The Ultimate Empowerment Program for Parents

The Ultimate Empowerment Program for Parents

Immigrant parents in Chicago set a precedent for other districts with at-risk children and hesitant administrators.

Proliferating across the country at what seems lightning speed is a law that grants parents an unprecedented degree of power to intervene in the fate of underperforming schools. First adopted in California in January 2010 and spurred by the Parent Revolution group out of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), what’s become known as the “parent trigger” law says that when a majority of parents with children in schools designated “failing” under No Child Left Behind demand administrators be replaced or that the school reopen as a charter, the district must comply.

Since then, iterations of the parent trigger law have passed in Connecticut, Mississippi and Texas and are now being considered by more than 20 other states, according to published reports. Termed a controversial, even radical, policy in published articles, the concept and practice of empowering parents with a strong voice in their children’s education is nothing new for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), a Chicago organization that, since 1997, has conducted a successful in-depth, parent-school collaboration program in nine schools on the northwest side of the city that represent about 10,000 students, or 2.5 percent of Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) total enrollment.

According to Soo Hong, assistant professor of education at Wellesley College and author of A Cord of Three Strands about the LSNA program, what sets apart LSNA from the budding parent trigger law movement and similar initiatives across the country is the ultimate and longstanding state of cooperation among resident parents, schools, politicians and local services that the program has achieved in the face of severely challenging circumstances. Logan Square is among the most at-risk communities nationwide. It is a high-minority, high-poverty, urban community with a 95 percent population of non-English-speaking Latino immigrants. Through a range of programs, including classroom parent mentoring and home literacy visits by parent-teacher teams, the association trains immigrant parents to become mentors, assist teachers in their children’s schools, learn English, earn General Education Development degrees, and become active in the community.

When Chicago’s Office of New Americans was initiated last July for the stated purpose of making Chicago “the most immigrant-friendly city in the world,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel held up LSNA as a model of parent engagement that other schools in the district should emulate. Alberto Carvalho, president of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, says the Logan Square Association is the ultimate example of immigrant parents taking control and finding success for their children. “The ultimate goal is to empower parents, to get them involved as active participants in their children’s education,” says Carvalho, also superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “Having come to America as an immigrant myself, I am thrilled to know that school districts like Chicago are welcoming immigrant parents—in their home languages, if needed—and encouraging them to take part in the future of their families.”

LSNA’s Beginnings

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association was founded in the early 1960s by a group of local businesspeople, homeowners and church members concerned about the flight of businesses and residents in the wake of increasing deindustrialization in the neighborhood. When Nancy Aardema joined LSNA as executive director in the mid-1980s, she focused on integrating into the association the more recent immigrants from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba who had replaced the European immigrants who previously had dominated the area.

But it wasn’t until 1988, when Illinois passed legislation conferring administrative powers on local school councils (LSCs) to determine major decisions, such as principal contract renewals and approval of school improvement plans and discretionary funds, that LSNA first became involved with schools. Working under the belief that school and community issues are intricately connected and that good schools are a reflection of a strong community, Aardema formulated a holistic plan to improve the neighborhood. The plan included a broad range of services focusing on health care, affordable housing, job retention, safety, education and immigrant rights. Through classes for parents and students, parent-teacher team home visitations to encourage reading among children, and mentor and tutoring programs, LSNA has brought together more than 42 community institutions, including social service agencies and faith-based organizations.

LSNA lead education organizer Joanna Brown estimates that more than 170 parent mentors and tutors, or parents who volunteer to help community children with school work and language difficulties, are working in the nine schools. Parent mentors are given a weeklong initial training that includes coaching to explore personal skills and goals. They are then placed in classrooms to work two hours daily for a year, for a $1,200 stipend. Brown says mentors often transition into jobs or return to school. Some work as tutors, childcare providers or parent program coordinators for LSNA schools. “We provide opportunity and a voice for parents whose dreams of education were disrupted by poverty or immigration,” says Brown.

Meanwhile, the children of these volunteers see their parents as role models, and they perform better in school and participate in community service projects. In the past seven years, the percentage of students in LSNA elementary schools scoring at or above national norms on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) has more than tripled—from 20 to 70 percent. Leticia Barrera, who became a mentor in 2000 when her oldest son was in preschool and is now employed by LSNA as a parent coordinator and trainer, says the program transformed her life. “Before LSNA, I was isolated at home and didn’t know I had skills that would be valuable to mentoring children,” she says. “But the program showed me that I had something to offer.”

A Cord of Three Strands

It was LSNA’s effectiveness in helping immigrant parents such as Barrera overcome their fears of entering schools and dealing with administrators and teachers that led Hong to study the program. As a former elementary school teacher in Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools and Boston (Mass.) Public Schools, she was interested in parent engagement in schools. When she called students’ homes to share with parents something positive their child had done in class, she’d inevitably be greeted by a long silence after introducing herself. When she explained why she was calling, they’d be overwhelmed with relief. “The fact that they automatically expected something was wrong because the teacher was calling spoke volumes,” she says. “I wanted to establish ongoing relationships with them which would help me learn about and better teach their children.”

Hong’s premise for her book is that the relationship with the parents and community is most important for student success, and that schools have much to learn about how student success ties into their families and cultures. Hong classifies the LSNA procedure for changing the nature of this relationship into three categories: induction, integration and investment.

Induction

Breaking down traditional barriers of suspicion, fear and anxiety to get schools and parents comfortable with each other is the first step in transforming school-community relationships. For many immigrants, parents being involved in their children’s schools is an alien concept. “In Mexico, schools were only for teachers and students,” Barrera says.

Barrera says parent training involves taking parents through the process of discovering what skills they have to offer to the educational process. “Even parents who don’t speak English can be useful in bilingual or ESL classes,” she says.

In 1994 when the parent mentor program started, initial reactions from many teachers were skeptical, says Hong. “They told me they’d been worried that parents might want to spy on them or criticize them in front of other parents,” she recalls.

It took a little time for the trust to develop. “When we started the parent mentor program, only five teachers signed up, but after that first year, 30 signed up,” Brown says. The teacher demand for parent mentors now regularly exceeds the number available.

Stephen Zrike, a former principal from the Boston Public Schools and now a chief area officer of the Chicago Public Schools, says he’s never seen the kind of parent involvement that LSNA has made possible. As principal at Blackstone Elementary, a turnaround school in Boston, he attempted to build relationships with parents in a high-poverty neighborhood.

One of his solutions was to open up the school to families for nonacademic Friday night activities, including a CSI night which brought in Boston police officers, taught pupils about forensic investigations, and challenged them to solve a pretend crime in the school building. This galvanized parent participation and led to a more positive view of the school, says Zrike, who moved to Chicago last January to “scale up” parent engagement.

Integration

Connecting parents to each other and to staff is the next step Hong identified in LSNA’s success in building school-parent relationships. She says that over time, with parents helping out in classrooms—seeing firsthand how challenging teaching can be—they better understood and respected teachers faced with students who don’t complete homework or who have behavioral problems. The relationship also enlightened teachers, most of whom did not live in the Logan Square community. They came to understand better the economic, language and cultural assimilation struggles faced by students and parents.

Zrike says that “taking it on the road,” or getting teachers into the community, was a key to success in Boston and also in LSNA. In Boston, he had teachers make at least five home visits to students during the summer, which they could count as continuing education units for professional development. An expert had trained the teachers in how to conduct home visits, with tips such as not going in with an agenda or lecture, and letting parents ask questions and talk about their children’s interests. Home visits gave them a new understanding of the challenges their students faced, such as not having a lot of adult supervision and support for homework because parents were working.

Parent support offered through LSNA also includes Friday professional development days conducted by coordinators at each school. Sessions focus on curriculum and school issues, such as how to teach their children math in a fun way and the role of standardized tests, but they also address such issues as domestic violence and community services available to help.

Investment

Investment in the community and education through investment in individual families is the basis of the LSNA’s practical training for parents. The program aims to position parents as leaders, not just followers or participants in the life of their communities. Hong points out that this is something suburban school districts already have, where parents see themselves as advocates, leaders, decision-makers and collaborators in their children’s education. That synergy between families and the school culture already exists in a way it doesn’t in most at-risk communities.

Barrera, who is attending night school to earn her elementary teaching credential, says her children gained an appreciation for education by seeing a parent going back to school and doing homework like they do. Parent empowerment has also extended into other areas of the community. Barrera says parents form committees and meet with the city council to solve problems. For example, in an effort to decrease gang violence in 2009, parents convinced the city government to post surveillance cameras in their neighborhood, which has helped decrease gang activity. Parents have also organized to prevent the closing of a neighborhood elementary school, to get traffic lights near a busy school crossing, and to install evening lights on a dark playground.

Challenges to New Models

Achieving that delicate balance of power between schools and parents can be tricky, says Zrike, who acknowledges that the LSNA program is unique and goes against the grain of traditional school-community relations, which don’t invite deep participation by parents. “It’s the role of the principal to set expectations and boundaries, such as letting parent mentors know the teacher is the person making the decisions in the classroom, and the one in charge when it comes to problems,” he says.

Hong says it shouldn’t be too surprising that schools don’t know how to make the change, because teachers and administrators have never been formally trained in parent engagement techniques.

Programs like LSNA’s summer institute, in which teachers take an immersion course that includes tours of the community and exposure to such organizations as the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs programs help teachers better understand and, in turn, serve families. “Schools are still repairing damage inflicted by NCLB, which put all of the focus on assessment and accountability and turned away from parent satisfaction,” Zrike says. “Schools need to be clear about what their priorities are, and they need to design activities around parents’ schedules. It’s not culturally sensitive to make them sit in front of a PowerPoint presentation for 45 minutes. We need to go out into local churches and the rest of the community.”

Replicating the LSNA Model

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, co-founder and president of the 15-year-old National ParentNet Association, a nonprofit organization that supplies structure for communities to communicate and problem solve, and Linda Serrato, deputy communications director of Parent Revolution, stress that parent engagement programs are far from one-size-fits-all and that each must be responsive to its individual community’s particular needs and goals. Parent Revolution, which has expanded beyond the LAUSD to include other districts in the state, focuses on empowering parents through parent unions, which provide organizational training in techniques such as how to run a meeting and keep a firm commitment.

Price-Mitchell says that global competition has created a new urgency for fully engaged parents. Her organization shares with LSNA the goal of striving to create more effective parents. ParentNet offers a range of resources on its Web site and provides a parent engagement starter kit, which includes a training manual and DVD on how to organize parents and keep them educated about school programs.

Changing Ingrained Attitudes

“The farther away people are from the LSNA program, the more it may seem like a lot to ask of teachers,” says Hong, who’s seen principals go from adamantly opposing the program to acceptance.. “But the closer you get, the more you realize it’s not more work for teachers and administrators.”

The secret of LSNA’s long-term success, says Zrike, lies in the fact that parents are really heard. “They have a sense of purpose, and they’ve been given the tools and the education to assume leadership roles in schools and the community.”

Susan McLester is a contributor for District Administration.


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