Nan Austin

Parent involvement the hot ticket, with national checklist, state overview opening doors

Educating parents has jumped to the front of the class, with the release of a parent checklist from the U.S. Department of Education and the development of a state education online primer, Ed, by a past president of California PTA and friends.

Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, and Michael Lomax, head of the United Negro College Fund, helped launch the parent checklist Friday.

“In survey after survey, Latinos identify education as a top priority,” Murguia said in a press conference call. But too many English learners get inadequate help, and parents are stymied in helping them by language barriers and not understanding the American education system, she said.

The two-page checklist, “I Have a Question,” includes a Spanish version, “Tengo Una Pregunta.”

It first gives parents questions to ask the school to stay informed about their own child’s progress and measures for school performance. Then it shifts to ways to get involved in the school community. Lastly, it lays out advice from teachers and Web pages for more information on topics from preschool to financial aid for college.

“Educating our young calls for the best efforts of not only teachers and schools, but also parents,” Lomax said. There is a myth that low-income parents don’t care, he said, citing surveys showing that 3 out of 4 African American parents want their children to go to a four-year college, regularly check their children’s grades and talk to their teachers.

Most also said they wanted to get more involved, but did not know how. “Help is on the way,” Lomax said. “We share your aspirations for your children’s future and we want to help you help them," he said.

National PTA and the American Archives also pitched in to create the checklist.

“It is essential that our education systems are transparent, families are engaged and at the table, and families and educators work together to support student success,” said Laura Bay, president of National PTA, in a press release.

The first set of checklist questions focuses on how well my kid is doing: Is my child on grade level? How will I know? How can we work together if my child falls behind?

One of the best things about those very basic questions is they give parents some effective phrasing – classroom soft-speak – to broach a difficult topic. How is my child really doing? What are we going to do about that?

The second of the five sets of initial questions tackles testing, what the results mean and how well the school uses individual data to check what each child has missed.

That is the next embedded asset in these questions. Read between the lines and it is clear they mean to help parents ask how well the school is coping in a changing world.

Some California schools switched over to Common Core early and are now moving on to fine-tuning and tweaking. Other schools waited until the last minute and tossed teachers into the deep end of the pool to sink or swim.

Ceres Unified switched in English language arts well ahead of last year’s mandate. Then-head of curriculum Mary Jones said the emphasis on instant feedback and constant writing would help her English learners far better than the old system of silent reading and chapter quizzes.

Modesto City Schools launched an early pilot of integrated Common Core math for high schoolers already struggling in algebra, statistically destined to fail again and again under the old system. In the hands of a master teacher, the students flourished. The districtwide switch to Common Core came last year.

District by district, school by school and grade by grade, everyone has had to figure it out without much top-down input from the state. In any classroom, it is worth asking how it’s going.

Other questions worth asking on the USDE checklist: What are the discipline and bullying policies at the school? How much time is there for recess? What kind of professional development – extra training most districts have to help implement Common Core – is available for teachers?

The last set of initial questions gets into equity: How fair is your school? Are more boys than girls suspended? More Latinos than whites? The sad fact is, the answer to the last two is usually yes. Research shows sending kids home only puts students further behind, it doesn’t solve anything. But better options need to be available and teachers have to buy in.

For upper grades, do all students have access to advanced classes or just those getting A’s or hitting a certain score on a state test? Every district has its own rules on this, but the strongest teachers often teach the advanced classes and it is worth stretching for the higher bar if your student wants to try.

Page 2 starts off with ways to find like-minded parents and work together for improvements. It also lays out what parents can do at home to set their children up for success. The highlights:

▪ Expect hard work and high marks.

▪ Get them to school every day, on time.

▪ Work with teachers and keep in touch.

▪ Talk to your child about school. Check homework.

▪ Participate in school events and volunteer.

If the checklist whets an appetite to know more about how schools run, head to Past California PTA President Carol Kocivar helped develop the site, which is set up as a course with 100 lessons grouped around 10 education topics.

It also tracks who signs up by school and PTAs can compete for $1,000 based on Ed100 participation.

“We are trying to create informed parent and community leaders who can help improve education,” Kocivar said via email.

The courses start with an introduction to education – What should we want from schools? Are California schools OK? – which are more questions worth asking.

The students section looks at challenges of the state’s demographics and what motivates kids to do better. A section on teachers goes over hiring and evaluation practices, recruitment, pensions and more. Time in school, types of schools, safe schools, the different levels and levers of the educational system in America. The money: Funding, spending, local control, propositions, taxes.

The sixth section is the fun one – everything you wish every school everywhere offered its students: arts, athletics, science, service learning, geography, consumer smarts and character building.

It ends with a call to action to make education better. I have not gotten to those lessons yet, but with titles such as “Blow it up?” and “Go Lean,” I will have to plow on.