Sunday, September 23, 2007

City Council hearings on parent involvement

The hearings on parental involvement before the City Council on Thursday offered some fireworks -- and real insights. Because there was no media coverage of these important hearings, here is a detailed account.

Full disclosure: I wasn't there the whole time, so have cobbled together this report from some trustworthy sources who were. I have also posted links to the full written testimonies for those that we have available.

As usual, DOE got the prime morning slot, and Council members grilled Deputy Mayor Walcott and Chief Family Engagement officer Martine Guerrier for several hours.

The Chair, Robert Jackson, started off by mentioning that the only office in DOE that has no website link was the Office of Family Engagement. He said that he had two staff members try to get in touch with the Office by calling 311. In both cases, operators told them that there was no such office and directed them to old regional office phones that were disconnected. Walcott gave him a cursory apology and said he would make sure that 311 operators knew where to direct parents from now on. Guerrier commented that they are still working on a webpage for the OFE and that it should be working soon.

Jackson also said that the new parent brochure—“The NYC Family Guide” -- came out on September 18th, nearly two weeks after the beginning of the school year. It was later noted that there is no phone number for Guerrier’s office in it —only for the district offices. In the section “How Families Find Answers,” parents are instructed to call the school parent coordinator first (appointed and accountable to the principal, of course) and, if they cannot get their problem answered there, to call the district offices and ask for the District Family Advocate.

Guerrier testified that she was convinced of the "sincerity on the part of the administration” to change the tone of their interaction with parents. Her five goals by July 2008 are that all PTAs should have elected officers, all School Leadership Teams will be “functioning”, all Community Education Councils will have full membership, and that the DOE parent survey will receive a greater response rate. (Her powerpoint presentation, with more information, in pdf , is here.)

Jackson challenged Guerrier on how her office might also help ensure that DOE policies actually begin to take into account parental concerns. Jackson, Vallone, Liu and Ignizio addressed the Department's chronic neglect of the problem of class size, and DOE's attempt to manipulate the parent survey results. Walcott smoothly responded that they are reducing class size and that the results of the survey are out there for anyone to see. He also claimed that "the Mayor's doors at City Hall are and always be open to parents." (!!)

The other two areas of major attention were the cell phone ban and the administration's proposed revisions of the regulations concerning School Leadership Teams (SLTs), which will eviscerate their authority to provide real input into school budgets. Fidler was especially aggressive on the lack of input that parents have on school closings and the installation of charter schools in their communities. He also threatened a lawsuit if DOE doesn’t abide by the Council legislation on cell phones.

When the two DOE officials departed, so did as usual most of the Council members and the media. Finally, the rest of us got a chance to speak our minds. (It is ironic that Council members who are so vehement about the fact that DOE doesn’t listen to us almost uniformly are absent when any parent testifies.) Only Robert Jackson stayed on to listen.

Joan McKeever Thomas, UFT parent liaison, said that the Chancellor's proposed changes to the SLTs, in which these teams of parents and staff will compose comprehensive education plans only after the principal has already unilaterally decided on the school budget, would render them essentially meaningless. They would become "redundant organizations, talk shops with no direction or larger purpose."

Patrick Sullivan, Manhattan representative on the Panel for Educational Policy and a fellow blogger here, agreed that the new regulations would disempower parents, and added that "Parents are marginalized by the manner in which the PEP public meetings are structured: all public comment is relegated to the end of the session after all voting has concluded...[This] makes it painfully obvious that parental input is not being taken into consideration on the most important issues facing our school system."

Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children pointed out that now, parents who have concerns or complaints about their schools are being directed by DOE to the Office of Family Engagement, which lacks any ability to address these problems:

"District Family Advocates and their supervisors have no authority whatsoever over the principals; they are not even in the same chain of command. ... Parents with complaints are being funneled to the District Family Advocates, rather than to DOE officials who have the authority to respond to their concerns. This structure does not promote parent engagement; it promotes parent disenfranchisement."

Shana Marks-Odinga from the Alliance for Quality Education said that the recent borough hearings on the Contracts for Excellence were rushed and without parents being provided with enough details to be able to give sufficient input. She recommended that “Public engagement around the 2008-9 Contract for Excellence should begin in October 2007 to ensure a meaningful process" and that a parent complaint process be instituted, according to the new state law.

Miguel Melendez, Latino activist and former DOE employee, pointed out that there were no Hispanics in the inner circle at Tweed or among the top level of the Office of Family Engagement; this is unacceptable considering that Latino students make up 40% of the system. He also revealed that “On four separate occasions (May 24th, 30th, July 2nd, and August 2nd, 2007) the National Institute for Latino Policy has requested Equal Employment Opportunity data only to be denied each and every time.

Ellen McHugh of Parent to Parent noted that there was no information for parents of special needs children in the DOE family guide. Jim Devor, acting president of the Association of CECs, pointed out that while it was commendable that DOE had instituted a 30 day public comment period for the proposed revision of the SLT role, under the new system, “most of the major decisions regarding school policy will have already been made (without meaningful input by parents)" before the process of writing the schools’ CEP has begun.

Several representatives from the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council testified. Tim Johnson, CPAC chair, reiterated that parents continue to be left out of the loop as to major policies adopted by this administration. David Quintana, CPAC rep from D 27 in Queens, said that parent coordinators were being used to deflect the concerns of parents away from principals.

Then I spoke briefly, pointing out that the peculiar structure imposed by the recent reorganization further puts parents at sea – since District Superintendents no longer spend any time supervising the schools in their own districts. This means parents have no place to go to when they have problems with their children’s schools. I also discussed out how the recent DOE parent survey was designed specifically to minimize parental concerns with both class size and testing, and that even when smaller classes came out as the top priority of parents, the DOE still tried to manipulate the statistics by making it look otherwise – showing their utter disrespect for our views.

Susan Shiroma, the new president of the Citywide Council on High Schools, complained that with the recent elimination of the regions, there were no longer any HS Presidents Councils in existence – rendering the job of the CCHS to gather input from HS parent leaders throughout the city almost impossible.

Sadly, as mentioned above, there were no stories in any of the media about these hearings. For more coverage, check out the InsideSchools blog entries for Sept. 20.

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