Parent Universities help districts tap into feedback required under funding formula

February 2, 2014
Gloria Pompa-Beal, a parent leader in the Fresno Unified School District, takes notes in a Parent University class. Credit: Fresno Unified School District

Gloria Pompa-Beal, a parent leader in the Fresno Unified School District, takes notes in a Parent University class. Credit: Fresno Unified School District

School leaders are saying that one of the best known ways to involve parents – establishing a “Parent University” program – will be a boon to engaging them in the state’s new funding reforms championed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Parent Universities, which vary widely in scope from district to district, are intended to teach parents how to support and advocate for their children in school through classes offered at school sites, district offices and community centers, covering topics such as how to monitor grades, meet with teachers and serve on school committees.

School districts that already communicate effectively with parents – helping families navigate everything from report cards and homework to choosing a high school – are well positioned to comply with the parent participation requirements of this school year’s new Local Control Funding Formula, which gives schools greater control over how they spend state money.

Two of the state’s largest school districts – Long Beach and Fresno – recently redesigned their Parent University programs, focusing more on reaching a high number of families.

Also, the California State PTA has developed its own Parent University-like program, now in 11 districts, called the School Smarts Engagement Program – an attractive option for districts without the resources to develop their own parent education courses.

“There is no shortcut to meaningfully engage parents. It’s an ongoing ramping-up of information … so that they understand their vital role,” said Colleen A.R. You, state PTA president.

Connecting with parents

While the programs were not initially inspired by the new funding plan, they are helping connect schools with parents’ ideas on how best to spend state money, one of the new requirements under the funding formula.

“We have a very informed parent constituency,” said Miguel Arias, executive director of community and family services in the Fresno Unified School District, which relaunched its Parent University program in 2010 after three earlier tries that didn’t result in a strong level of parent engagement. The new model, with weekday morning, after-school and weekend classes for parents, is bringing results.

“Now we have parents who are better equipped to tell us what we can do better,” Arias said.

It will be much easier for districts to gather parent feedback about school funding if they have already established a line of communication for other subjects, such as approving the school calendar or how to enroll students in summer school, Arias said.

Parent Universities are not a new idea – some districts have had them since the mid-1980s – but these recent restructures can serve as models for other California districts looking to jumpstart parent engagement.

At the Long Beach Unified School District, named as one of the top school systems in the world in 2012 by nonprofit Battelle for Kids and winner of the 2003-04 Broad Prize for Urban Education, this year’s Parent University is all about communication. Using email, websites, phone calls and old-fashioned paper packets, Parent University staff members are using the barrage method to inform parents about everything from navigating the school website to the role they can play in guiding school spending under the new funding formula. The formula gives extra money to schools with high numbers of low-income or English learner students.

“We’ve always had parent outreach (and) education in a variety of different forms,” said Robert Tagorda, director of Long Beach’s Parent University.

But with the new funding formula, along with a waiver the district recently received from the federal No Child Left Behind Law, which also requires significant parental outreach, “we re-determined that there was a need to have a common approach to reaching our families,” Tagorda said. “We have to be more systematic in engaging parents in helping their children.”

Unlike Fresno’s model, the Parent University at Long Beach is not a series of classes, but rather a way “to align all of our parent outreach efforts so we can make them more effective,” said Tagorda, who is also director of the district’s Office of Equity, Access, and College and Career Readiness.

Long Beach’s Parent University has also worked to educate middle-school families about choosing from the district’s nine high schools, by hosting regional information nights, putting on a high school choice fair, setting up a hotline for questions and then following up electronically – the consistent key to success – about the application deadline and process.

“It’s what political campaigns do to get out the vote or what telemarketers do to get out product,” Tagorda said.

So far, the flurry of communication is working. About 12 percent more of Long Beach’s 81,000 students attended summer school after an outreach program began late last spring, Tagorda said.

Training parent leaders

The next step, Tagorda said, is, “How can we convert these parents into parent leaders?”

The district plans to use these same communication techniques to invite parents to join school committees such as site councils, which provide input on budgets and other campus matters. An online survey, along with reminders to fill it out, already was sent to parents and staff members about the new funding formula. The survey generated 2,700 responses on its first try and is already guiding the work of the committee providing feedback to the district on how to spend additional money expected under the funding formula. The committee is made up of more than 60 parents, teachers, administrators, community members and students.

Committee member Rene Woodson is a district’s dream parent. Heavily involved in her son’s schools since he was in second grade (he is now a high school freshman), Woodson is a member of Long Beach’s Local Control Accountability Plan committee which advises the district on the funding formula; and of the district Community Advisory Committee, which informs individual schools about district policies such as the Common Core curriculum; as well as the Concerned African American Parents group. She is also a former member of the school site council and helped launch the PTA at her son’s elementary school. When parents see her involved, they feel more comfortable stepping into leadership roles, Woodson said.

Parents participate in a Parent University class in Fresno. Credit: Fresno Unified School District

“I try to encourage parents to be part of the process,” she said. “(The district) will make a decision about our kids whether we are a part of it or not.”

As part of the accountability committee, which began meeting last fall, Woodson wants to see more state money paying for after-school programs, smaller class sizes, summer school, classroom aides and buses. The committee met Jan. 29 to finalize its recommendations to the board of education about funding formula priorities in the district’s budget. Key issues members suggested include increasing attendance, college and career readiness and high school graduation rates, plus expanding parent involvement and improving academic performance, Tagorda said.

Opening the door to parents

In Fresno, officials modeled their district’s Parent University after examples in the Boston and Miami-Dade schools, and also conferred closely with Long Beach staff, Arias said.

Switching from using outside instructors to training its own parents and teachers to staff classes, the Fresno district, which educates 73,000 students, offers multi-week classes for parents with children in each grade level. Classes are held in the evenings, during school hours and on weekends, with translators and child care available.

Elementary school parents attend sessions for nine weeks, learning about teaching strategies, what an effective classroom looks like and how to monitor grades and email teachers. Middle-school families spend 11 weeks learning about transitioning to middle school and adolescent emotions; high-school parents take a seven-week course that focuses on college and career readiness, understanding the high school environment and visiting a local college. There are also one-day classes on financial aid, discipline, English language learners and special education.

Fresno parent Aura Convers, who arrived in the United States in 2009 from Venezuela knowing nothing about the American school system, said, “For me, Parent University was like a big door and you see all the light come through.”

Through Parent University courses, Convers learned how to find help for her preschool-age son, who needed speech therapy, and for her second-grade daughter, who needed help with English. She has also learned how to check her children’s grades on the district website and what classes colleges require (her oldest just started high school).

“The district can help you with a lot of things. You just have to ask,” said Convers, who now works part-time as a paid Parent University instructor.

With the Parent University in place, Fresno school officials have a ready-made way to contact parents. They use it to inform parents about the Common Core curriculum, new discipline laws, attendance and even the school calendar. They plan to offer an upcoming class on local control funding.

“The Local Control Funding Formula has not changed how we do parent engagement,” Arias said. “It’s just one more thing (that) we need to consider.”

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