First Person

Parent Participation, Partnerships, Politics, and Power

What is the appropriate role for parents in New York City’s public school system? Parents often feel intimidated or marginalized by those in charge of their children’s education. Educators (and many students!) are oppressed by parents’ disinterest and over-interest. Politicians and policymakers, forever straddling the divide, have created myriad structure for parent inclusion, leading to complaints from all sides about pandering and bureaucratization.

A major criticism of Mayor Bloomberg’s schools leadership has been his failure to consult parents regarding his education policies or to revise those policies in the wake of parent opposition. According to a recent article in Downtown Express, “Bloomberg said parents need only be involved in the micro issues of their child’s education, like the child’s attendance, behavior and grades.” Beyond that, the Mayor suggested that parents could have “influence through the city councilmembers and mayor they elect.” Comptroller William Thompson released a report last May suggesting his own views on “Parent Influence on Local School Governance.”

Notwithstanding the Mayor’s remarks, a broad legally-mandated constellation of parent organizations exists to directly influence decision-making beyond the individual child. Federal law calls for extensive parent power in shaping school, district, and state Title I policies. Recent amendments to the New York State Mayoral Control statute require 32 District Community Education Councils and 3 Citywide Councils for High Schools, Special Education, and English Language Learners. The State Education Department requires School Leadership Teams and District Leadership Teams, which must include parents, to be directly involved in school-based planning and shared decision-making. A recent New York State Commissioner’s Decision held that the city’s parents were being illegally denied their mandated role in comprehensive educational planning. Chancellor’s Regulation A-660 mandates a robust system of Parent Associations, P.A. Presidents Councils, and a Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council. It is incumbent upon all administrators, from assistant principals to the Mayor himself, to respect the letter and spirit of this strong legal orientation toward parent partnership not only in pedagogical decisions regarding individual children but in school and district policy-making and implementation.

But any parent who has had a playground run-in knows that we each have different — often strongly different — views toward child rearing. So it is impossible to describe a single parent opinion regarding schools. That is one problem with the school system’s fallacious parent surveys and, just as wrong-headed, for anyone to claim representation of a single parent voice.

The conundrum of how to structure parent voices — plural — beyond the classroom is especially difficult in an urban setting because of the geographic, demographic, and numeric diversity that make our city such a vital social cauldron. As a public good, schools belong to everyone. Fundamentally, all citizens have a right to determine how their tax dollars are spent by investing their vote in elected representatives who, in turn, have sovereignty over the public weal. Parent control of school policies, perhaps a straw man invented by those inimical to a strong parent role, would thus be as exclusionary and self-defeating as would any other proposal for unelected dominance by a single, limited constituency.

That is why parent organizations such as Community Education Councils, exclusively a parent domain (students are non-voting members), can not and should not have more than an advisory role. Selected by school Parent Association officers, these volunteers simply do not adequately represent the full range of public education stakeholders, however important their informed input may be.

Further, recent legislative activity seems to pit parent against parent, weakening rather than strengthening our evolving system of parent leadership. For example, the Citywide Council on High Schools now must include representation from the Citywide Council on Special Education and the new Citywide Council on English Language Learners. But members of the CCHS (I am a past President) already include several parents whose children have special needs, are limited English proficient, or both. Are those parents to defer to the designee from those other councils? It is the responsibility of all council members to represent their entire constituency, not just their own child’s needs. Specialized representation of this sort is contrary to principles of American democracy and plays into the hands of those who would atomize rather than unite parent interests.

Finally, parent power must be wrested from the deadening grip of over-regulation. Parents are not usually lawyers and should not be forced to become experts at parliamentary procedure. Too many parent meetings become bogged down in arcane and ultimately destructive disputes about procedure rather than substance. Parents’ lack of political sovereignty should release them from undue procedural mandates. What procedural mandates exist should be read to strengthen parents’ otherwise weak voices against more powerful institutional interests rather than to set parent against parent in an embarrassing pecking frenzy over the remaining political crumbs.

This tension between unity and pluralism in parents’ role is appropriate in our complex system of school governance. Especially in New York, where most voters do not have children in the public schools, parents provide a uniquely informed constituency for everything from testing policies to school siting decisions. Parent opinion should not be assumed to be correct or even uniform, but, amid the cacophony of their multiple voices, policy makers ignore parents at their — and more importantly, students’ — peril.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.