Opinion: Partnering with Parents

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Elizabeth Baker is a Maplewood resident and a candidate for the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education in the upcoming November 4 election. More of her views, and those of her running mate, Maureen Jones, may be found on their campaign website at JonesAndBaker.com

We want our schools to create a challenging and supportive learning experience for every child, and meaningful communication with parents is a key element in that experience. While poor communication has been a consistent concern of district parents for a number of years, the district has made only incremental progress.

Parents engage with the district for a variety of reasons, including:

  • To understand their children’s progress and level of engagement with school
  • To understand the curriculum and programs at their children’s school
  • To understand and appeal a placement decision
  • To seek academic intervention, special education services or Section 504 accommodations or to ensure that previously agreed services are being provided
  • To seek help for a child who is being bullied
  • In response to district disciplinary action against their children
  • To make suggestions regarding the ways in which our schools could do better, both inside and outside the classroom
  • To express concerns about how specific district personnel interact with their children

There are many accounts of wonderful teachers and administrators who go above and beyond the call to make children and their parents feel welcome and fully supported, whatever the issue. But, there are also too many stories of stress and conflict and communication breakdowns.  We all have stories to tell, some our own, some from friends and neighbors.

Many parents, including parents of special needs children, parents of color, non-English speaking parents and low-income parents sometimes feel like outsiders in their own schools. But the difficulties in how the district engages with parents are not limited to these groups.   While some parents have greater success than others in advocating for their children, the ways in which parents encounter the district are far too dependent on the personal styles and inclinations of individual administrators and staff.  Meeting the needs of all children and their parents – especially in our resource-constrained district – is not an easy job, but it is possible.  We can do better and we must make improved communication a district priority.

The district’s approach to partnering with parents should be policy-driven so that parents have a reasonable expectation of responses that are:

  • clear;
  • informative with respect to all student and parental rights and avenues of escalation/appeal;
  • timely;
  • thorough; and
  • supportive.

A shift in district mindset and culture is required. Partnering with parents must start with the Board of Education, the new superintendent, and the district’s leadership, and this spirit of partnership must be lived out in each of our schools every day.  Better information sharing is part of the solution, but “partnering” with parents requires a two-way flow of dialogue and feedback.

New Board Policy is Needed

Addressing these issues must begin with explicit Board policy and goals that make the Board’s intentions crystal clear, along the following lines:

“All district personnel are at all times expected to:

  • make students and parents feel welcome in our schools;
  • be helpful to parents in answering questions and addressing their concerns;
  • respond to parent communications in a timely manner and keep a record of such communications; and
  • provide parents with clear, consistent and thorough answers on all decisions made about their children, and information on how they can appeal such decisions up the district chain of command (including appeals to the Board), when they wish to express their concern or disagreement.”

Board oversight then needs to ensure that the district adopts practices that are consistent with these norms.  There are very specific actions that would help set the table for a true partnership with parents, teachers and school leadership.

First, we must ensure that the district’s administrative regulations fully reflect the Board’s intentions on how schools should engage with parents and take account of the many typical scenarios of parent contact with the district.  We must demand that those regulations are followed and that the Superintendent takes action when they are not. To enable this, we must provide clear avenues of appeal for parents up the chain of command, make certain that all parents are aware of those avenues, and that there is follow-up on each and every parent appeal with regular summary reports to the Board on the district’s effectiveness in resolving issues that arise.

Second, before new policies or new educational initiatives are undertaken, the Board should ask the superintendent: (a) how these initiatives will be communicated to parents – by the administration at Academy Street, school leaders, and teachers; and (b) what mechanisms are being put in place to receive and consider feedback from parents and other stakeholders.

Third, we need to provide cultural competency training for all administrators and teachers. Our community prides itself on its diversity but that same diversity presents challenges.  Effective and considerate communication builds trust and a collaborative environment.

Fourth, parents with limited English proficiency must be welcomed into their children’s school experience.  That means more than the current parent/teacher conferences. Several measures are necessary to create a feeling of belonging and ensure that these parents have the same opportunity as other caring parents to be a part of their child’s educational experiences. The District should provide: translators for conferences, particularly parent meetings where decisions are being made about a child, multi-language fliers and school newsletters, and special outreach for school events.

We need the same ability for dialogue with non-English speaking parents as with English speaking parents to ensure that all students are being served in our district at the highest level and that true partnership between home and school is achieved.

Fifth, the Board should consider the creation of a new position of Parents Ombudsman.  This person would be charged with ensuring that clear communication and engagement become part of everything we do.  While creating a new position will have a budget impact, an Ombudsman positon would pay for itself in terms of reduced litigation costs and the more effective delivery of services. The Parents Ombudsman would advise parents on their rights as well as their children’s rights, and be able to describe both the resources available within the district and the processes for accessing these resources.  The Ombudsman would also be able to provide the Board and our district’s educational leaders with feedback regarding the working of these processes and roadblocks that families encounter.

By taking these steps, our District can demonstrate its commitment to home and school partnership and foster the dialogue that will help make our schools great learning communities for all children. 


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