SANTA ANA – After agreeing to coordinate the Santa Ana Unified School District’s public meetings about its Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), Frances Byfield’s first question was: “What are we serving for dinner?”
While that question may seem puzzling, it makes perfect sense to Byfield who, as a retired principal with more than two decades of experience, knows this Orange County community’s families intimately and understands their challenges.
Much like Mary Poppins with her “spoonful of sugar,” Byfield used translators, meals, babysitting, and prize raffles to motivate parents to attend the district’s 23 LCAP community workshops. Each meeting venue was prepped in advance to identify locations to set up audio-visual equipment, childcare services, and meals consisting of turkey sandwiches in the evenings and coffeecake in the mornings. Maintenance crews were dispatched to schools prior to each meeting, carefully cleaning the spaces and, in some cases, even applying a fresh coat of paint.
Parents who stayed until the meetings concluded were rewarded with a chance to win coffeemakers, Wal-Mart gift cards, or even the much sought-after school-issued “dollars” that their children spend at the school store. These small tokens are considered a way to encourage parent participation in what some might consider a dry, lengthy and possibly futile exercise. And ina district where 60 percent of students are English-language learners, presentations and materials were available in Spanish and Vietnamese.
This painstaking preparation, which took a team of 40 at each meeting to pull off, was a well-orchestrated attempt to make parents feel welcome and safe to share their concerns and ideas about how the district should spend state dollars on the schools their children attend. The state’s new school funding formula requires districts to seek public input as they create their accountability plans, which must be adopted by July 1.
After holding its final meetings this week, Santa Ana administrators said nearly 3,000 parents have attended accountability plan meetings throughout the district, with attendance at each meeting ranging from 50 to 200 participants. All told, the district has held about 50 meetings to gather the state-mandated input, which must include discussions with staff, labor unions, and specific stakeholder groups such as English-language learners, for its accountability plan.
But Byfield said that even with these extensive parent-engagement efforts, it’s the principal at each school who remains the key motivator to encourage the community to participate in the process.
“If the principal doesn’t push [the meetings,] it just doesn’t happen,” said Byfield, who met with every principal regarding the accountability plan meetings.
At one of Santa Ana’s final accountability plan meetings at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School on Tuesday, parents arrived early, some well before the 8:15 a.m. start time. Many pushed babies in strollers while holding the hands of their elementary-aged children to drop them off for class. About 115 parents from two local elementary schools filled the school’s multipurpose room, where the flags of colleges and universities, like Harvard and Stanford, hang to emphasize the school’s college prep theme.
Stephanie P. Phillips, Santa Ana’s deputy superintendent of operations, opened the meeting speaking in English while César Vargas, a language specialist for the district, effortlessly translated each phrase. After Phillips gave a brief overview of the state’s new funding formula and the purpose of the accountability plan, which included information displayed on two screens (one English, one Spanish), the parents were broken up into small groups. Only a handful of attendees wanted the breakout sessions conducted in English.
“For us, this is a new way of approaching community engagement,” Phillips said. “It’s not about telling. It’s about listening.”
Rather than stay in the room, meeting organizers had parents gather to talk in the school’s sunny courtyard. Easels were set up and labeled with each of the state’s eight priorities. Parents spent about 10 minutes on one subject before rotating to the next subject.
District and school staff armed with black Sharpies frantically transcribed parents’ comments in Spanish, trying to synthesize their ideas on large sheets of white paper. Parent concerns ranged from improving the demeanor of front-office school staff to developing more flexible student-discipline strategies.
Maricela Reyes, the mother of four children, said school staff members should try to identify the true source of a child’s troubled behavior rather than dismissing them as a “problem child.”
Yazmin Meza, the mother of three students at King Elementary School, said more guidance is needed to improve parenting skills and support student learning. She said some parents didn’t come from loving families and they “don’t want to repeat that cycle.”
Following the small group discussions, parents returned to the large group to learn how their feedback will help drive the accountability plan process. Santa Ana posted all meeting feedback on its website and there is an online form available for additional comments. Parents also can call and share their concerns with a staff member.
“Some ideas you put on paper we can do right now,” David Haglund, deputy superintendent of educational services, explained to the group, after sharing a story about missing keys on computer keyboards at one local high school. “Others are going to take time.”
Haglund, who spent 30 minutes following the meeting to address parents’ questions individually, pledged: “This is not a one-time conversation.”
Parent Guadalupe Valdez said she was pleased with the accountability plan meeting and is hopeful that she will see changes throughout the district because parents had a chance to share their ideas. Valdez, who has six children, said she tried to encourage even more parents to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
“If I want something [at the school],” she said, “I have to come to the meeting.”
And if you stay for the end of the accountability plan meetings in Santa Ana, you might not walk away empty-handed. As luck would have it, one of the few dads attending the meeting at King Elementary School won a portable CD player.
Karla Scoon Reid covers Southern California for EdSource.
This report is part of EdSource’s Following the School Funding Formula project, tracking the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula in selected school districts around the state.