What Might Real “Parent Engagement” look like in NYC public schools?

On December 8th, 2012 we held our first event.

UPDATE: Parents at the event (which we have since dubbed a “Parent Engagement Lab”) generated dozens of ideas

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to help the Department of Education reimagine parent engagement. Those ideas make up part of a slideshow presentation we created in November 2013 for Talking Transition, an ambitious attempt to bring ordinary citizens into NYC’s mayoral transition process. You can now view our slideshow online, comment on parents’ ideas, or even submit your own.

NYCpublic.org’s Parents’ Charrette

What Might Real “Parent Engagement” look like in NYC public schools?

Kemala Karmen’s report and girlray’s photos can also be found here on insideschools.org.

Fran Huckaby, standing at the front of Battery Park City School’s brightly lit auditorium, was speaking about seesaws. Her audience on December 8th, parents and parent leaders from all five boroughs and most districts, listened intently as Huckaby, an education professor at Texas Christian University, employed the playground image to verbally illustrate the current power imbalance between parents and policy makers. As she spoke, graphic artist May Lee, Sharpie in hand, drew on a giant piece of foam core, literally illustrating Huckaby’s point: policy maker “heavies” weigh down the power seesaw, leaving parents, who have little input into decision making, dangling in the air, totally at their mercy. Sometimes, the heavies drop us suddenly. (Bam! School closure.) Other times, frustratingly, nothing at all happens, even when parents have clearly agitated for change.

Whether or not you see merit in this metaphor, you may be wondering why a Texan professor, currently studying parent activism in Chicago, wound up talking to a bunch of New York parents on a rainy Saturday morning. You may also be curious as to why we bothered mentioning what is essentially a Sharpie doodle.

The answer: With parent participation in the schools at an all-time low and the mayoral campaign upcoming, we figured it was the perfect time to assemble a diverse group of parents and have them grapple with the question “What might real ‘parent engagement’ look like under the next mayor?” The gathering would be our organization’s inaugural event, and, like NYCpublic.org, the website we intend to launch, function as a space where parents can learn together, organize around a particular topic, and take action.

We’d invited Huckaby, along with Lisa Donlan of the District

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1 Community Education Council and Kim Sweet of Advocates for Children, to give participants some background on parent engagement, historically and currently, in New York and other places. We’d invited Lee because our audience members not only came from all over the city, but had widely varying levels of experience as parent activists; graphic facilitation is believed to help an audience develop a “big picture” in common. (It’s also fun to watch.) Finally, we’d invited the (presumed) mayoral candidates because we wanted them to listen to what parents have to say.

When the speakers wound down, we split into breakout groups for the day’s major work, a charrette. The charrette, whose roots are in architecture and urban planning, is a tightly facilitated, highly participatory brainstorming session that is focused on generating actionable solutions—in this case, ideas for improving parent engagement. Parents in each group produced brief

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written and oral responses to a series of questions, gradually homing in on one idea that they would flesh out for presentation to the presumed mayoral candidates. The charrette rooms buzzed with activity in English and Spanish as parents (and some grandparents) scribbled on post-its and clustered around whiteboards scrutinizing each other’s work. The atmosphere was lively, generally respectful, sometimes passionate, and definitely generative.

As an example, one group suggested creating an independent education 311 that, among other things, would allow for follow-up tracking of submitted concerns and provide an advocate to help parents strategize. The same group also called for a survey that would offer schools and the system real feedback—totally detached from the retributions of the progress report. And, staying closer to home, the group suggested joint parent-teacher projects within a school, with the idea that such collaboration would create space to talk about what needs improvement in a context where something positive—the project—was already happening.

As the day wound down, NYC Comptroller John Liu popped into a few rooms, getting a glimpse of the charrette process and responding to a few ideas. At the closing session, Tom Allon (declared Republican candidate) joined representatives who had been designated to report back to Liu, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (all of whom are considered potential candidates on the Democratic ticket). All four discussed the strengths of the ideas shared and expressed a desire to learn about other proposals that had come out of the charrette. Each one made it clear that parent engagement would indeed be a key issue in the election.

As organizers of the event, and public school parents ourselves, we found it extremely gratifying to bring parents together for something purposely proactive. We parents are certainly not a monolithic group. (One example: some charrette participants could imagine improved parent engagement under a modified form of mayoral control, while others believed mayoral control wholly incompatible with real parent engagement.) Still, we can learn from one another and work together, and—if this one charrette is any indication—create a slew of practical, sensible ideas. The bottom line: parents are a valuable resource; when we are ignored or undervalued, it is to the detriment of everyone in the system.

To further the dialogue started on December 8, NYCpublic is compiling all ideas that emerged from the charrette into a presentation that we hope to share directly with individual candidates. For more about our organization and proposed website—we are currently seeking funding for a 2013 launch, please visit NYCpublic.org