In June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors – during the meeting at which Mayor Nutter became its president —  enthusiastically endorsed parent trigger laws, which allow parents to instigate a school turnaround. If 51 percent of parents sign a petition at a low-performing school, they can force drastic reorganization according to one of the four federally prescribed methods – from replacing the principal to replacing half the faculty to charter conversion to outright closure.

Some in the education world, such as Kevin Chavous, champion parent trigger laws as the ultimate representation of parent engagement. I don’t see it that way. This overthrow mentality has nothing to do with collaboration between those who work in schools and the families that send their children to them. Parent trigger laws are not an avenue for engagement but rather for control.

In my experience I’ve seen two models of engagement, contributor and partnership. The contributor model is engaging parents to volunteer to assist with something the school is already doing or has decided it wants to do. The partnership model engages parents to become involved  in the decision-making processes of the school.

The most common type of engagement for parents in Philly schools is to volunteer. Schools need help. Budget cuts have left schools without many of the people that educators depended on to provide important services as well as create community. For many schools, the Supportive Services Assistants and Non-teaching Assistants were hired from the community the school served. These people helped teachers, maintained order in the hallways, and served as another trusted adult that students could go to. Now that many of these positions are gone, and likely not coming back soon, volunteers can fill some of those roles.

The other way to engage parents is to involve them as partners in school policy and decision making. Presently there are few conduits for this type of engagement in Philadelphia. Each school can have a Home and School Association. This group can meet to make recommendations, assist the school leadership,  and serve as an information-sharing network reviewing school documents like its improvement plan.

Each school now hires at least every other teaching position by using site selection (PFT contract page 72). One member of the site selection committee is selected by the Home and School Association. The committee reviews resumes, interviews candidates, and makes recommendations as to who should be hired.  

There was an attempt late in Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s regime to put a School Advisory Council at every school. At Renaissance Schools, SACs interviewed potential management organizations and selected which provider would “turn around” their school (except here, here, and here) Although the focus on creating SACs at every school has stalled, the topic came up in discussions with both superintendent finalists. And this campaign is calling on the School Reform Commission to commit to SACs in every school.

Some schools are really good at getting parents and other volunteers into their buildings; others don’t seek much outside assistance. The volunteer model of engagement meshes well with a command-and-control style of engagement. Many parents are also more than happy to assist the school in any way they can.

But some parents want to play a bigger role than a helping hand. Bringing in parents as true partners requires some humility and willingness to find compromise. Many school communities say these qualities are lacking from their leadership. Giving up some of the authority, because school leaders never give up responsibility, can be a scary thing. Listening to a concern that does not directly relate to test scores is unfortunately not the first instinct in the era of “accountability.”

Clearly parents are invaluable members of a school community. I think that the partnership model is the ideal for every school and that the two models of engagement can coexist. I don’t believe parent trigger laws are going to get us toward collaboration, however. To me, if you want true parent engagement, you ask parents who are happy with their level of engagement in their schools what makes them happy. You ask parents who are unhappy with their level of engagement in their schools why they are unhappy. And most important, you have school leaders answer these questions:

How do you engage parents at your school?

What would you like to change or add to those efforts?

What do you need to make it happen?


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