The Coalition for Educational Justice announcing the $5 million allocation in September.
The Coalition for Educational Justice announced the $5 million allocation for additional test score talks in September.

Parent advocates stood with a top city education official on the steps of City Hall in late September to make an announcement: The city was setting aside $5 million for extra parent-teacher conferences for students with low state test scores.

But advocates weren’t sure that was the event they were going to have. Until two days before the press conference, members of the Coalition for Educational Justice thought they might just be calling on the city to set aside the funds. Though the group had met with Department of Education officials twice, they had been told that the costs seemed too high and the funding source unclear.

Three days after their last meeting, Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky emailed the group. You made a persuasive argument, he wrote, promising to continue the search for funds.

The city did find $5 million to finance the conferences, which the Coalition announced at City Hall. Since then, the teachers union and the principals union have joined the city and Coalition members to hammer out the logistics — a level of collaboration that many of involved said they hadn’t seen in years on an optional initiative.

“It’s been a little surreal,” said Natasha Capers, a parent leader with CEJ. ”At one point I was sitting at the table, and thought, would it be weird if I just took a picture of everyone doing this?”

Details of how the conferences will be implemented were emailed to principals Wednesday night. The city will provide schools with money based on the number of fourth through eighth graders who received level 1s and 2s on last year’s state exams. Schools will be free to use that money to help schedule 30-minute meetings with parents of those students, and potentially school-wide explanatory meetings as well.

Those involved with the negotiations said that could mean paying teachers for after-school or Saturday sessions, rearranging tutoring services to free up some teachers during scheduled school time, or another scheduling configuration. In an unusual move, schools will be also be able to request sending students home after an additional half day, as most schools already do for parent-teacher conferences.

The initial deal hinged on broadly-agreed-upon points: Recent state test scores were low, parents are confused about what they mean, parent-teacher communication is a good thing. It also fit in with the city’s aggressive efforts to explain the test score changes to families since early this year.

“Let’s be honest, we know that it will also look good [for the city] to do it,” said Claudette Agard, a CEJ member with UFT Parent Outreach. ”It just might be the right timing, too. If that’s what it takes, that’s OK.”

But adding hours of time to teachers’ schedules and asking administrators to coordinate those parent requests are more complicated tasks, especially given that the Department of Education and teachers union often seem locked in perpetual deadlock. Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the principals union, said that while the union supports the initiative, it is also wary of piling new responsibilities onto already overloaded educators.

Coalition members said they committed to the effort after emotional conversations with parents at the end of the summer who didn’t know how to help their children with low test scores. They brought a version of the plan, inspired by an Arizona school district’s program, to the city at the beginning of September, but the city balked at the second meeting. That version of the plan could have cost $15 to 20 million, Polakow-Suransky said.

When officials said they didn’t have the money to give, it was the coalition’s moment to step back.

“It was emotional, it really was,” Agard said. “The room was just silent. We said, OK, we need to go. We just need to leave. We got up and we just said, it’s been real. And we left.”

The impasse didn’t last long. After Polakow-Suransky’s email, ”We were like, OK, let’s see what they want to say,” Agard said. “You kind of hope against hope — you want to get excited but not too excited.”

The money ended up being siphoned from a variety of initiatives, Polakow-Suransky said. None of the money came from school budgets, though he acknowledged that the city’s additional per-session money won’t pay for every necessary conference — hence the variety of scheduling options being presented to principals.

In a city where parents often complain that the city is unresponsive to their concerns, the extra time for test-score conversations could indicate the beginning of a long-term shift in how parents and teachers communicate.

Polakow-Suransky said the last time he remembered all of those parties working together on a deal was the effort, also spearheaded by CEJ, to extend Academic Intervention Services when the state last raised its proficiency cutoff scores in 2010. This year, when proficiency benchmarks changed again, the city allocated that money once more, this time of its own initiative.

Advocates say they hope the meetings provide a more meaningful experience than traditional parent-teacher conferences. ”Most of time, especially at schools in communities we’re really targeting and advocate on behalf of, they may get five minutes,” said Ocynthia Williams, a parent advocate with United Parents of Highbridge, a CEJ group. “We’re hoping this one is a more in-depth conversation.”