California has established parent involvement as one of eight priority areas that local educators must focus on, but school districts have a long way to go to make that involvement “authentic” and “meaningful,” according to a new report.
The report, issued by Families in Schools, a statewide advocacy organization based in Los Angeles, is urging the state to adopt “consistent, high quality” standards to determine how effectively schools and districts are engaging parents.
It is based on interviews with 30 school district leaders from 14 school districts in California. The report did not identify the names of those interviewed or the districts, offering them anonymity “so that fear or politics would not prevent them from sharing their real opinions and experiences.”
The State Board of Education is currently still drawing up “rubrics” or guidelines for how to assess progress, or the lack of it, in each of the eight priority areas prescribed by the Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF, the landmark school financing reforms championed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
School districts are required to draw up a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) to describe how they will spend state funds to improve student academic outcomes.
Under the financing formula, districts get additional funds for every low-income student, English learner and foster child they serve. Parents must be involved in deciding how these funds are spent — to a greater extent than in any other state, according to State Board President Michael Kirst. In addition, parents must be involved in decision making at school sites, and in programs for high-needs students.
The Families in Schools report offers a detailed rubric with numerous ways districts – and the state – can measure how well they are engaging parents and families. “These measures establish clear expectations of how schools should engage, reach out to, and partner with all parents, especially those whose students are low-income, English learners and foster youth,” the report states.
But Oscar Cruz, executive director of Families in Schools, said that too often schools have a “compliance-based” approach to parent involvement – such as simply getting parents to a meeting – without forging deeper relationships between parents and their child’s school.
“What is the use of having 60 percent of parents coming to an LCAP meeting, if when they go to their school and their principal doesn’t want to meet with them, and they feel pushed out?” he said.
“Moving from policy to implementation – that is where there is a huge gap,” Cruz said.
Cruz’s organization differentiates parent involvement, which it defines as actions parents take to support their child’s education at home and at school, from parent engagement, which refers to what actions schools take to involve parents in their child’s school and in decision-making there.
Based on its interviews, the report concludes that many districts, regardless of their size, “simply lack the resources and/or expertise to build robust parent engagement programs.”
In addition, the report says, “school administrators are slow to give teachers and staff the tools and training they need to connect with parents.” Many district leaders concede that “parent engagement often falls to the bottom of the pile.”
Mary Lee, whose son graduated from a Los Angeles Unified high school in 2012, is a “parent ambassador” for Families in Schools. In that role, she does volunteer work to promote parent involvement in Los Angeles Unified. She said that “some schools are really making strides in outreach, and there are others where parents don’t even know what the LCFF is,” she said.
Stephanie Sequeira, who has three children in the César Chávez Elementary School in Richmond, is the outgoing president of the District LCAP Committee for West Contra Costa Unified. Despite the requirements of the LCFF, she said, “I see it as another rubber stamp committee.”
“Parents are there, but we are not as actively involved as we should be,” she said.
She said she often gives rides to parents to get to meetings, and that the work of a nonprofit organization, Building Blocks for Kids Collaborative, was a key factor in training parent groups to be more effective. A new principal at her child’s school this year has also made a big difference, she says.
The Families in Schools report also noted that too often parent engagement efforts attract the same group of families, rather than widening the pool to new, previously uninvolved parents.
Several early reviews of the state’s school financing laws indicate that the reforms have resulted in greater parent engagement. “In some districts, we see that administrators are using LCFF funds to expand parent engagement programs, add new services for foster youth, or improve school climate,” a 2015 Education Trust-West report found.
But despite these efforts, Los Angeles Unified school board member Monica Garcia said there is still a need to take on the challenge of engaging caregivers in “an organized and effective way.”
“In California we have to do a much better job of engaging parents and families,” she said. “They are always part of the solution.”