A year after announcing new efforts to cultivate parents as “partners” in supporting students’ academic progress, Chancellor Dennis Walcott fleshed out some of the details in a speech today.
Speaking to parent coordinators and other parent leaders at Manhattan’s High School of Fashion Industries, Walcott announced that the city would open its Parent Academy next month with a training session in Brooklyn about how to make the most of parent-teacher conferences.
As we reported last week, work behind the scenes on the Parent Academy, modeled after a similar program in Charlotte, N.C., picked up this summer and fall. The city contracted Long Island University to run the academy and in August placed job ads for a “Parent Academy Project Director.” It also quietly launched a website inviting schools to be part of the “inaugural class,” and Walcott said today that 100 schools had already responded. A preliminary version of a website for the program has also gone live, though not at the URL advertised on the invitation.
Over the course of the year, Walcott said, the academy will include as many as 2,000 parents in 15 borough-wide workshops and also train smaller groups of parents on “partnership standards” that he said last year would be created.
He also reiterated a promise to improve the process by which district parent council members are elected. The councils have few statutory powers but are seen as one of few ways that parents can influence Department of Education policy decisions. Last year, elections to fill the councils went so badly that they had to be redone.
Walcott said the department would make the process more transparent by putting information about eligibility and elections on a single website set to launch next week. Last year, “with the lack of information, people weren’t even aware that voting was open,” Juan Rosales, the department official in charge of engaging the councils, said after the speech.
But for the second year in a row, Walcott made clear that his conception of family engagement stays close to the classroom.
“I cannot over-emphasize the important role you play,” he said, according to his prepared comments. “When you are involved and support the important work going on in the classroom, your children are more likely to succeed.”
This year, new curriculum standards are changing what happens in many city classrooms, and most of the new initiatives Walcott announced aim to inform parents about the standards, known as the Common Core.
Walcott said he would kick off a “webinar” series for parents with a training on the standards, and he also announced the creation of new “Expect Success” guides, publications that describe the city’s academic expectations and suggest ways that parents can help their children meet the standards.
He even gave the parents a script for generating Common Core-aligned conversations in the home.
“There are many ways to reinforce learning at home. Start by talking more. Get your child’s opinions about local, national, and international events,” Walcott said. “Check in every day and ask questions. Ask them: Do you feel like you’re struggling in any of your classes? Are you reading challenging non-fiction texts outside the classroom?”
Parents and educators said during a panel discussion that followed Walcott’s speech that parents are hungry for more information about what their children should be learning and how to help them get ahead.
“There is nothing worse than being in a situation where your child is in fifth grade and you say, ‘If I had only known last year, if I had only known at the end of eighth grade,’” said Maura McGovern, a guidance counselor who helped produce the Expect Success guides. ”We wanted parents to know ahead of time so they don’t have those little shocks and surprises.”
Monique Lindsay, a Brooklyn mother who sits on the Citywide Council on High Schools, said the guides would be useful when communication between children and parents falls short.
“Sometimes it feels like the student thinks they know everything and the parents feel like they know nothing,” she said, adding that the guides are meant “to keep us as parents current.”
Walcott left some of last year’s promises hanging today. He signaled that family engagement standards had in fact been created, but he did not mention last year’s promise to assess schools based on how well they involve parents. He also did explain what guidance, if any, had come from a parent committee he said last year would be convened to help middle schools. Department officials said last week that the committee met three times last year and included a total of 15 parents, principals, parent coordinators, and representatives from local nonprofits.
The full text of Walcott’s prepared remarks are below.