LOS ANGELES – Parents in Los Angeles agree the state’s new school funding law, known as the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), is a good thing in terms of opening the district up to greater parent engagement. The problem is no one is quite sure what the relationship is supposed to look like.

“The most important thing for parents is training,” said Diana Guillen, a mother of four kids and part of the 47-member Parent Advisory Council (PAC), which informs the district on where the greatest needs are in the district’s 600 plus schools. “And so far there hasn’t been any. We parents don’t know what our role is. We are often seen [by the district] as just causing trouble.”

Under LCFF – which promises more state money to low-income and English Learner students, as well as foster youth – school districts are required to engage parents and the wider school community before setting their three-year spending priorities, known as a Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). District officials have until the beginning of July to submit their LCAPs to the state for approval.

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report by EdSource notes districts statewide are struggling to make sense of the tide of input gotten from parents so far in the LCAP process. An equally difficult challenge for districts, it seems, is figuring out how to work with these same parents.

Rowena Lagrosa is the director of LAUSD’s Parent Community Services Branch, which helps coordinate the district’s parent engagement efforts. She noted there are over 100 members serving on LAUSD’s various parent councils, adding that her office has held 100 LCFF meetings across the district to date.

“We have been on a journey of discovery,” Lagrosa said with regard to the LCAP process. But, she admitted, “there is a great deal of work before us” when it comes to developing an effective partnership with parents.

Still, she said, students “need to be at the middle of this conversation … It’s about empowering parents so they can hold us accountable in offering the best education possible.”

Lagrosa spoke alongside parent representatives and advocates at an April 23 media briefing organized by New America Media and the Los Angeles-based organization Families in Schools (FIS). The briefing offered an assessment by parents of the district’s efforts at engaging communities.

“LAUSD is turning a corner,” said FIS’s Sandy Mendoza. “Parents have never been part of the conversation … your leadership here matters.”

Families in Schools recently launched a campaign called Parents Matter NOW (http://parentsmatternow.org/) that calls for 1 percent of district funds under LCFF to be allocated for parent engagement, including training of parents in working with the district to set budget priorities.

FIS Vice President Kaci Patterson told attendees that thanks to LCFF, for the first time parents in schools can “talk openly about [the needs of] kids of color and not be embarrassed.” But, she continued, many parents remain frustrated at “what is happening to them, and not with them.”

Patterson said the key question with LCFF is how LAUSD will address its highest need students.

“We want parents to be authentic leaders,” said Ana Carrion, a mother of five and president of the English Learner Advisory Council. “We want transparency and responsiveness [from the district] … we want greater participation.”

Carrion has come up with a plan for how to train parents to be leaders in their schools, but says the district has yet to offer its approval.

Yolande Beckles is a mother of five and a former vice chair of the District Advisory Committee, which in 2011 sued the district for misusing funds intended for low-income Title 1 students. She says there is right now some $7 million in LCFF funds for the district to put toward parent engagement. “The money is there to train parents,” said Beckles, who also noted that with the district’s diversity – there are over 134 languages spoken in LAUSD – there is “no one size fits all” approach.

Other parents at the event complained about LAUSD’s unresponsiveness to their concerns.

Adan Prieto has three daughters in LAUSD schools. The youngest, who is 8-years-old, is on an Individualized Academic Plan (IAP) for students with special needs. He says the district wants to shut down the class his daughter is in because of under-enrollment, though he notes the actual number of students enrolled, 15, is greater than the three students the district says are in the class.

“They’ll have to shut this class down over my dead body,” says Prieto, noting one of the problems with effective LCFF implementation is that the district often seems “disconnected from what’s happening at the schools.”

Christine Li, whose son attends a Mandarin immersion program at Broadway Elementary, says the local school board ignored parent concerns when it recently voted to split the program into two schools and then launch a Spanish immersion program in its place. She described the move as an attempt to split parents in the community, and asked how the district could work to “bring communities together.”

Other parents say it’s the schools that actively discourage parents from getting involved. “I went from [being seen by the school] as helpful, to curious, to concerned, alarmed and finally a troublemaker,” said PAC member Paul Robak, whose two kids attend LAUSD schools.

Robak hailed LCFF as a “truly historic” moment for parents, but decried what he sees as a lack of willingness on the part of schools to accommodate or encourage parent engagement. He pointed to the timing of school site meetings, saying they are often in the middle of the day and so exclude participation by working parents.

Robak referred to himself as a “parent resource,” explaining that schools often do not help parents understand how to solve problems themselves. “I know how to connect the dots,” he said.

For Tony Hicks, a member of the Black Parent Union and former school auditor, connecting the dots means “following the money.” Hicks says the district needs to set up an outside monitoring organization of parents who are trained to ensure district spending is in line with LCFF requirements.

“Schools are not going to change by themselves,” continued Hicks. “The system is not designed to fix itself. It has to come from the outside in. It takes parents.”

Video by Michael Lozano for New America Media

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