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Walcott Pledges Measures to Increase Parents' Involvement

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 - 10:36 PM

New York City's Department of Education will create a parent academy and eventually measure how well public schools interact with their students' parents, Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott announced in a speech on Wednesday.

Speaking to an invitation-only audience of parents and school staff members, the chancellor discussed his plans to increase parents' involvement in their children's schooling, a topic he has made a priority and is in keeping with his agenda of improving the Education Department's public relations.

Mr. Walcott announced that the department would solicit proposals for a "parent academy," to open in 2012. The city plans to model its academy on the parent university created by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina, which offers parents workshops on how to help their children academically.

The chancellor did not say how much the Education Department expected the academy to cost, but he said that he would seek support from private donors.

In his speech, which he delivered from behind a lectern to a half-filled auditorium in the Park West campus on West 50th Street in Manhattan, Mr. Walcott outlined five parent engagement standards he expects schools to meet.

They include urging principals to welcome parents' involvement and improving parents' interactions with teachers during parent-teacher conferences, which Mr. Walcott likened to speed-dating.

Ten to 15 schools across the city will pilot these standards, and all city schools will eventually be measured on how well they adhere to them, Mr. Walcott said. City officials said they had yet to select which schools would be in the pilot program, to begin in November.

Mr. Walcott also said that parent coordinators, who often serve as the bridge between schools' administration and their parents, should have more power.

"Far too often I hear that parent coordinators feel constrained," Mr. Walcott said. "Families and communities often see them as a hot line for complaints, but not as leaders or organizers."

This year, the Education Department laid off 66 high school parent coordinators, in a decision the chancellor said was intended to give principals more of a say in determining their budgets. The department no longer requires high school to have parent coordinators, but elementary and middle schools must have one on staff.

Parent coordinators and parent association members gave the chancellor's speech a mixed review. While a parent coordinator at a school on the Upper West Side said she looked forward to what a parent academy could offer, several parent coordinators who work in Harlem schools said the chancellor's proposals seemed too vague.

"There are certain things he said that made sense," said Denise Gordon, the district family advocate for schools in central Harlem. "But I don't see how this is going to improve the 1 percent of schools where principals feel they can disrespect the parents."

Ms. Gordon cited one elementary school in Harlem, where she said the principal regularly disregards parents' voices. Her only option, she said, is to get the principal removed from the school.

The idea of creating an organization to help parents spend more time in schools and on homework with their children is not new to New York City.

In 2009, when the State Legislature renewed the mayoral control law, the city agreed to open a parent training center as part of a plan to assuage the law's critics. The center was to be run by the City University of New York, with half of its financing provided by the state and half by the city.

Neither ever committed money to the project.

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