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Walcott outlines new initiatives to involve parents in schools

The Department of Education will replicate other cities’ parent training programs and start measuring how well schools engage families, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced tonight.

In his first-ever policy address last month, Walcott unveiled an initiative to help the city’s long-struggling middle schools. Tonight, he turned his attention to another weak spot in the department’s record: keeping parents involved.

Addressing parent leaders at an RSVP-only event where he was joined by Jesse Mojica, head of the department’s oft-renamed family engagement office, Walcott outlined a plan that he said would boost parent involvement in city schools. He said the department would hire outside groups to run training workshops for parents who want to get involved, ask more from parent coordinators, and put more information for parents online, at a new portion of the DOE website for families.

Walcott also said the city had developed standards for family involvement that a small number of schools would test before they are rolled out citywide. Ultimately, he said, the city plans to measure schools on how well they communicate with parents and make them feel welcome.

The speech comes after years of complaints that DOE decision-making has shut parents out — and months after elections for district parent councils went so badly that they had to be redone. Walcott acknowledged problems with the elections and promised that the next time they happen, in 2013, the process would go more smoothly.

But he did not open the door to giving parents a larger role in setting city education policy.

“I want to state clearly what we mean by successful family engagement in New York City schools: Family engagement means informing and involving parents to get students on track for college and careers,” he said before launching into the new initiatives.

A centerpiece is a new training program for parents and parent coordinators that would start in the 2012-2013 school year.

“We’re very serious about having an academy,” Walcott told reporters after the speech. “And we believe in this. We see where it works in other cities and people have talked to use about that.”

The model the DOE will likely pursue is the “parent university” that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district operates. Walcott did not specify a price tag for the initiative but said funding would likely come from both public and private funds.

Reception to the speech was mild compared to the first event of “Parents as Partners Week,” a curriculum talk Tuesday night where protesters drowned out Walcott and other officials. Tonight, parent coordinators, CEC members, and PTA members at the RSVP-only speech offered mostly polite applause and the occasional isolated grumbling.

“I don’t think he addressed any of the deep dark issues that parents are concerned about,” said Doug Stern, a member of the Community Education Council for Manhattan’s District 1.

But Stern said he was impressed with Walcott’s message about involving parents in new curriculum standards and was touched by a story Walcott told about his parents’ early death.

“I think it was touching to see that he’s not that cold,” Stern said. “I guess he’s trying to connect more with parents on that level.”

Some attendees offered a harsher critique. Santos Crespo, a local president for the DC-37 labor union, said he questioned Walcott’s pledge of support for parent coordinators when 66 of them were among 737 DC-37 employees laid off earlier this month.

“What about the parent coordinators you just laid off?” he asked. “Are the parent coordinators still going to be optional in the high schools if they’re getting all this support? … To us he has no credibility.”

Outside the Park West Educational Campus, where the event took place, about two dozen protesters, many of them parents from schools that face closure, were shut out because they had not signed up to attend.

The spacious auditorium was only sparsely filled. About 650 parents had registered to attend, according to a DOE spokesman, but many did not show up. Hundreds of seats were available.

That was of little consequence to about a dozen DOE officials and school safety agents who stood outside and turned away the protesters. They couldn’t come in, the officials said, because the event was not open to the public.

“Let us in,” said Sherry Dorwish, a parent from P.S. 256 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, which could face closure. She was among several parents with signs who did not sign up but waited for about an hour outside. “There’s only a handful of parents out here. If there are empty seats in there, why not let us in?”