December 2011 Newsletter: Parental Involvement Provides Opportunity, Challenge for Charter Schools

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Parental Involvement Provides Opportunity, Challenge for Charter Schools

Charter school leaders and education researchers are working on ways to better define effective parental involvement in the school community and connect the activity to children's achievement. Although it might seem obvious that a student's chances of success are likely improved with active parental support, what specifically is most effective and how to stimulate and manage that support in diverse circumstances is not always so clear or provable. This feature of the National Charter School Resource Center (Resource Center) monthly newsletter focuses on the approach to parental involvement of El Sol Science and Arts Academy, a high-performing charter school in Santa Ana, California, and provides information and resources to further pursue the topic.

 El Sol Science and Arts Academy

The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) recognizes the importance of effective parental involvement, with requirements under Title I, Part A, that education agencies and schools implement strategies to engage parents. Title I funding supplements local support for disadvantaged students. The Parent Involvement section of the U.S. Department of Education's website provides a wide array of resources to help local education agencies, schools and parents understand and meet requirements of the law. Links are provided for the relevant sections of the law, as well as tools and guidance on successful approaches.

Charter schools that are succeeding with parental involvement make it a key part of the school's mission, not merely a matter of compliance, according to Joanna Smith, Assistant Director of the Center on Educational Governance at the University of Southern California. Smith and Center Director Priscilla Wohlstetter reviewed parental involvement research and surveyed 12 charter schools in six states as part of a study and article titled "Parent Involvement in Urban Charter Schools: New Strategies for Increasing Participation." All the surveyed schools were chosen because they showed success with parental involvement. Parent contracts that set expectations for parents' participation in the school community are a key tool and are typically identified with charter schools, but such contracts are not "a charter-only phenomenon," Smith said in an interview with the Resource Center. At the surveyed schools, though, the contracts seem to be "more actively discussed and not just a document that's signed at the beginning of the year and filed in a cupboard," Smith said. "It's a lot of time and effort at these schools to follow through on the mission of involving parents."

Smith said that if a parent has chosen a charter school for their child, they already have shown involvement in their child's education. They may not necessarily know how to further their involvement and it helps for school leaders to provide and promote a wide variety of opportunities for involvement. The survey also showed that it is important for school leaders to define what they want parental involvement to be. "It's not just involvement for the sake of saying we had everyone give 10 hours," Smith said. "There has to be some purpose behind it."Although improving student achievement is the goal, Smith said building a sense of community with the aid of parents has its own rewards in such areas as teachers feeling supported and appreciated and parents being empowered.

Eric Dearing, Associate Professor of Applied Developmental Psychology at Boston College, believes that the conversation about the value of parental involvement too often relies on anecdotes and intuition. Greater use of data and evidence would produce a more systematic and successful approach, Dearing stated in a posting on the research section of the Harvard Family Research Project website. Data collection does not have to start with an elaborate evaluation. Basic information such as tracking the number of parents who are involved in the school, the number of activities they participate in and whether that involvement is sporadic or consistent over the year can give school leaders a clearer picture of the extent of parental involvement and the basis for determining its impact. Schools that use systems that allow parents to check grades online also could include an element that allows parents to provide feedback about their level of satisfaction, information that could be used as data, Dearing said in an interview with the Resource Center. "Are they effective in engaging school families and how effective are they in maintaining it?" Dearing asked. "Is that engagement mutually beneficial just in terms of how folks feel about it?"

The data would open the way for school leaders to see patterns about the impact of parent involvement for the school, classrooms and individual students. "The very first place one would expect to see the benefit of involvement would be with students' effort, motivation, work habits and behavior," Dearing said. "From there, one would expect skills to improve."

California Charter School Takes Broad Approach to Parental Involvement

At El Sol Science and Arts Academy in Santa Ana, California, parental involvement has three major components: a compact that requires families to contribute 20 hours of service to the school each year, participation in school services such as adult education, and special classes for parents whose children are struggling. The Spanish and English language immersion school, founded in 2001, has about 680 students in PK-8. Monique Daviss, Executive Director of the school, said in an interview with the Resource Center that a broad mix of opportunities for parental involvement helps integrate and strengthen the school community.

The requirement for 20 hours, part of the original school charter and part of the school's Family Handbook that includes the parent compact, is considered "reasonable and doable," according to Daviss. How the requirement is fulfilled includes an element of flexibility to accommodate different family circumstances. About 80 percent of the students are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program.

"We have families that really struggle," said Daviss, who started teaching in the late 1980s in Compton, California, and has worked in education and training programs for families in public housing and served in public agency and nonprofit management roles in cities across the country. "They have time and skills more than they have money." Parents can fulfill their volunteer requirement in many ways, including supporting events, working in classrooms, or making repairs at the school. For other families, a $10 donation can be exchanged for an hour of volunteer time. "It's very seldom used and it's just kind of out there," Daviss said.

Daviss said the school works to avoid absolutes when it comes to fulfilling the compact for 20 hours of volunteer time. "We try to take the carrot approach and to find positive ways to encourage people to participate," she said. "For those families where students are struggling and parents aren't involved, we're really wrapping ourselves around that family to really pin them to some expectation. Are we necessarily going to get 20 hours out of them? Well, maybe not."

Sara Flores is the school's family coordinator, a full-time position that is supported by grants. Flores said that the school strives to make sure that parents feel that they are welcome and feel comfortable volunteering in any way they can. "They can have a second-grade education, but they can support in some way," Flores said in an interview with the Resource Center.

Participation by parents in programs offered through the school, not just adult education, but also legal aid and other support services provided by The El Sol Family and Children Learning Center, also figure in the parental involvement equation. A campus health clinic operates out of a modular facility with six examination rooms, a program that is being expanded with federal grants totaling about $2.3 million that will support one project with nurse practitioners and another focused on dental care. The clinic serves students and their families.

"Even though that's not parental involvement necessarily in the volunteer tradition sense, for us, it builds the kind of community trust and support that we think flows back into the way that the parents and family view the school," Daviss said, "and therefore increases the likelihood that they'll participate as an active partner in their child's education."

Other incentives and rewards for involvement include parent appreciation lunches, recognition certificates and awarding of donated tickets to sports, concerts or other entertainment events to families that go the extra mile for the school.

When students have difficulty, the school offers classes to help parents better understand what is involved in helping their children, how to read with their children, how to check homework, and what kind of questions to ask teachers in conferences, "all the kinds of skills that make an active partner of a parent." "They don't necessarily have those skills," she said. "We try to let them know what those skills are so they can advocate for their kids. The double-edge sword on that is that you teach parents to push you. But that's OK. That's what we're here for."

There is such a thing as too much school involvement by parents. "You have to direct it in ways that are constructive," Daviss said. "Otherwise it can be a problem." For example, a lesson learned for Daviss came at another school where she noted the importance of letting parents volunteering in classrooms know that potentially personal and sensitive matters can arise, that "what you see in the classroom is not something you talk about at the birthday party."

Extensive interaction with parents is expected for staff at the school. "When we interview people we clearly describe the environment," Daviss said. "It can be a little overwhelming sometimes. You have to consider that if you want to be in this environment, you have to be OK with that."

The school's Academic Performance Index scores, the state's rating system for public schools' academic growth, have gone from 559 in 2003 to 880 in 2011 out of a possible 1,000, putting it among the top 2 percent of all California schools. "People see lots of opportunity in those academic things," Daviss said. But the role school families are expected to play in terms of participation in the school community is known too. "They also know that they can get health care and they can get all kinds of other things," Daviss said.

No proof of a connection between parental involvement and academic achievement at the school exists. "Right now, a lot of what we say is anecdotal," Daviss said. For example, Daviss described a single mother with multiple children enrolled at the school who was suffering from a debilitating chronic disease that had gone undiagnosed and undermined her ability to support her children. Her ailment was discovered at the school's health clinic. She was referred for treatment and her condition has improved and the children have not missed a day of school. "Now what happens if the services were not available?" Daviss said. "Don't know."

"It would be hard to unpack because you've got so many different variables," Daviss said. The school is working to assemble the data for the impact of its parental involvement programs. "We're not necessarily going to try to make it pass pure science protocols, but we are also going to make it so we can demonstrate correlations." Someone on the staff is "chomping at the bit to put that together," Daviss said, "if only we didn't have to run the school."

Active parental involvement is a matter of school culture, which must be deliberately developed, according to Daviss. The school's website section for parental involvement includes a note that parents can apply for roles such as serving on the school's board of directors or School Site Council, which oversees federal Title I funds, support that is focused on improving academic achievement among the disadvantaged and includes requirements for engaging parents.

"Once you're in a school where you've got two parents and one is the president of the PTA and the other is their sidekick, and that's about it, turning that ship around is very difficult," Daviss said. Providing resources that serve the families provides an inroad. "As those relationships are built, people are more apt to participate," Daviss said. "It's a relationship, and relationships take time and they need to be nurtured in communities where people have lots of competing priorities. For families who feel intimidated by school involvement, who maybe haven't had a lot of positive experience of their own, the only way in is through relationships."

An orientation toward community among school staff plays a key role. "The majority of our teachers grew up in this community or communities very, very similar," Daviss said. "So everybody knows what it is to be that family. This is not people coming from some other place to do something here. This is their family. These are their friends. This is their community."


TNTP Announces $25,000 Teacher Prize Program; Up to Five Awards Expected Annually

Public school teachers who "demonstrate exceptionally effective teaching with students from high-poverty communities" are eligible for a $25,000 prize under a new program announced on December 13, 2011, by TNTP, a nonprofit organization focused on teacher development.

The Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice is to be awarded annually to no more than five teachers who also will have the opportunity to collaborate on a short paper on the effective teaching practices of the winners. The application deadline is February 3, 2012.

Federal Charter Schools Program Chief Picked As Executive Director of DC Public Charter School Board

Scott Pearson, who most recently served as the Associate Assistant Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education overseeing the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), has been picked as the DC Public Charter School Board's (PCSB) new executive director. Read more.

Gates Foundation Announces $40 Million for Charter-District School Collaboration; 14 Cities Now Have Compacts

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in December 2011 announced the availability of more than $40 million in competitive funding for cities where charter and district school leaders have signed collaboration compacts, and that the number of cities participating in the program has grown to 14. Read more.

New Guidance on Use of Race to Achieve School Diversity Issued by Departments of Education, Justice

The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice in December 2011 issued new guidance to explain how "elementary and secondary schools can voluntarily consider race to further compelling interests in achieving diversity and avoiding racial isolation."

Three Companies Apply to Run Charter School on Naval Station Great Lakes

Three companies have submitted applications to open a K-8 charter school on Naval Station Great Lakes that would enroll up to 500 students, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and North Chicago Community Unit School District 187 announced. Read more.


February 27-29, 2012: The Second Annual Green Schools National Conference will be in Denver, Colorado.

June 19-22, 2012: The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools will hold the National Charter Schools Conference 2012 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


  • Parent Involvement, U.S. Department of Education Website. This section of the U.S. Department of Education website provides resources to help local education agencies, schools, and parents understand and meet requirements for parental involvement under federal law. Links are provided for the specific sections of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that address parental involvement, as well as tools and guidance on successful approaches and ideas and additional sources of information.
  • Parental Information and Resource Centers. Parental Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs) help implement effective parental involvement policies, programs, and activities that improve student academic achievement and strengthen partnerships among parents, teachers, principals, administrators.
  • Parental Involvement Assessment for Elementary Schools. This Parental Involvement Assessment for Elementary Schools tool developed by the Appleseed Network allows elementary school leaders to evaluate the extent and effectiveness of parental involvement. The survey assesses involvement through a series of questions addressing parent engagement in a range of academic and decision-making activities and efforts to help children transition from preschool to kindergarten.
  • Expanding Knowledge of Parental Involvement in Secondary Education: Effects on High School Academic Success. This 1998 report published by the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR) examines whether parental involvement influences the educational achievements of high school seniors.
  • Parent Involvement, National Research Center on Learning Disabilities. This section of the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities website focuses on the role of parents in understanding the law regarding education for children with disabilities and the response-to-intervention model, which emphasizes early identification of students with difficulty learning and finding the appropriate intervention. The approach is the focus of the National Center on Response to Intervention.
  • Fund for the Improvement of Education, Programs of National Significance, U.S. Department of Education. The Full Service Community Schools Program grants, overseen by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement, provide funding for services that include programs that promote parental involvement and family literacy, parent leadership and parenting education, community service and other service-learning opportunities, nutrition services, primary health and dental care, mental health counseling services, and adult education. No competitions were held for the program in 2011. Charter school organizations have received funds through the program.
  • Leadership to Date, Leadership Tomorrow: A Review of Data on Charter School Directors. This 2007 report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education includes data from a limited survey of charter school leaders in three Midwest states that notes engaging parents is one of the greatest challenges, with nearly a third indicating it is a major problem and nearly a quarter of new administrators reporting they are not confident with the task.
  • Bringing It All Together: Family and Community Engagement Policies in Action. This 2011 webinar from the U.S. Department of Education, United Way Worldwide, National PTA, SEDL, and the Harvard Family Research Project is the ninth and last in a series focused on the different roles of federal, state, and local entities in promoting family, school, and community engagement.
  • A Toolkit for Title I Parental Involvement. This toolkit from SEDL provides information about implementing Title I, Part A, parental involvement provisions and includes explanations of the law, fund allocation, parent rights and checklists, surveys, and other resources that state education agencies, local education agencies, and schools use for implementation.
  • The Family Engagement for High School Success Toolkit. This 2011 toolkit from the United Way Worldwide and Harvard Family Research Project provides guidance for planning and implementing family engagement initiatives, developing partnerships, measuring progress and sample checklists for completing the work.