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On Campus: State plan urges schools to get parents involved

Julian Mojica, 3, plays with counting blocks in strips of 10 while mom Karina Chavez and Silvia Magana, right, work through a lesson using the blocks to teach borrowing in subtraction at a Muffins & Math session at Robertson Road Elementary in south Modesto on Oct. 24.
Julian Mojica, 3, plays with counting blocks in strips of 10 while mom Karina Chavez and Silvia Magana, right, work through a lesson using the blocks to teach borrowing in subtraction at a Muffins & Math session at Robertson Road Elementary in south Modesto on Oct. 24. naustin@modbee.com

The state released a guide this week for bringing more parents on campus and making them part of the school team. The California Department of Education’s Family Engagement Framework offers a rationale for why involving the community is important, outlines for how to go about it and gives tips to avoid potential pitfalls.

“Research has shown that high levels of parental and community involvement help students succeed in the classroom,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in releasing the report, prepared with the nonprofit WestEd Center for Prevention & Early Intervention.

The framework, created for school districts, focuses on five areas:

1. Building capacity, by which they mean all principals need to be on board, policies in place and staff trained for a smooth rollout.

2. Demonstrate leadership. Reading between the lines, I take this section to mean district leaders need to make sure it really happens.

3. Resources, which is pretty straightforward ‑ money and staff time to make the partnerships work. This sounds obvious, but more than one parent-led school event, chock-full of willing volunteers and donated food, has faltered after being told they had to pay a commercial fee to use the cafeteria, overtime for the custodian and 10 cents a copy to send home fliers.

4. Monitor progress. This looks like the technical end of the second area, checking schools’ progress and lining up parent involvement with federal and state requirements.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools that fail to meet federal standards – most schools fall under this now – to create a plan to raise student scores. That plan includes options for parents. Federal money designated for poor children requires that a certain percentage of the funds be spent on parent involvement.

At the state level, districts must demonstrate that they sought out and incorporated parent and community input in their budgeting decisions. The Local Control Accountability Plan, usually called the LCAP, is a key driver behind this push for engaging parents, as it was designed to be.

5. Access and equity. This gets at having the parents involved reflect the school’s demographics, and urges schools to use multiple ways to communicate with parents.

Its first point is to make sure critical parent information is available in formats and languages the school’s parents use. To that I would add: including regular English. While school go-home notes typically use familiar language, district information on the LCAP and Common Core State Standards sometimes revels in those educationally repurposed words and phrases.

“Attracting high-quality teachers” is something we all might circle as important on a survey, but not every parent understands it generally refers to raising salaries.

Common Core’s ubiquitous phrase, “deeper learning,” sounds terrific – but it really doesn’t say anything. Such an ivory-tower goal needs examples to make it meaningful.

Wednesday, I covered an anti-Common Core event, which is one of the most important reasons for making parent engagement happen. Families who are involved and feel a part of their school, at least the ones I’ve spoken to at schools around the county, generally love the Common Core lessons their children are absorbing. Those who no longer set foot in a classroom tend to be the folks who dislike it intensely.

How different would the Common Core conversation be if more families felt a part of their school’s discussion and implementation, part of the team instead of just the boosters?

Only time will tell if the standards fulfill all hopes or get replaced with another spin of the educational dial. Having weathered several versions of best-ideas-ever over the decades, as a student, a parent and now a reporter, I can tell you students with strong family support can thrive under any standards. Students without family support tend to struggle under any standards.

But welcoming families can bring its own set of challenges. The framework includes practical points that can help. For example, it suggests that teachers be trained in ways to be comfortable with a range of parent volunteers, and that parent volunteers be trained in how to best help. With all the different cultures and personalities that arrive hand in hand with kids in every classroom, that makes a lot of sense.

For the LCAP, how different would budget discussions be if community members understood the full spectrum of school expenses? Arts lovers might advocate more effectively if they found ways to tie music, dance and poetry to support for at-risk kids. Those who want smaller class sizes need to know the costs to build more classrooms and hire more teachers, and weigh the tradeoffs.

The state framework was developed with districts in mind and can be found at www.cde.ca.gov under What’s New. For great resources for parents, visit the California State PTA website, www.capta.org, and click the Family Engagement tab.

And the next time a family event flier or invitation to help comes from your neighborhood school, carve out a little time to check it out.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209)578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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