One of the concerns raised in the WPS strategic plan is that of parent engagement.
What role do you see for the school committee in assuring equitable and meaningful engagement of parents in our district? What specific approaches, strategies, or mechanisms do you believe are effective?
Cara Berg Powers:
One of the most important things we can do as a district is to ensure that families and community members that are impacted by the decisions made for our schools are authentically engaged in the process. We have mechanisms in place that should be supporting this kind of engagement, and one of the first things I will do is examine whether or not things like Site Councils and the Citywide Parent Planning Advisory Council are running as required and meeting their stated goals. We need to be sharing best practices from school communities that are effectively partnering with the whole school community. At my daughter’s school, there is a strong parent and community engagement, which has restored our school library, made countless family nights successful, and raised thousands of dollars for new Chromebooks. This engagement is fostered by culturally and linguistically sustaining practices, two-way communication, and relational community-building. Before my first school year even started, I had been invited to set up the Remind app on my phone and been introduced to both children’s classroom teachers. Throughout the year, the app was critical to sharing good and bad days, asking for volunteers for classroom tasks, and keeping me involved in the lives my kids were leading for the 6 hours they were at school. This all begins with school leadership that knows parents want to be engaged, understands the critical role parents play, and is committed to creating accessible and available opportunities for that engagement. We’ve surveyed parents about best times for PTO meetings, and had great turnout! As a school with a very large Latinx population, we hold these meetings in Spanish, with English translation. Making that change more than doubled attendance from one meeting to the next.
The School Committee has a responsibility to hold our structures accountable- ensuring that Site Councils are meeting their legal requirements in the selection of members, meetings, and oversight. We also have a responsibility to set a tone that welcomes, values, and respects parents, guardians, and other community members. For over a decade, I have sat in rooms with parents, teachers, and students building authentic relationships to create and demand the school communities we all want and deserve. As an alum of our schools, a parent, and a longtime educator, I know that we all share a vision of our children’s education. We must create tables where parents are equitable partners with educators and valued for the role we play in our children’s lives. As a School Committee member, I commit to hosting regular, interactive community meetings, at which community members will be invited to be active participants and leaders in solving our biggest school-based challenges. There are of course physical and logistical barriers - transportation, childcare, time of day - that we will survey parents about in every school community to ensure that the solutions we’re proposing serve our people. We commit to listening to parents and guardians about what they need to show up and working with businesses and the City Council to ensure that things like bus schedules, paid time off, and other considerations are taken seriously. We can’t remove every barrier, but we can fight for our families to have every tool they need to be the partners our children deserve.
I am running precisely because we need more parent voice. I am a parent and have felt that the Worcester Public Schools too often fails to prioritize collaboration with parents and seeking out parent input. I believe that every educator in our school is not hired to work for the district, but really is working for the parents and guardians of our city’s children. As a member of the School Committee in Worcester, I will do everything to increase the engagement and voice of parents in our public schools. As a parent, I regularly visit my children’s schools. When I am elected to the School Committee, I will also visit other schools in the district to make sure that they are welcoming spaces for parents where the voice and perspectives of parents are valued. Second, I will make sure that the district is fulfilling its legal requirement to have functioning School Site Councils that include the voice of parents equally alongside the educators. I will randomly attend different school site council meetings to make sure that we are fulfilling the state and federal laws—because I know this is not really happening in all the schools. Third, I will also make sure that school meetings with parents are offered at times that busy and working parents can attend. Fourth, I will also work with the schools to make sure that they are providing child care and food for families so that they are able to attend. Fifth, I will host listening sessions with parents (and students) to make sure that their needs and concerns are being heard. The reality is that parenting and teaching are probably the two most challenging jobs in the world. We need to recognize this and realize that the best education occurs when parents and teachers work together in harmony for the best interest of each child. I will work to build this type of partnerships between our schools and our homes.
Parent engagement is one of the biggest indicators in student success. As a parent of two, one in the school system, I have seen firsthand the positive impact that my involvement has had. We need to make sure that our schools are welcoming for families and the policies we develop should focus on creating better communication with families. This includes being transparent to ensure that we were are building trusting relationships with families. Listening and addressing parent’s questions and concerns is essential. As PTO President, and as a member of the Site Council at my daughter’s school, I made it a priority to make sure we were using a wide variety of resources to communicate with families. Some engagement strategies that we implemented included a monthly school newsletter, maintaining constant contact through email and/or utilizing different social media outlets. These simple strategies can also be used with the school committee. As a parent who works full time, I get how hard it is to participate in school meetings. One strategy that helped us was utilizing social media pages to give parents the option to virtually attend monthly meetings and stay informed. Another great resource for parents is to attend the Citywide Parent Planning Advisory Council (CPPAC) meetings. I will work with CPPAC to strengthen their attendance and help get families more engaged with that council. In my current full time position as an Education and Career Counselor, I find working with parents and helping them navigate the school system and remain informed a high priority. As School Committee Member, I would like implement this on a much larger scale for the parents. Family engagement is an area that we as a school district can do better. Working collaboratively with fellow committee members I know we can work to develop strategies that are more equitable and inclusive for the families in Worcester.
One of the consistent hallmarks of a successful school is a high level of parent and family engagement. This is typically a product of the culture at that school that has been created by the principal and the teachers where they make sure that parents/families are an integral part of the educational mission. I have found that if parents know that their children’s academic success can be linked to their engagement in the educational process, and if these parents feel welcomed in the school, you will achieve a greater level of engagement. It needs to be a top priority for the school district to engage all families in the success of their children and identify the right means of reaching them. This spans the scale of making sure that families are welcomed at the main office when they come to the school to being able to communicate with them in their primary languages. One strategy is for the district to identify those principals who are recognized as leaders in parent/family engagement at their schools and ask them to provide professional development and support for other principals. Parents also need to feel part of their school and the district needs to engage parents in a more meaningful and genuine process when that school is searching for a new principal. It is important that parents are also represented on the school committee and it is an encouraging sign that several parents of children in the district’s schools are running this year.
To answer this question, let’s look at the data on student diversity, academic records, and suspension. According to the Strategic Plan, 70% of our students identify as African American, Asian, Latino, Native American or Multi-race. The same data shows that 77% of our students are high needs, and 55% are English Language Learners students (WPS, 2017). Academically, the same Strategic Plan portrays that our 3rd-grade students are performing badly on the ELA MCAS ( 31%), and only 58% of Grade 10 students are scoring at a proficiency level or higher in math, science, technology, and engineering (WPS, 2017). When looking at the discipline records from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 1,297 out of a total of 11,978 Hispanic and Latino students, were disciplined during the 2017-2018 school year. The disciplines were in-school suspensions (4.1 percent) and out-of-school suspensions (7.3 percent). What this data shows is that parents have a high stake in their children's education and with the support and engagement from the Worcester Public Schools, parents can be the determining factor in changing what this data is portraying.
As a member of the School Committee here’s what I will push and advocate for:
Chief Diversity Officer- Among other key roles that the chief diversity officer will play in promoting diversity and inclusion, “Family Engagement” should be a major point of focus for the position. The diversity officer should set the tone for how parents should be engaged across different public schools. The role should include a survey targeting parents to ask what would attract them, when and how many times parents would like to be engaged during the academic year. A database containing contact information for parents that opt-in should be compiled so that the schools can communicate verbally or through mass text message when there is a need to engage parents. Working with these schools, a calendar of planned events should be given to parents at the beginning of the academic year. All efforts to engage parents should be monitored.
Parent Orientation: Host an orientation for families and students at the beginning of the school year. Parents will get an orientation on the different programs and clubs that their kids can utilize at the school while meeting the teachers, principals, school counselors, and school committee members. Instead of mailing the academic schedule home to parents, attending this event allows them to obtain their child’s academic schedule.
Community-based Agencies: Bring organizations to the table who are already serving parents and learn and support what they are doing. I will support strategies that they are using to bring into our public schools.
Parent engagement is a necessity but has shown to be a challenge. Public meetings do not spark enough interest nor do they give enough opportunity for feedback. Parents’ responsibilities are endless. Time is limited which leads to lack of involvement especially when there is no engagement within School Committee gatherings. As a member, I would seek feedback myself rather than waiting for issues to arise. Casual, public events located within the five districts in Worcester will allow parents the direct access to attend and engage on a personal level. These events would welcome not only parents, but also students and teachers. As a School Committee Member, I will be the bridging gap between the school system and our community.
To strengthen parent engagement we need to do a survey to find out why the parents aren’t attending the meetings and then we can structure the meetings according to the feedback we get from the survey forms. Another way we could get parents involved is to offer parenting classes that meet DCF criteria, workshops on couponing, nutrition, and how to deal with children with difficult behaviors. We should encourage parents’ that have children in pre-school, kindergarten, 7th grade, 9th grade, to commit to coming to a certain amount of PTO meetings per year. These grades are important because it’s the start of a new expectation and these meetings should give parents information they need to know about their child grade level. Which should make for a smooth transition and some meetings should also reflect some of the suggestions from the survey forms. A school committee member should attend meetings sometime too hear parent concerns. We should always offer babysitting and refreshments if the meeting is afterschool a light dinner. We should apply for the Strengthening Families Grant; it will give us a format to follow along with money to help with the expense of babysitting, food, door prizes and other materials that may be needed to implement the program. The meetings need to meet the needs of the families at a particular school to hold the interest of your parents. Always request feed to see if we are meeting the needs of the families we serve. If not we need to change the focus of the meetings. This would be meaningful engagement for our parents.
The families and guardians of our students play one of the most important roles in achieving our collective goals. Our principals and teachers welcome collaboration with parents and families.
Unfortunately, there are factors which prevent patents from becoming involved even though they would like to be. Transportation, job commitments, single parent households, childcare needs, language barriers and sometimes fear and a sense of discomfort prevent parental involvement. We need to go to where the parents are - their homes, churches, community centers, libraries; we need to provide transportation, childcare, social services, interpreters in order to inform parents of ways for them to participate in the process. It isn’t an easy task. Our business partners could provide neutral sites where families feel comfortable focusing on the overall operations of the school system.
A number of years ago, each school had a parent liaison. The liaisons provided a welcoming transition into the school system and introduced families to the school environment. The liaisons provided information and clarified the ways to involve families in meaningful and purposeful participation within the schools. Unfortunately, with budget limitations, the liaison program ended. It’s something I would like us to try and bring back.
It’s certainly one of the most difficult challenges of the school system. Again, to move forward with the strategic plan, it is necessary to hear all voices in the community so that the needs of all community members can be addressed.
When I was a principal, each year I would remind my staff that “Parents are the child’s first and most influential teachers and it’s our job to reach out to every parent and make them part of the learning process.” Schools need to connect with parents early and often throughout the school year. There is a great deal of research that shows that students perform better academically when they have parents to assist with homework and to be advocates with teachers and principals. Schools need to start in the first month of school reaching parents with some positive news for it’s something that most schools don’t do often enough. Why not call parents with good news about their child? Parents love to hear that their child has accomplished some success. I did it when I was principal at Belmont Community School and had my staff do it as well. These calls let parents know that you care as much about recognizing success and improvement as you do about a child struggling with math. It also lets parents know that you care about their child and you want them to succeed. Research for years has suggested that when schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more.
Ideas that can be effective in schools to make our parents feel that they are welcomed are the following:
Environment of the school
Signs on the doors in many languages that welcome parents into the school
The school is friendly and welcoming when a parent enters the school building
There is a workshop for office personnel on meeting and greeting guests into the building
There is a workshop for principals and staff on parent involvement
Each school has a policy for family involvement and it is written into the school mission and vision statements and their accountability plan
A culture is established that pervades in the school that parents are our partners in the learning process
Communication between the school and the home
Communications are clear and frequent
Each school has a parent compact that is an agreed upon written parental involvement policy developed by staff and parents. The policy is updated yearly.
Each school has an active site council that assist the principal in developing a school improvement plan
Each school has a Parent Group that meets periodically to assist the principal in planned parent activities
Monthly family nights such as math, science and literacy night take place
Monthly newsletters are sent home to inform parents of school news, events, successes at the school and school activities
All schools, with room, have a parent center in the school and the system has a family friendly web site
The school uses connect –ed messages about school activities and promotes the positive about the school
In addition, the present strategic plan has many moving parts and has zeroed in on chronic absenteeism, trauma training for staff, expectations for school culture and a review of policies. This in turn should be addressed with parents early and parents input should be encouraged.
Also, School Committee will monitor the progress of “Family Engagement” by reviewing the benchmarks of reducing chronic absenteeism, the increase in the schools’ site councils, youth discipline, and the reduced percentage of students suspended. Our job will be to give suggestions to the superintendent on its progress and encourage all schools to be strong advocates for parent involvement.
As a Worcester Public School parent, I am running due to the disengagement of the school district with students and their families. Family and community engagement is so important that it is one of the four standards of effective professional practice on which every superintendent in Massachusetts is evaluated by their school committee. Doing so, however, requires the setting of clear measurable goals that reflect the community and engage them in two way communication. As it stands, this does not happen. Families—for it goes beyond parents—must be seen and treated as true partners in their children’s education, with much to contribute to their children’s success. Families should be engaged in regular conversation in locations that are of their choosing in language in which they are comfortable; Framingham, for example, has recently asked families to host sessions at which administration listened to families. Schools are not places that are comfortable to all, and that must be acknowledged in our interactions with families. Considering transportation, language, schedule, culture, childcare, meals, and other potential barriers allow for thoughtful engagement on the terms of the families. Listening—truly listening, rather than talking at families—is where family engagement should begin, and one of the most important roles of the School Committee is ensuring that administration is held accountable for that.
The Worcester Public Schools (“WPS”) has a mixed record of success as to family involvement. A multi-year goal of the WPS has been to “[e]ngage responsively with families... to develop and enhance opportunities for all students.” The WPS does “welcome all families to ... [p]articipate in parent workshops and conferences,” and to “[j]oin in parent / teacher / community groups” such as parent / teacher organizations (PTOs) and school site councils. Parents and guardians are promised an “[o]pportunity to shape policy decisions.” Parents, guardians and PTOs are urged to interact with the Massachusetts Parent Information Resource Center (MassPIRC) - “a statewide organization helping families across Massachusetts learn about their rights and how to take an active, effective role in their children’s education.” The initiatives and support provided by the Worcester Education Collaborative, by Worcester Community Connections, and by the Family and Community Academy of Worcester (FCA) have all supported and encouraged parent involvement, in the education of their children, in recent years.
The WPS has been successful in implementing several advisory councils, which educate parents as to key programs affecting their children, and which give the parents a voice in program policy, operation and development. The Special Education Parent Advisory Council, and the English Language Learner Parent Advisory Council, are particularly vital here. I have fought consistently to support and empower these councils to exercise a vigorous and imaginative role in providing policy proposals and operational suggestions to their programs.
Unfortunately, the WPS has had only limited success with its Citywide Parent Planning Advisory Council (CPPAC) and with its school site councils. CPPAC should have representatives from every school attending its meetings and, for about thirty years, it was a robust forum of vigorous and spirited discussion. Currently, the WPS administration does far too little to hold principals accountable for fully populating the CPPAC. Also, too many school site councils meet sporadically, and, when they do meet, all too many of them convene during the school day, when parents who work are often precluded from participation. The School Committee must hold the administration accountable for significant improvement here, insisting that every school have a fully staffed site council which meets regularly during the school year - at times convenient to parents - to address school improvement options and budgetary priorities. The School Committee can, and should, expand the role of each council as well to address the wide range of optional topics which councils can be allowed to entertain under the Education Reform Act of 1993 and subsequent modifications to it.
The School Committee is responsible for policy and oversight of our school system. Our policies should reflect what we know about thriving educational systems. That is, parental engagement is a critical component of student (and system) success.
I believe that Worcester is so complex, that we need a multi-pronged approach. We know that when we try to affect a community, the community must have a voice in the process and in the solution. We already have parent feedback structures like site councils, parent teacher organizations, the Citywide Parent Planning Advisory Council and Special Education Parent Advisory Council (both should be bringing issues from each school to the administration). I believe that these structures can be leveraged more effectively by empowering them and giving them more decision making influence. In addition, Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) is a great model for an additional approach for garnering parental engagement. CBPR ensures the community (our parents) is engagened in creating the process and solution. In other words, let the community tell us how they want to be engaged and then engage them in the way they have asked. And finally, I believe each of the committee members has a personal responsibility to listen to the community ourselves. As a committee member, I will personally hold individual and group parental listening sessions (at least two hours each week). Because most current parental engagement opportunities occur during the 8AM-3PM timeframe, I will conduct these sessions in the evenings and weekends.