Parent Engagement in Schools: Part 2

One of the most basic ways parents in DC engage with their schools is through volunteer activities.

My kids’ public schools are blessed to have lots of parents volunteering as field trip chaperones; room parents; serving food at PTA dinners; making flyers about PTA events and posting them; and serving as sports boosters.

One of those schools also has parents whose volunteer gigs are basically full-time jobs that are unpaid. They serve as chairs of massive fundraising efforts or as PTA officers who show up at every single public event the school sponsors—open houses, LSAT meetings, school performances—with literature and spiels and happy faces.

No one pays these uber-volunteers to do any of this–though the funds that are raised, and the goodwill generated, are crucial. In fact, that school’s PTA pays on the order of $1000 every year to place ads in local media and buy food and supplies just to market the school to prospective parents at open houses.

Such marketing is not merely a nicety–it’s a necessity in our era of school choice. As is true for most schools citywide, many kids in bounds for that school elect not to attend it. Ensuring full enrollment through marketing ensures adequate staffing, because funding follows enrollment.

So what about schools that do not enjoy such parent volunteerism?

Some schools use the energy of their engaged parents to raise funds for other public schools that lack similar engagement. In addition, on Capitol Hill where I live, we have a community organization that raises money for local schools, which helps bridge inequities in school fundraising.

But none of this addresses the bottom line: public engagement in DC schools is wildly variable. And if a school lacks a substantive body of people to volunteer for it, and market it, its success–even survival–may be on the line.

This “engagement gap” has far-ranging consequences.

The Post ran a story recently on the difficulty of providing school-based social services to kids in one DC neighborhood, as those children attend almost 200 separate schools scattered across the city. (In a post on GreaterGreaterWashington, blogger Natalie Wexler opined that this is sufficient reason to give charters neighborhood preference.) The Post story noted that the local public school had been underenrolled.

How would having charter neighborhood preference do anything but further erode engagement in existing schools, both charter and DCPS–including the support of parents who have already invested in those schools?

Among others, DC’s two school agencies appear unaware of the parent engagement gap.

DCPS, for instance, requires a criminal background check and a voluminous application in order to be a regular school volunteer. That seems to make sense for people who have no parental connection to a school–but what of those parents who stand in the rain for hours on end and haul heavy supplies, or wait for buses, or paint or garden on weekends or after school hours?

Similarly, the charter board requires that everyone volunteering for more than 10 hours per week undergo a background check. Some charter schools additionally require parents to sign a contract, which can ask for volunteer help in support of a school.

As with DCPS schools, some charters may have greater proportions of parents engaged directly as volunteers. The difference is that any charter’s demographic is by definition self-selected, comprising families who actively chose that school–and who may have self-selected partly on the basis of their ability to volunteer or spend time as desired by that school.

In addition, each school agency also has official parent advisory bodies (for which DCPS is accepting applications through October 1). But to what extent those bodies have a direct effect on policies is unclear.

There is an effect on parents, though: Last year, DCPS chancellor Kaya Henderson received such an overwhelming response to an open call for members of her parents’ cabinet that she turned away almost 200 parents.

While it is admittedly difficult to fit 200 people around a table, much less in one meeting room, 200 people represents a small fraction of parents in a school system with over 40,000 students. Ditto for the charter board’s parent and alumni leadership council.

As a result, there exists a huge gulf between the stated aspiration of those groups–hearing from and engaging parents–and the reality that a small fraction of parents specifically selected by city agencies cannot plumb the depths of parental concerns for, and involvement in, our public schools.

For that, we here in DC rely on one person: Joyanna Smith.

Smith is DC’s public education ombudsman. In 2012, her office was resurrected after being defunded. Established in the wake of mayoral control of schools and the abolition of the elected school board, the ombudsman is a neutral who hears directly the concerns of school parents, students, and community members and helps resolve their school problems.

Not surprisingly, concerns over parent engagement in public schools figured into the ombudsman’s annual report, released earlier this month—specifically, regarding communication of school policies to parents; parents’ involvement therein; and (incredibly) clarification of charter policies regarding barring parents from schools.

Here in DC, we tend to think of public schools are places where staff and children meet for a job to be done–education–with an outcome (test scores) that shows whether the job was done adequately.

But public schools are, first and foremost, places of community united in a common goal: education. And how schools are invested in by parents, students, and community members is key to their success.

Parent engagement, in other words, isn’t merely a nice thing.

It’s part of the “public” in public schools–and a key to success therein.

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