbied for the district to hire a family coordinator for each school. Two years ago, 15 were hired, says assistant director Myriam Ortiz, but the group is still fighting for full implementation of the plan by bringing parents to every budget meeting to voice their demands.