First Person

Chalkbeat Roundtable: Should parents have a say in curriculum?

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In a recent story about about parent involvement at the Highbridge Green School, a new middle school in the Bronx, Principal Kyle Brillante said he’d rather involve parents in planning the curriculum than the school dance.

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

Teachers, parent coordinators, and parents contacted us with their own thoughts on the story’s premise, with some praising the Green School’s efforts to involve parents in curriculum and others arguing that parents should steer clear of the classroom. Here are six perspectives.

  • Learning Leaders’ Jane HeaphyParents need tools to be full participants
  • Queens parent Kimberly Coleman: Parents’ opinions can never be objective
  • Teacher Jose Vilson: Parents should have some voice in curriculum
  • Parent coordinator Michele Farinet: Parents and educators have different expertise
  • PTA president Matt Schneider: Parents and educators work together powerfully
  • Parent coordinator Taneesha Crawford: Contributing isn’t realistic for all parents

Parents’ involvement in curriculum can be useful, if they have the tools

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Jane Heaphy, public school parent and executive director of Learning Leaders

One of the most interesting questions raised in the piece is what parents and educators need to learn in order to partner effectively. I am thinking about Brillante saying he wants to involve parents in curriculum-related decisions even if it means teaching them about the issues first.

Researcher Karen Mapp at Harvard University talks about this, needing to give parents the tools to be full participants. Of course, this has to happen in a way that respects parents’ own expertise and builds on their experience.

It is not easy to build consensus, to even get deep feedback. But some schools do it very well. The Green School seems to be on an excellent track, in spite of, or arguably even demonstrated by, the expressed frustration some parents feel.  The promising part is in the conversation. It appears that the school leadership is listening.

Parents can advocate for their own kids, not all children

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Kimberly Coleman, parent and Mom in the City blogger

While I understand the desires of some parents to play a role in planning a public school’s curriculum, I don’t think that they should. I say this from a dual perspective — as a parent of sons in public school and as a wife of a public school teacher. As a parent, I know that (as much as I might like for them to be) my opinions are simply not objective.

I would primarily advocate for the issues that concern my kids — academically advanced boys – the most. However, I know that public schools have the tremendous challenge of teaching kids with a wide variation of academic abilities and I don’t think that the vast majority of parents (including myself!) are adequately equipped to give input into the curriculum.

Particularly when it comes to history, parents need to have a say

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Jose Vilson, math teacher at I.S. 52

My lens happens to be a race-based one, so when I hear about parents trying to get involved in curricular decisions, I think there should be some voice. Parents should have a hand in curriculum, especially as it concerns pedagogy and material. That’s why, for example, some parents felt like they had to create their own schools. Some of the topics they wanted to see covered and methodologies they’d like to see implemented weren’t being seen in the schools they had around them. Parents are often frustrated with our current curriculum, especially as it concerns U.S. history and how history is often taught from the lens of the victor, and alternative histories also matter.

Parents should support student learning by offering input, not direction

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Michele Farinet, parent coordinator at P.S. 41

All schools want an engaged and involved parent body and parents who think and reflect and offer constructive feedback — within limits. Here’s how I think about those limits:

A person who has a loved one facing medical issues ideally should help, guide and be an active presence in his or her loved one’s journey, which can take them from partnering in choosing doctors and hospitals, understanding the course of treatment being undertaken, and through the daily highs and lows of the process. But that person does not stand in the operating room and dictate to the doctor what to do during the loved one’s surgery and that person does not write the subsequent prescriptions or perform the subsequent therapies.

Likewise, in committing to the public education system and the idea of the “community at large,” we as parents must respect and work with, not in place of, those people who have trained, worked in, and dedicated their lives to the education profession.

Structure is important and the Department of Education can help

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Matt Schneider, PTA co-president at a Manhattan elementary school

As Chancellor Carmen Fariña looks for ways to meaningfully engage parents, she could focus on helping School Leadership Teams  and parent-teacher associations become more than the “superficial structures” that some are, as Principal Brillante pointed out.

In our school, the SLT, a governing body that includes parents, teachers, and others, has moved beyond measuring achievement and progress to analyzing actionable problems and solutions. Last year, one of our goals was to assess the potential for a foreign language program. An SLT committee made of parents, teachers, and the principal spent the school year researching potential extra-curricular and curricular programs, surveying parents, and writing a proposal. The proposal was approved by the PTA, which then set out to find grants and other funds to implement the program. The funding came through and we implemented our new Spanish program this past fall.

We need to keep in mind parents’ schedules, and be flexible

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Taneesha Crawford, Parent coordinator at South Bronx Preparatory

I think what that community has done is amazing! I feel like under the Bloomberg administration parents were stripped of their voice. Parents have be to be incorporated back into the school culture, and the way involvement is measured needs to change. We can’t just measure parent involvement by how many parents show up to a meeting.

Working parents in particular need flexibility. People have to work, so how can I be upset if the majority of my parents can’t make an evening meeting because they are working, or fearful of taking off because of what their supervisor may say? We should be paying attention to the needs of parents that can’t be as physically involved because they have to work. Social media would be a great way to have parent meetings via Skype or forums/conversations via Twitter and Facebook.

Want to share your perspective? Join in below in the comment section or send us an email.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.