Parents offer an earful about the ‘welcoming environment’

Parents offer an earful about the ‘welcoming environment’

(Calif.) It isn’t rare to see a parent wandering around their child’s elementary school in search of an office, classroom or auditorium entrance.

But parents gathered at a forum last week in Stockton on school climate said getting help from school personnel isn’t easy. They noted that custodial and cafeteria staff was more likely to be welcoming and helpful than anyone from the school office.

That lack of a welcoming environment was often cited by parents participating in the focus group put on by Families in Schools in an effort to learn more about the barriers parents perceive around schools.

Diana Wiley, who led Friday’s discussion, said they hope to compile a list of the most pressing obstacles for parents who want to participate more in their childrens’ education and, potentially, offer some suggestions on how to fix them as well.

“We’re compiling all the recommendations and concerns, and we’re going to share that with the California Department of Education because they’re interested in creating a project to help address welcoming environments statewide,” said Wiley, the organization’s Improving Education Initiative manager.

The effort comes as school districts statewide face a July1 deadline for adopting their first Local Accountability Control Plan – a requirement under California’s new funding system that gives local authorities more control over spending decisions but also new responsibility to partner with parents and the community on those decisions.

Families in Schools, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Los Angeles, has put on similar events in the Inland Empire, Central Valley and the greater Los Angeles areas.

Parental engagement is just one of eight statewide priorities districts must now include in their LCAPs  – which also call for accountability on issues such as  teacher qualifications, facility conditions and test scores.

“They all want to share their story, and there are so few opportunities that they get to do it that when they get all together they just want to share,” Wiley said. “Some of the parents who have had similar experiences pull the other ones aside and say ‘Hey, this is what you need to do and here is how I did it,’ and that’s a very powerful thing.”

Event organizers asked parents to consider four categories of interaction with schools: physical environment, policies and practices, welcoming staff, and communication. They broke up into groups and began listing their reactions, both positive and negative.

Under “policies and practices,” a number of parents agreed that while many districts have parent engagement policies, the policies are not always implemented or shared with parents or the community.

One parent wrote that districts are “using meetings to meet state requirements,” and said they were just checking off the box that a meeting took place instead of really working with parents.

Custodial and cafeteria staff received praise as generally being more welcoming and helpful than office staff or school administrators, who were said to only be welcoming when they were in a good mood.

When it came to evaluating the physical appearance of the campus, parents said they often saw unorganized classrooms, which they felt created chaotic learning environments for students.

The communication category saw just as many pros as it did cons, as many of the parent’s experiences showed schools taking steps in the right direction, but not completely reaching parents’ expectations. For example, though schools actively reached out to parents regarding a student progress, they only seemed to do so when the feedback was positive. But those in attendance said they would like to know where their student could improve as well.

In the end, the overall long-term goal is that it will be uncommon to see a parent wandering around lost at their child’s elementary school, and that all staff will communicate effectively with parents and make them feel welcome in participating in their child’s education.

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