Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Shino Tanikawa on NYC DOE's attitude towards parent engagement then -- and now

Honorable Robert Jackson
Chair, Education Committee,NYC Council
Dear Councilmember Jackson,
Thank you for this opportunity to submit my comments on the Department of Education’s Division of Family and Community Engagement.
I am a public school parent of a junior in high school and a fourth grader.  I have served as an officer of the PTAs and on the School Leadership Teams of my daughters’ schools as well as on the District 2 PTA Presidents’ Council.  I was a member of the Parent Commission on School Governance in 2009.  I currently serve as the President of the Community Education Council District 2.  I submit my comments as an activist parent who has participated in various levels of parental engagement.
I have come to realize parental engagement means different things to different people.  The DOE appears only willing to accept a very rudimentary definition: parents help with their children’s homework.  I have written to the Chancellor a few times with my view on this issue: parental engagement is a spectrum.
I began my “parental involvement career” with reading to my children at home but quickly moved up to face painting and cleaning up at a fundraiser.  From there, I branched out to teaching as a volunteer environmental educator in my daughters’ schools, serving on the PTA as Treasurer then as Co-President, and participating on the SLT.  From this school level involvement, I became interested in district-wide issues and got involved with the District 2 PTA Presidents’ Council.  I even went further and worked on overhauling the Mayoral control law with the Parent Commission on School Governance.  While I am currently focused on District 2 issues through the Community Education Council District 2, I am interested in larger issues at the city, state and federal levels.
It is my experience that the Mayor’s administration has no interest in anything but the individual-level involvement (i.e., homework help).  His policy on bake sale has dampened even the most benign of the school-level involvement.
Since Mr. Mojica has been appointed, the only change I see is the way in which the DOE interacts with parents.  Gone are the arrogance and the contempt of the former Chancellor (I am not counting the one without due qualifications).   We are treated with respect and with a little more responsiveness.  This is a welcome change.
As an example, one year ago, the CECD2 hosted a Town Hall with the then Chancellor.  The Chancellor’s office dictated the format of the Town Hall (no open microphone, questions to be submitted on index cards).  The CECD2 had to fight to allow parents to speak directly with the Chancellor.  In contrast, at this year’s Town Hall, which took place last week, the Chancellor’s office was open to suggestions and the CECD2 ran the Town Hall as we felt appropriate.  The staff from DFACE was most helpful and communicated frequently with me on this matter.  
While it may be more pleasant to interact with the DOE when they do not openly disdain parents, unfortunately I have not seen signs of any truly meaningful change.  Cell phones are still banned in schools despite the fact so many parents spoke out against the ban.  I have not seen any responses from the Chancellor on the CEC & Citywide Council Task Force report titled A Vote for Change: A Blueprint for Reforming Community and Citywide Education Councils in New York City and The Department of Education’s Approach to Engaging Parent Leaders or announcements on implementing any of the recommendations from the report.  School phase-outs continue to be planned without input from the affected communities.  The public hearing process on school utilization changes still makes a mockery out of public input. 
I believe Mr. Mojica believes in the same things I do.  I believe he understands the spectrum of parental involvement.  However, I am not so sure if he will be allowed to make any significant changes within the system.  Unless the Mayor and the Chancellor have a change of heart, I do not expect parental engagement to move beyond homework help regardless of how capable Mr. Mojica is.
As a colleague aptly put it, the DOE is still telling parents to get out of the way but now with a polite “please.”
Respectfully submitted,  Shino Tanikawa, shinot@verizon.net

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