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Parents demand stronger role at council hearing on engagement

As today’s City Council hearing on parent engagement wore into its third hour, parents grew agitated that they had yet to deliver their testimony.

After listening to chancellor Dennis Walcott and executive director for family and community engagement, Jesse Mojica, discuss parent engagement with council members for hours, the parents were ready to contribute, but the meeting was scheduled to end at one.

“It’s really unfair that this wasn’t mostly parent voices,” Michelle Lipkin, P.S. 199’s PTA president, said when she took the mic. “There’s a real disconnect between the definition of parent engagement for parents and the definition of parent engagement for the department of education.”

That disconnect was made clear as parents and council members agreed that the Department of Education can engage parents all they want, but without power, the engagement is all for naught.

“There’s no big secret in what gets parents involved,” Councilman Charles Barron said. “It’s when parents actually have power.” He suggested giving parents a say over curriculum, principal hiring, and budget.

Others agreed and noted that the Panel for Education Policy, the Community Education Councils, and the school closure procedures give only the guise of engagement.

“The parents need power through legislation. Not engagement, not feedback, not any of those pretty words. We need a vote on the PEP,” Christine Annechino, president of CEC 3, testified. “We have no voice. We have no power.”

Concerns raised by council members and parents during the meeting included the cut of 57 parent coordinators earlier this year, the accountability and assessment of parent coordinators, the lack of communication about toxic school environments, and the relocation of last night’s PEP meeting. While the tone was civil throughout, the issues always came back to the fact that parents don’t just want to be kept abreast of issues in their child’s school, they want to have the power to effect change.

Similarly, Pamela Johnson, president of CEC 11, questioned, “Where does the feedback go? It looks like you’re engaging us, but there isn’t any return from the DOE.”

Walcott has made parent engagement a priority since assuming his post in April. In June he held a meeting for parents on the Common Core standards, he delivered a policy speech on the topic during “Parents as Partners” week earlier this fall, and he has been making the rounds of CEC meetings.

He has also rejiggered the parent engagement initiative within Tweed to fit with his vision. What was the Office of Parent Engagement in 2002, the Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy in 2007, and the Office of Family Information and Action in 2010, is now the Division of Family and Community Engagement (DFACE).

Wolcott tapped Mojica, a Bronx parent of two, for the position in July. At today’s meeting, when council members pushed about the significance of this new iteration, Mojica said changes were being made to align the work of his division more closely with the structure of the network system. He also said the new moniker reflects his goal to engage the community at large.

Mojica’s office is staffed my 95 people, 20 of whom work specifically for DFACE initiatives such as providing support for Parent Associations, training parent coordinators, and working on the Parent Academy, which is planned to launch in September. The budget for DFACE proper is 8 million dollars; the budget for all parent-related initiatives is 105 million.

Early in the meeting, councilman Robert Jackson, chair of the education committee, testified that he was pleased with the DOE’s efforts and with the appointment of Mojica but that there was still “skepticism of DOE motives and efforts around parent and community engagement.” He cited the hazy content of the DOE’s web Site, which omits certain information about DFACE and the CEC. He also cited the marginalization of parents in important decisions about charter schools and co-locations.

Wolcott spoke off-the-cuff, mainly responding to Jackson’s concerns. But in his written testimony he shared his intent to “do a better job involving our parents and families.” He committed to improving the process of CEC elections – which were poorly planned and mismanaged last year – and to offering varied ways for parents to become involved on all levels.

“The work to get our students ready for college and careers must involve not only teachers and principals, but students and families as well. Our schools can’t do it alone,” he wrote.

While Walcott brings in a new vision of what family engagement could look like, it is unlikely under mayoral control that parents will get the leverage they want to effect change.

“Their vision of what parent engagement should be is at total odds with ours,” Jim Devor, president of CEC 15. “Powerful people get what they want no matter how deep, broad, or reasoned the communities opposition might be.”

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