Network of California districts to explore the elusive goal of engaging parents

June 25, 2018

Parents and school officials review a draft of the West Contra Costa Unified LCAP.

California plans to spend $13.3 million over six years to identify and replicate successful ingredients of community engagement, an essential but, for many school districts, elusive part of local control — the shorthand for setting budgeting and academic priorities under the state’s school financing law.

The new money — included in the 2018-19 budget — will fund a school network that eventually will reach as many as 80 districts. The funding represents the first substantial state effort to strengthen community involvement as required under the law, known as the Local Control Funding Formula. The school funding law, which Gov. Jerry Brown championed, shifted control over decision-making from Sacramento to school districts.

As a report in March by the Berkeley-based nonprofit Opportunity Institute noted, “Ongoing dialogue among a variety of stakeholders is not only legally required, but is essential to the advancement of excellence and equity in our schools.”

But in the five years since the law’s passage, parent and student advocacy groups have complained that many districts have ignored or underutilized their feedback. They called for state funding to guide districts on how to do “authentic” engagement effectively. Brown responded by including money in the last state budget of his governorship. The Legislature approved the budget earlier this month.

“This sustained investment from the state signals to all stakeholders that community engagement matters,” said David Sapp, deputy policy director for the State Board of Education.

“Our sense is in the majority of districts there is a real desire and willingness to embrace expectations (of the funding law), but how do you do that effectively?” Sapp asked, while acknowledging “in some places, there is a long-standing skepticism about how decisions are made and whether they (parents) are valued.”

The misunderstandings and frustrations may be mutual, Sapp and others say. Students complain they get lip service. Some parents complain they aren’t listened to, that they’re handed district recommendations instead of being asked for opinions, that meetings aren’t held at convenient times and that Local Control and Accountability Plans — the annual document that’s supposed to spell out how the district plans to spend money from the funding formula — are long, dense and missing key information. Districts complain they send out emails and fliers for meetings that draw a handful of parents or that parents expect that spending suggestions for their schools will be automatically adopted, without understanding competing priorities and spending constraints.

Sometimes parents confuse engagement with agreement. Honest discussions can lead to honest disagreements, said Joshua Daniels, director of outreach and communications for the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a new state agency that will co-direct the new district network.

The collaborative and a lead county office of education will select six initial districts for the network that have demonstrated effective community outreach. After a year or so of work, the network will expand with new county offices and more districts.

The collaborative has experience working with networks. It has funded 54 over the past two years, including four on community engagement. Their focus was on how district staff could create a more inclusive LCAP and better explain to parents the school dashboard, the website that rates schools and districts based on test scores and other indicators.

This new network will have a broader scope and bring together teams of district administrators, parents, students, teachers and leaders from county offices to “have difficult conversations with each other and build trust” around decision-making, according to the language creating the appropriation. “That makes it more complex and exciting,” Daniels said.

The end product could be practices, tools and expectations around community engagement that could become the norm statewide. At least that’s the hope of Public Advocates, a nonprofit advocacy law firm, and Californians for Justice, a statewide student-run group, two of the organizations that have been pressing for the appropriation. “We appreciate the Administration having listened to our concerns,” Liz Guillen, Public Advocates’ director of legislative and community affairs, said in a statement.

In its report, the Opportunity Institute illustrated what effective community engagement looks like in eight districts. To connect with hard to reach communities, for example, the Family and Community Engagement Office in Elk Grove Unified, outside Sacramento, runs a home visiting project. Sanger Unified, a small Central Valley district, uses volunteers to help parents fill out online surveys following parent conferences.

In addition to the $13.3 million, Brown included $200,000 in the budget to respond to complaints from some parent groups that financial information in LCAPs is often indecipherable. The money will be used to develop an electronic template for a budget summary that will be part of every district’s LCAP. It should make it clear if a district is meeting its legal obligation to spend funding formula money on the students who attracted the extra money for the district. Those students are English learners and low-income, foster and homeless youths.

With an additional $300,000, the California Department of Education will redesign the state dashboard website to make it easier to understand school and district data — another source of confusion for parents not familiar with school data.

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