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Holding on to Parent Voices

Facing what they see as a potential blow to parents in the "Blueprint for Reform," advocates for parent involvement in schools push back.
Parents of students in the San Diego Unified School District get involved in physical activity so they can encourage their families to eat healthy and exercise.

Under No Child Left Behind, the federal government requires school districts to use 1 percent of Title I money to fund programs that involve parents in the schools and provides another $39 million annually for 62 Parental Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs) that provide training and information for both parents and district personnel to bolster family engagement in schools.

Under the Obama Administration's "Blueprint for Reform," which lays out general principles for reauthorizing NCLB, the amount of Title I funding for parental involvement would be doubled to 2 percent. But the Blueprint leaves uncertain the future of the PIRCs, designed to help parents improve student academic achievement and communicate better with school personnel, because PIRCs would compete for funding with other programs. This troubles parent advocacy groups as Secretary Arne Duncan pushes forward with Chicago-style reforms that likely will include shutting down underperforming schools, firing principals, and changing staff.

"Parents are the primary stakeholders in education," says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE ), which advocates for parents in Chicago Public Schools. "Parents are mostly concerned not with when the PTA meeting is, but what strategies are being used in the school to improve performance, and whether the school is getting the support it needs."

As written, the Blueprint, which will be considered when Congress takes up reauthorization legislation, doesn't reflect that reality, Woestehoff says. "There are so many objections to the strategies in the Blueprint that directly impact our children's opportunities," she says. "It just seems like nobody up there is listening."

Parents attend the Burmese Community Forum, which are held on Saturdays. The district organizes workshops in English and Lao and separate community forums to help them help their children with homework and nutrition tips.

The law requires that PIRCs, authorized in 1994 as part of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, provide "comprehensive training, information and support" to parents, schools and other education-related agencies. NCLB states that at least half of funds must serve "areas with high concentrations of low-income families," with an eye toward serving limited-English-proficient children, and to "serve both urban and rural areas." Grant funds should help parents improve student academic achievement, communicate more effectively with school personnel, and learn more about resources available to them.

Each state has at least one PIRC, and larger states have two. Some operate out of a single location, usually at a nonprofit organization or community center, while others have several locations that operate out of the school districts they serve. They primarily work with families to enhance parents' advocacy skills but also train principals and teachers on how they can create more welcoming environments.

The PIRCs mostly serve urban and rural districts that receive Title I funding, which are specified in grant applications, but other nearby districts can access the resources and training they have. Data compiled in a 2008-2009 report show PIRCs served 73 percent of Title I districts. "The fact that we're authorized to do this work by the federal government is significant—and, I think, essential," says Vito Borrello, president of Every Person Influences Children (EPIC), one of two PIRCs in New York. That authorization proves the federal government agrees that "families' involvement is significant in support of closing the achievement gap."

Parents in San Diego attend the Somali Parent Meetings which offer homework advice.

The Blueprint starts from the standpoint that under current law, funding isn't always targeted to the most effective practices. Duncan expanded on this theme in a speech to Congress last May. "In order to drive innovation, we will allow states to use another 1 percent of Title I dollars— about $145 million—for grant programs that support, incentivize, and help expand district-level, evidence-based parental involvement practices," he stated. "We want districts to think big about family engagement—to propose new strategies and hone in on best practices that raise student achievement."

He added that PIRCs can compete with school districts, community-based organizations, and other nonprofit organizations for the funds. Sandra Abrevaya, the Department of Education press secretary, confirms that PIRCs can compete for a variety of funds but will not have a dedicated funding stream. "We believe this will give greater flexibility to states, districts and nonprofits, and will recognize, reward and scale up programs that are getting results," Abrevaya says.

Borrello and others hope the reauthorization includes some version of a bill introduced this term in the House of Representatives called the Family Engagement and Education Act. It would include the statewide PIRCs as a centerpiece (renamed Statewide Family Engagement Centers) and add a local tier of them. "PIRCs have been doing capacitybuilding," he says. "This says, let's do it in a bigger way."

Future of PIRCs

But the administration's tone to date concerns activists like Sue Ferguson, chair of the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education. "There's plenty of research around family engagement that supports what PIRCs are doing," she says, citing the 2008-2009 PIRC summary report which, in turn, cites research in part from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago and National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools.

Parent Leaders in the Middlesex Public Schools in Middletown, Conn., participate in a 12-week program, which helps parents become leading school advocates for all children.

"If we lose them, I feel like we're going backward. Having the PIRCs is the beginning of getting the support on the state level to the families and schools that need it," Ferguson says. "They help to create a level of advocacy without making schools and families enemies. You have no idea how many families don't know how to negotiate the system."

A 2008-2009 data book compiled by the PIRCs shows widespread and deep satisfaction with their services—but doesn't establish direct links with student achievement, which would be very difficult to measure given that they're involved to widely varying degrees in different places, and that achievement is impacted by so many variables, Ferguson adds. "We don't have the data yet to support that," she says. "It's one of those ambiguous things. ? It's not as concrete as you and I would like. Do they want to look at that? I would say yes."

Anne Henderson, author of Beyond the Bake Sale and other books and research reviews on parent involvement in schools, says the administration paints with a broad brush in deeming the PIRCs no longer worthy of dedicated support. "The strong PIRCs have been very, very good and have strengthened capacity at the state and local level," she says.

Strong PIRCs stand out for their ability to form partnerships with state and local education agencies, tackle issues that affect a wide variety of districts rather than narrowly targeted issues, and have targeted school personnel and parents, Henderson says. For example, Nevada's PIRC collaborated with the United Way to address the dropout rate, and Indiana's PIRC built a strong working relationship with the Indianapolis Public Schools for the same issue.

In Middlesex County, Conn., where Henderson says schools stand out for their aggressive and thoughtful parental involvement, the state's PIRC has helped parents garner facts to make their cases to administrators, says Donna Marino, partnership coordinator for the county's Parent Leadership Training Institute. The institute is one of 12 in the state, based locally at Middlesex Public Schools, which is the administrative agency.

The institute conducts training and brings in experts like Henderson, sometimes with help from the state PIRC, to give parents background on the big picture of how schools work within the context of city and state government. They learn how to marshal facts and figures to go along with their emotions and passion, which are needed to gain the respect and serious attention of administrators, Marino says.

For example, a parent concerned about class size in her child's school who appears before the school board to simply vent about it might have little impact, she says, while one who arrives armed with data on class sizes in comparable districts and how that issue impacts the school budget "are on the same playing field."

Title 1 x 2?

The proposal to double the Title I funding doesn't necessarily make Ferguson of the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education feel better about the Blueprint. "I have not a clue as to how that might translate [in terms of programming]," Marino says. "What frightens me about this administration—and I'm an ardent Democrat—is that [parent advocates] are just going to get passed over."

Ferguson says her fear is based on the lack of specifics to date about how that extra money should be spent, beyond saying the money will go to the states, and on what she characterized as a lack of monitoring in the past. "Two percent without any regulations means nothing, if you're not going to monitor it," she says.

A mother reads to her child and other children in a classroom during what the San Diego district calls ?Family Fridays.? Parents are invited to read to their children for 30 minutes once a month.

"And believe me, nothing is in writing." Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters and a founding member of the national network Parents Across America, agrees that New York City Public Schools and others don't necessarily follow the rules when it comes to Title I, for example, failing to hold meetings with parents about how that money will be spent. "If you ask Title I parents if they have any say in how that money will be spent, they will say no," she says.

San Diego Unified School District, which Henderson cites as a model Title I district, wants to see the money doubled, but it still wouldn't be enough, says Bea Fernandez, program manager for parent outreach and engagement. Her office runs special parent engagement programs for Somali, Lao and Burmese refugees on Saturdays; Family Fridays, in which parents are invited to read in the classroom for 30 minutes; and Parents on the GO, a family wellness program, among many others.

It's all done under the rubric of San Diego Parent University (funded through $135,000 in Title I money), which provides workshops on everything from how to help your child with reading skills, to social and emotional development, to understanding the school system. The latter is especially stressed for new arrivals to the country (see sidebar). "Resource centers [like PIRCs] are very important because they have the opportunity to be innovative and creative and connect with communities and nonprofits," Fernandez says. "We're lucky in this district that they have my office."

Parents in Turnarounds

As the administration formulates plans for its "turnaround" scenarios for failing schools—where the principal, staff or curriculum might be replaced—parents and community members should be given substantive roles, says Henderson, also a senior consultant with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, a board member for Parents for Public Schools, and an adviser to Communities for Excellent Public Schools. "Parents need to be involved in deciding, 'Is this school so unredeemable that it has to be closed?'" Henderson says. "Parents and community members should be involved in suggesting criteria for who stays and who goes." "It's not that what the reformers suggest is all wrong," she adds, but "parents suggest different things. They're filling in missing pieces."

Woestehoff would like to see an earlier Chicago-style reform be implemented: the Local School Councils that were born in the late 1980s and adopted around the country. Elected parent and community representatives on LSCs have the power to hire principals and gain input on budgets more so than anywhere in the country, she says. "We think the LSCs are working well in Chicago," she says. "You have an actual role. You have actual, legal powers and duties."

Parents absolutely should have a voice as the Obama administration considers nationalizing policies that have led to shutting down neighborhood schools or turning them into charter schools, says Haimson, who notes that New York has a similar structure to LSCs, called School Leadership Teams, although they have less power. She says that the administration has taken the turnaround strategies practiced in Chicago and New York and is imposing them more vigorously on the rest of the country, creating a need for parent and community counterweight.

Henderson urges parent activists to keep making their voices heard. "The Blueprint is a just a blueprint," she says. "We don't know what the administration is going to do if they send draft legislation up to the Hill. They acknowledge that the original Blueprint was weak in this area [parent involvement]. They're asking for ideas."

Borrello believes the administration's thinking is evolving—and he hopes PIRCs are strengthened rather than undermined in the eventual legislation. "There's not a complete understanding of the significant role that PIRCs play in family engagement in states," Borello concludes. "We're starting to see the fruits of all that investment."

Ed Finkel is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Ill.