At a new school started by parents, uncertainty about how to include them

Jose Gonzalez didn’t know much about the New York City school system when he moved to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic in 2001. He raised his sons Alvaro and Allan in Highbridge, a tight-knit neighborhood on a hill overlooking Yankee Stadium.

Alvaro and Allan attended elementary school in Highbridge, and Gonzalez knew he wanted them to stay close to home for middle school. So he got involved with the United Parents of Highbridge, a group that was lobbying the city to create a middle school in a neighborhood that had not had one since the 1960s.

Over the course of nearly a decade, the parents recruited local clergy and elected officials to join a coalition, met with Department of Education officials, and found a space for the school. As the planning process moved into the construction stage, parents continued to advocate for their vision of the school, raising money to outfit the newly constructed building with a green roof where students can garden as part of their classes.

The Highbridge Green School opened in September with 142 sixth-graders, including Gonzalez’s younger son, Allan.

Now, midway through the school’s first year, parents and educators are grappling with what parent involvement will look like going forward. How much say should parents have in the school’s daily operations and long-term vision, now that teachers and administrators have been hired to run the show?

Deep commitment to parent engagement on the part of parents and Green School staff, combined with uncertainty about what form that involvement should take, has led to both tension and innovation.

Some particularly active parents, including Gonzalez, say they want more influence over the school’s direction. That desire, at times a source of friction between Gonzalez and the school’s leadership, has fueled a new, collaborative curriculum project — illustrating the possibilities and pitfalls of intensive parent involvement just as the Department of Education works to reshape its relationship with families.

For the most part, parents at the Green School say they are happy with how the school has engaged parents in its first year.

Lorenza de los Santos described the school as a “community baby” and said the administration has preserved that ethos by welcoming parents into the school, hosting events, and sending letters home.

“It was a problem just to get to talk to the principal” at her son’s elementary school, Migdalia Fernandez said in Spanish. At the Green School, Principal Kyle Brillante greets families out front each morning.

And when the city agreed to provide schools with extra funding to hold extended parent-teacher conferences for students who received lows scores on last year’s Common Core-aligned state exams, Green School staff decided to hold those extended conversations with all parents, regardless of their children’s scores.

Though it took some reminders, Brillante said, at least one parent turned out for each student’s conference.

“That’s one of the benefits of coming into an active community,” said Anna Waters, the school’s instructional coach. “People show up.”

But good communication represents just one form of parent engagement, and some parents say they want more.

Gonzalez, who is the Parent Association president, doesn’t think the school has taken advantage of parents’ unique knowledge as much as it could. He believes that parents should have input into the budget, curriculum, after-school offerings, uniform policy, and more because they have insight into students’ lives outside of school and what sorts of resources, academic and otherwise, they most need during the day.

Gonzalez said he wants to feel that “the school is really helping me, because they are listening … [and] they want me to be sitting at the table and having my voice out there.”

Highbridge is a largely immigrant community and one of the poorest in the Bronx. Parents look to the newly constructed Green School, with its shiny hallways and promised rooftop garden, to provide opportunities they can’t offer at home.

As a parent in a poor community, Gonzalez said, he asks himself, “With the lack of resources that I have out there, how can I really have a voice in my school?”

The Department of Education is also confronting the question of how to give parents a real voice in schools, as Chancellor Carmen Fariña works to strengthen the department’s relationships with parents after 12 years under the Bloomberg administration.

“With Bloomberg and the various chancellors he had, parents were really kind of an afterthought,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University. He said the Bloomberg administration treated parents as “consumers” who deserved information but could leave a school if they didn’t like it, rather than as “partners” who were also invested in their school’s success.

“If you’re a partner there’s more engagement, compromise, and negotiation,” he said. “There’s an actual relationship.”

Fariña has frequently criticized the Bloomberg administration’s approach, and two weeks into her new job, she told a group of parents that she wants to be judged by how much she does to make sure that their voices are heard. But she has not yet spelled out what she expects that process to look like within schools.

Brillante said he’s particularly eager for practical models to try out at his school.

“We’d like more support from the department,” he said. “I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to learn from experienced principals and from the chancellor herself about how we can incorporate parents more and make their voices heard.”

For now, Brillante is doing what the city requires, which he doesn’t think is sufficient, and experimenting with doing more in ways that have been productive and messy.

The Green School isn’t yet big enough to get city funding for a parent coordinator, but it has a parent association and three parent representatives on its School Leadership Team, a governing body that also includes teachers, administrators, and others.

Those structures for parent involvement are useful, Brillante said, but don’t on their own ensure that the school is engaging parents in meaningful ways.

“Those are just superficial structures” at schools where parent involvement is less valued, he said. “We don’t want to just have an SLT meeting where we spend two hours talking about the Valentine’s dance we’re having Friday.”

Instead, Brillante said he wants parents to be involved in thinking and strategizing about what happens in classrooms, even if that means first teaching them about curriculum standards set by the city and state.

“We feel like the heart of engagement for parents and students is to meaningfully involve all of our stakeholders on instruction. That’s what’s going to push student achievement forward.”

Repeated and sometimes frustrating efforts to involve parents in instruction have produced a new initiative that Brillante and Gonzalez, who spent much of the fall in tension, both said has them hopeful about the future relationship between Highbridge Green and the parents who helped create the school.

A parent gives written feedback after a presentation on the school’s grading system. (Emma Sokoloff-Rubin)

The project started, Gonzalez said, when he and Anna Staab, an English and special education teacher, were paired up during a School Leadership Team meeting to brainstorm ways for teachers to get students more excited about what they’re learning.

Gonzalez listened to Staab present about the next unit in her class, in which students would read and write an essay about “Dragon Wings,” a book in which an eight-year-old immigrates to the United States from China.

Still frustrated that parents hadn’t been given more input into the curriculum, Gonzalez jumped in with an idea. Why not have students interview their parents, many of whom are also immigrants?

To his surprise, Staab and her colleagues in the English department took his suggestion a step farther, inviting him to come to their next planning meeting to help design the assignment. Since the meeting took place right after the Parent Association meeting, Gonzalez brought seven parents with him to help plan the project.

“The Parent Association was already in the building having a meeting, and the ELA team was in the building meeting,” Staab said. By bringing one into the other, she said, “we’re trying to take the structures we already had in place and run with them.”

Since then, students have interviewed parents and community members and written essays comparing the perspectives on immigration they found in “Dragon Wings” and in their live interviews. They’ve also worked with their parents to make posters about China or their interviewee’s own country of origin to present along with their interviews at a school fair on Thursday.

Gonzalez said that while there’s still room for improvement, the curriculum project is an example of what he’s looking for when he talks about parent input.

“The curriculum project, that’s an area where they’re making that happen,” he said. “Let’s see that overall in the school.”

James Comer, a professor of psychiatry and the founder of the Yale Child Study Center, cautioned that meaningful parent involvement takes structure and foresight.

Rather than just saying that parents’ voices should be heard, he said, school leaders need to ask themselves, “To what end, why? And what do they know that others don’t know?”

“There’s probably going to have to be a structure and an agreement about the kinds of things they work on, and the kinds of things that the teachers work on, and the kinds of things they can work on together and the ways they work together,” he said.

Particularly in schools that were created in part by parents, Comer said, it’s common for parents to feel a sense of ownership that can be challenging as well as helpful for school staff.

At the Green School, which wouldn’t exist without parents’ at-first-seemingly-unrealistic vision — and their willingness to fight for that vision — staff now have to contend with the fact that parents sometimes want progress faster than is realistic.

Building a school is “a step-by-step process that I think makes sense to a lot of educators but may not make sense initially to folks that are not in education,” Brillante said. “[Parents] have been working on this project for 10 years, some of them have pined for a middle school for 40 years. Now that it’s fully there it’s almost like all their desires and wishes are coming to a head and they want it to happen now.”

Sometimes, Brillante can easily act on parents’ suggestions. When de los Santos said she needed more clarity about the school’s uniform policy after her daughter was sent to the office for wearing the wrong shirt, Brillante sent a letter home with all students the next day.

But while Brillante said he shares parents’ vision of getting community members involved in using the green roof they raised money for, that can’t happen until the School Construction Authority finishes work on the roof. And when it comes to academics, parents have insights into their own children’s academic progress and needs but don’t have the training teachers do around how to help an entire class of children learn.

Involving parents means navigating the power imbalance between parents with deep local knowledge of their neighborhood and children and teachers with decision-making power and training in education.

“The stakes are so high with every decision that you make as a teacher and as a parent, because the stakes are your kids and the well-being of your kids,” said Staab, who said she has made involving parents a priority throughout her career. “It’s natural and to be expected that conflicts are going to happen even when everyone who’s at the table has the same intentions and same investment in the well-being of the kids.”