rightspromised Photo: Harvey Finkle

The No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) guarantees parents a number of new rights designed to improve their children’s educational opportunities. However, local parent involvement advocates report that few parents are exercising these rights.

Inaccessible information, poor communication, and daily life demands are among the factors cited in explaining why many parents fail to take advantage of their rights under the federal education law.

But advocates also point out another factor: if more parents pursued their options, such as free tutoring or transferring their child to a better school, the demand would quickly overwhelm the system.

"I just don’t think the message is getting out," said parent Patricia Raymond, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council. "If I could sit and talk to every parent on an individual basis, the system would be flooded with applications."

An even lesser-known component of the law than school choice or tutoring options is a set of provisions requiring parental involvement in school planning and restructuring at persistently underperforming schools.

Germaine Edwards of Temple University’s Laboratory for Student Success observes that while some parents understand No Child Left Behind and the rights it provides them, many "have a general knowledge that it is out there, but they haven’t really gotten the information to put it into practice."

Stephanie D. Robinson, director of the Pennsylvania Parent Information & Resource Center (PA PIRC), adds, "When I ask parents about this, they don’t believe they have any options. They do not believe school choice exists. In terms of the free tutoring, they’re not clear how to go about that."

"We know that a lot of information is not explained to parents in terms they can understand," Robinson continues. "It’s not enough just to disseminate information. Parents need to know how to use information . . . . It is not fair to jump into ‘AYP’ without explaining what it is."

Community and parent involvement organizations, such as Temple’s Laboratory for Student Success, which is supporting the implementation of the District’s new Parent Help Desks at many schools, say they are working with the District to inform and empower parents.

All parties agree greater parent involvement is a laudable objective. But funding limitations make widespread participation in school choice and in tutoring – referred to under NCLB as "supplemental educational services" or SES – problematic goals.

"In reality, if every parent stepped up to the plate and wanted SES from an outside provider, it would probably bankrupt the District because there are so many children eligible for it," says Raymond. Reiterating a common criticism of the act, she adds, "Even though we know No Child Left Behind is a phenomenal law… it could use some more funding."

The District, in its own letter sent out with SES application forms, warns, "The School District anticipates that it may not have sufficient funds to serve all students eligible for SES, and the School District reserves the right, if available funds are insufficient, to set priorities, such as cut-off scores based on the TerraNova test, in order to determine which eligible students may receive these services."

Under the law, districts must provide school choice and tutoring to students in schools not meeting certain performance standards (see "No Child Left Behind and AYP in Pennsylvania" for details). NCLB classifies underperforming schools by the number of years the school has failed to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) in test performance.

Students in schools labeled as needing school improvement, corrective action, or restructuring can, if they meet the District’s criteria, request a transfer to one of several District-identified schools meeting AYP. Priority is given to low-achieving, low-income students. The District provides transportation to the new school.

In schools that have not made AYP for three or more consecutive years, upon parental request, the District must pay for supplemental tutoring by an approved provider if the student meets the income guidelines.

School choice options must also be offered to students at schools identified as "persistently dangerous."

Since the law first passed, few parents have pursued NCLB’s school choice option. According to the School District, children in 160 schools – accounting for tens of thousands of students – were notified that they were eligible in 2004 to transfer from a low-scoring school to a school meeting its performance targets. However, only 646 children applied for one of the schools offered as a choice option this year. Of those, 232 applications proved eligible, according to the District. A mere 135 completed the process and accepted a placement in a new school.

In addition to granting parents these options, federal law requires that school districts provide thorough information to parents about their school’s performance and about their eligibility for school choice and supplemental educational services. If a school is slated for school improvement, corrective action, or restructuring, the law also requires that parents be notified about both what is being done to improve the school and how parents can be involved.

Towards this end, officials say the School District of Philadelphia mails parents a letter in the spring notifying them of the AYP status of their child’s school. The law also requires the District to publish and disseminate an NCLB "school report card" on each school.

Applications for supplemental educational services are sent home with students, and followed up with a postcard notification, according to District spokesperson Joseph Lyons.

Lyons pointed to a number of efforts the District has made in communicating options to parents, including 40 parent meetings held during the application window to address school-choice options.

Germaine Edwards stresses that personal contact with parents, such as at workshops hosted by parent advocacy organizations, is an ideal way for parents to learn about their rights and the services available and to get answers to their questions.

While many say parents are now receiving more information about schools than ever before, Raymond believes new strategies might be necessary to spark parent interest. "The reality is, we still have some parents that will say, ‘Oh, I never heard of No Child Left Behind,’" she observes.

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