By Ellen Noyes | The Children's Advocate -www.4Children.org| September-October 2009 Issue | Hot topics series
Los Angeles parents have a new tool this fall to help them be more active and engaged in their children’s schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) will be implementing a new model for involving parents in schools that specifically addresses the needs of “parents of color with kids who struggle in urban schools,” says Mary Johnson, mother of two and executive director of Parent-U-Turn.
The new parent involvement model—developed by Parent-U-Turn, an organization focused on improving parent involvement in schools—aims to “help urban parents advocate for their children, navigate the K-12 system, ask [schools] the right questions, and know about policy,” says Johnson. The LAUSD is implementing the new model this fall—and now schools across California can also adopt it.
Valuing parents’ voices
“Parents are the best experts. It’s time to make the voices of urban parents equal to the voices of others,” says Johnson. Parent-U-Turn’s parent involvement model (see below: Parents as advocates) will help parents better advocate for children in schools, with the aim of “decreasing the student achievement gap [and] drop-out rates, increasing graduation [rates] in urban schools of color,” she adds.
Parent leaders will learn more about their rights as parents, how to collect and understand data about how children are doing in schools, and how to make sure their children get the resources they need to succeed. Parent leaders will then hold ongoing trainings at their children’s schools to get more parents involved. “Parents listen to parents more,” notes Johnson.
Parent-U-Turn’s model differs from other parent involvement models because it includes “components such as empowering parents to become leaders [and] data collection and analysis,” adds Anna Carrasco, parent ombudsperson for local district 6 of the LAUSD. “[Parents need] to learn the key factors that make a difference in supporting their child’s education and communicating with the school. The more parents know, the more they can help support their child, even parents who don’t speak English.”
“Many parents are already leaders in many programs,” Johnson adds. “They just need spaces to engage with others and to show their expertise. In the past the only [tool] parents had was a report card.”
Ideas from the community
Parent-U-Turn’s parent involvement model is “based on experiences from parents [at low-performing] schools that have successfully navigated their children to universities,” says Johnson. In 2006, Parent-U-Turn held focus groups, conducted surveys, and interviewed parents about barriers to getting involved in their children’s schools. They listened to parents’ needs and concerns and “how they navigate the system,” recalls Johnson.
The results “overwhelmingly show parents have very little understanding on how to read or interpret data, the requirements [for students going to college], school structures and policy, and students’ rights,” says John-son. Parents also wanted a more welcoming school environment.
“Parents [need to] feel like they are part of the community and part of the decisions made at their child’s school—that they have a voice [and are] well informed of decisions and resources,” adds Carrasco.
Parent-U-Turn also talked with school advocates, such as the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA). “Parent-U-Turn has articulated a different form of parent involvement,” says John Rogers, Co-director of IDEA. “They have promoted research by parents in various ways [and used] parent-created data (from) conducting surveys, access to instructional materials, and analyzed data to hold schools accountable.”
Starting local and going statewide
Johnson presented the model to the Parent Collabora-tive, which brings together LAUSD parent representatives, and asked them to adopt it. Then she brought it before the LAUSD school board.
Parent-U-Turn and the San Diego County Title 1 Parents Association met individually with school board members and staff to ask for their support. When one of the superintendents feared teachers would not support the model, they met with him and PTA members, says Johnson. This fall, schools are implementing the model.
Parent-U-Turn also successfully campaigned for the California Department of Education (CDE) to adopt the parent involvement model as one of several that schools statewide can use. A new CDE website highlighting best practices will include Parent-U-Turn’s model, Johnson adds.
Parents as facilitators
At the end of August, Parent-U-Turn will collaborate with another parent involvement organization, Parent Boot Camp, to hold workshops on the new parent involvement model in Spanish and English. L.A. parent leaders will be trained as facilitators and hold ongoing trainings in area schools to help other parents get involved. Budget cuts threatened to “cut a lot of people who were going to be facilitators,” says Johnson, but Parent-U-Turn successfully campaigned to get funding reinstated.
“[I want to] help parents know they can make a difference and hold the school accountable for giving a quality education. [We] teach them to use the power of their voices to be engaged and active,” says Diane Haney, leader of Parent Boot Camp and the San Diego County Title 1 Parents Association.
Valerie Muñoz plans to be a trainer at the August workshops because “I want to make a difference in children’s lives, [so] they have opportunities to be successful in life. Parent-U-Turn is making many changes in our community, by empowering parents as advocates for their children,” she adds. Muñoz is co-founder of Parent-U-Turn and mother of six children.
Parents as advocates
Parent-U-Turn’s parent involvement model will train parents about their rights, understanding and collecting data, and how to advocate for their children. Parents will learn:
- the rights of children as students and their own rights as parents—to visit the classroom, to take off work to attend school activities.
- about course requirements and the curriculum used in the classroom.
- ways to support their children—“It’s important that parents discuss with teachers how to engage their child and use the child’s strengths to build strength in the child’s weakest academic area,” says Valerie Muñoz, co-founder of Parent-U-Turn.
- how to read data from STAR testing and other school assessments—“Parents need to know [this] in order to improve their children’s education,” says Johnson. “Plus [these are] skills parents need to be an equal partner on decision-making councils.”
- how to collect data through surveys, focus groups, and assessments.
- how to write complaints and hold people accountable.
- ways to successfully advocate for their children, particularly those in special education.
Parent-U-Turn is creating a parent facilitator guide in English and Spanish and developing an online Parent Involvement 101 course for parents, teachers, and principals.
For more information or to get involved, contact: Parent-U-Turn, 323-809-9160, www.californiaparents.net