Parent coordinators look for specifics, and reassurance, from Fariña

As Chancellor Carmen Fariña aims to improve relations between parents and the Department of Education, many say she should start on the front lines: with parent coordinators.

Parent coordinators traditionally answer phone calls and run parent workshops, send home flyers advertising parent-teacher conferences, and help promote special events. Often, they act as the school’s all-purpose troubleshooters, helping parents deal with housing problems that are keeping their children out of school, for example.

But 10 years after their role was created, there is plenty of room for improvement, according to parents, parent coordinators, and activists.

Fariña briefly acknowledged that on Wednesday at a meeting of the city’s principals, saying the Department of Education is planning to improve training for parent coordinators and would be recruiting exemplary coordinators to share their ideas with others.

“We have some unbelievable things happening in the city, and yet a lot of the parent coordinators haven’t had training in whenever,” Fariña told principals.

Following Fariña’s other promises to improve parent engagement and a recent report on the topic from researchers and activists with influence in City Hall, some coordinators said they are hoping to see more attention paid to the job.

“I’ve always said, when are they going to take the time to sit with these principals and tell them what they’re supposed to do?” said Sonia Kemp, the parent coordinator at P.S. 96 in East Harlem. “Our position is not respected. And when it comes to parent involvement, parents see that.”

The parent coordinator position was created by Joel Klein in 2003 after Mayor Michael Bloomberg won control of the school system and dissolved the local school boards that had given parents some direct decision-making power. Schools were required to have a coordinator until 2010, and they’re still mandatory in elementary and middle schools.

The city has done a good job giving coordinators knowledge of academic changes, said Kemp, who runs a Facebook page to keep in touch with a network of other parent coordinators. But an understanding of the Common Core doesn’t help coordinators gain other skills they need, she said, and many end up doing unrelated work for school principals.

“We’ll fix parents’ situation and that will fix the kids’ situation. I help them with their apartments, with food pantries, immigration, with the GED,” Kemp said. For training, “I would like conflict resolution,” she said.

Taneesha Crawford, the parent coordinator at South Bronx Preparatory, also said parent coordinators wear many hats. “We have a role, but it really is not defined,” she said. “You have so many parent coordinators that are doing so many things that are out of the job description … they’re kind of just seen as an extra body.”

Fariña signaled that she was thinking about parent coordinators at a meeting of parent leaders early in January, where she asked, “How do we make parent coordinators smarter about things they can then translate to you?”

Michele Farinet, the parent coordinator at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, said she understood what Fariña meant. “You have to be kept in the loop,” she said. “I think making parent coordinators ‘smarter’ means more access to information, more involvement, maybe in professional development situations.”

A number of coordinators noted that they had few opportunities to come together and share best practices with other parent coordinators — something Fariña said on Wednesday that she would prioritize.

Crawford is less worried than she was last fall, when she thought the parent coordinator position might be eliminated. During the campaign, Mayor Bill de Blasio indicated that he would support changes to the parent coordinator role, signing a document of campaign commitments last June that included a pledge to “provide dedicated funding and redefine the position of parent coordinator so parents have input into job description, hiring, and evaluation.”

But not everyone has been a fan of the parent coordinator job. Mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner said he would scrap the coordinators, prompting a protest outside his apartment. Surveys by the public advocate’s office throughout the Bloomberg administration showed that many parent coordinators weren’t answering or returning phone calls as required. The city’s Independent Budget Office has repeatedly noted that the city could save millions by eliminating, consolidating, or reducing the hours of parent coordinators — ideas that coordinators see as a yearly threat.

The job would benefit from the chancellor sending a clear message that parent coordinators are here to stay, Farinet said. “It’s hard to get good people who are going to stay if they think the job could disappear,” she said. “It needs to be given substance and validity.”

Across-the-board changes to coordinators’ jobs are less likely, given how coordinators’ jobs vary based on the needs of their school’s parents and the relationships between coordinators and principals. The coordinators’ official job responsibilities are also outlined in their union contracts.

A report on parent engagement released by the Fund for Public Advocacy last December offers a glimpse into some changes Fariña might consider. Its six recommendations for the parent coordinator job included that coordinators again be assigned to all high schools, that they not be assigned clerical tasks so they can focus on engagement work, that evaluation metrics be developed, and that coordinators receive specific kinds of training on parent organizing, cultural awareness, and special education services.

Ursulina Ramirez, now Fariña’s chief of staff, was a member of the committee that compiled the report. The committee also included two of de Blasio’s recent appointees to the Panel for Educational Policy, Lori Podvesker and Norm Fruchter; transition team members Zakiyah Ansari, Paula Gavin, and Kim Sweet; as well as Ocynthia Williams, who served on de Blasio’s inaugural committee.

“Parent Coordinators represent a critical resource for assisting, informing and organizing parents, as well as helping them resolve their children’s schooling needs and improve their children’s schools,” the report says.