Opinion: If You Want Schools to Thrive, Invest in Parents

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In one of her recent public comments on the thorny thicket of challenges she faces, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña trumpeted her personal mission to build an administration that will “listen—and respond—to parents.”

The new chancellor clearly wants to a signal a departure from more than a decade of Department of Education leadership that has been criticized for squelching the voices of parents in educational decision-making.

As a veteran parent coordinator of an East Village elementary school, as well as the mother of two public school students, I commend her commitment to embracing families as school partners. For if any issue is emblematic of the new mayor's focus on inequality, it’s the achievement gap that schools have been tasked with closing. A gap that, according to reams of research, will never disappear without the robust participation of parents in the education of our city’s kids.

Still, I wonder if Fariña appreciates how wide-ranging and profound the needs of those parents are. Does she realize the extent to which schools, as the point of contact that all public school families share, operate, more and more, as social service clearing houses and the nexus of community life for an increasing number of parents?

I can remember my own dawning awareness of what the job was going to entail when I began work as a member of the first generation of coordinators in the summer of 2003. At our inaugural convocation, we listened as Geoffrey Canada, the education activist and founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, described our mandate like this: “The alignment between home, school and community has fallen apart. If you want parents to come through the door, you’ve got to rebuild it.”

I would soon find myself doing things I had never imagined were under the purview of a civil servant. On one of my first days, I walked a student home (after feeding her pizza) when her ailing mother and older brother simply forgot to pick her up. One Labor Day weekend I got a call from an incoming family—recently arrived Iraqi refugees. I took them shopping for school supplies, found health insurance and a doctor for their girls, connected the mother with a counseling program for victims of torture, and hosted their first American Thanksgiving dinner.

The following fall, I organized the funeral of a student who drowned and, later that same year, assisted with another for a student’s father who died of a heart attack, even ironing his shirt for the viewing. 

All of that in addition to the more mundane work of a parent coordinator: I facilitated workshops on subjects ranging from financial planning and debt management to childhood sexuality and handling holiday blues. I led field trips, set up an ad-hoc after-school program, taught Spanish, told girls how to use sanitary napkins, and checked hundreds of heads for lice.

This, I have learned, is the business of most parent coordinators. 

The school where I worked was a mirror of our bifurcated city—a mix of poor families living in the projects and educated, middle class families living in co-ops. Regardless of background, they often looked to the school for assistance when they needed it and in most cases, their school—their community—rallied to help.

Despite the central role parent coordinators play in a school community, they are misunderstood and underpaid. Parents, and even school staff, often weren’t sure where I left off and the P.T.A. began. Plenty of people were surprised to learn I wasn’t a volunteer.

As part of her pledge to boost parent involvement, I hope Fariña considers reinforcing the role of the parent coordinator. The way things stand now, she might be tempted to scrap them: the D.O.E. would save upwards of $39,000 per school per year—the figure at which parent coordinator salaries have been capped since 2003 (many make less).

But for this modest investment—a sliver of the D.O.E.’s $25 billion annual budget—I would argue that students and families are getting a bargain.

A more fruitful strategy would be to elevate the authority of parent coordinators and leverage their capacity to get adults engaged in the school. Train them in working with families and kids in crisis, with students with serious behavioral problems—in managing the daily realities of our system. And make the job worth sticking to, by creating channels for advancement and raising salaries.

If authentic parent outreach is truly on the menu for the new administration, schools need recognition for, and resources to enable, their capacity to build warm, supportive communities.