Reimagining Education

From Parent Involvement to Parent Empowerment

Lisa Clancy, Program Manager

When I talk to folks outside of the education reform world about the work that I do, I hear a lot about parent involvement. Usually, it’s to the tune of blame, about how not enough parents care about or are involved in their child’s education. There seems to be a prevailing sentiment that as long as there is poverty, we will never be able to effectively engage those parents whose kids might benefit from their involvement the most.

It’s a hopeless, depressing scenario. But I know better, and so do many parents and other stakeholders who understand the need for transformational outcomes for kids in our poorest communities.

Last week I finally had the opportunity to see Won’t Back Down. I entered the theater having already heard much about the movie, as well as the Parent Trigger policy that serves as the backdrop for the film’s plot. In short, the policy allows parents in a community to come together to turn-around a persistently failing school. Parents choose the type of turnaround model they want to see and the school district is obligated to carry out the plan if a majority of parents in the school community sign a petition demanding the turnaround. It is certainly a last resort.

As we’ve seen Parent Trigger play out in California, one of seven states where it’s legal, it’s clear that the policy does not make anything easy for parents who want change. But I don’t think that is the intent of the policy. The promise of the Parent Trigger is that it gives parents in the most desperate situations some real authority to hold school officials accountable to their mission to provide a quality education for the kids they serve.

There are certainly some flaws in Won’t Back Down and I don’t think the film’s portrayal of the almighty teacher’s union is productive. But let’s not get distracted by a cookie cutter Hollywood portrayal. Instead, let’s focus on the bigger discussion that needs to be had. We can all agree that parent involvement is an important piece of the education reform puzzle, but let’s take it a step further: If we are going to have transformational outcomes for kids in our poorest communities, we need to think outside of the traditional parent involvement box. I’m not talking about parents organizing fundraisers, or bringing treats to the Halloween party, or even serving on the PTO.  For far too long, this is the only type of parent involvement that has been welcomed. I’m talking about empowering parents in bigger ways, including making sure they have a seat at the table when local and statewide education policies are made.

Parent Trigger is only one example of what empowering parents in this way might look like. CEAM’s recently launched Parent Academy is another effort to empower parents, especially those who are frustrated. Parents attending Parent Academy sessions are trained in the areas of policy, organizing, and communications, better positioning them in a place to ensure that the focus of education remains on what is best for their children. Parent Academy is also about helping parents understand and navigate an education system that can be daunting and difficult, empowering them to change it for the better.

With the release of Won’t Back Down I’m encouraged that the topic of parent empowerment will stick around. Looking forward, it is likely that our state legislature will take up Parent Trigger in it’s next session, and I hope the discussion around the issue will challenge all of us to think about how we can better nurture parent empowerment at all levels, especially before parents find themselves in desperate situations. I hope that most Missouri parents won’t ever need to pull the trigger if such legislation is approved, but it’s an important safeguard for parents and kids that must be in place, just in case.

The last word in Won’t Back Down is literally the word “hope.” Indeed, the outlook on parent involvement and empowerment begins to look more hopeful when we stop judging and blaming, and when we do whatever it takes to ensure that parents have a seat at the table. We have to think outside of the box.

 

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