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Published in Print: May 31, 2000, as Chicago To Size Up Parents With 'Checklists'

Chicago To Size Up Parents With 'Checklists'

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Starting next fall, Chicago parents are scheduled to receive reports every five weeks from their children's public schools. But unlike most correspondence between teachers and parents, these reports will focus less on student performance than on the parents' own role in their children's education.

In what observers have called the first districtwide attempt at such communication between teachers and parents, Chicago school officials announced earlier this month that they are developing checklists that will register how well students are prepared for school.

Some items are to be directly tied to academics—such as whether students complete homework assignments and bring their textbooks to school. Others are to focus on students' health and well- being, including whether they are eating breakfast, are receiving health care, and are bringing needed medications and eyeglasses to school.

Paul G. Vallas

"Basically we feel that parent involvement is key," said Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 430,000-student district. "We see this as a mechanism to reach out to parents."

But not everyone feels that using parent checklists, which Mr. Vallas also called parent report cards, is an effective way of increasing communication.

"The concept of this policy is not one we think would be very effective," said Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a local group that is often at odds with the Vallas administration.

Lists Won't Be Mandatory

And at least one Chicago group wonders if the plan will actually come to fruition.

Mr. Vallas "has ideas that develop a mile a minute," said Jackie Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union, the 33,500-member local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. She said union officials are going to wait and see how the idea plays out in practice before taking a stance on it.

While some Chicago schools already use similar forms of parent-teacher communication, the district may be breaking new ground by asking all schools to participate in the program.

Schools will not be required to use the checklist model, but Mr. Vallas said that he plans to require that schools have some type of community-outreach program starting this fall.

"We are very interested to see how it works," said Patty Yoxall, a spokeswoman for the National PTA, which is based in Chicago. Ms. Yoxall warned that the checklists should not develop into critiques of parenting skills that "could turn people off."

And some parents already know what it takes to ensure that their child is ready for school, which means that it won't be effective for all parents, said Brenda Diehl, the president of the Illinois PTA.

She added that checklists are less inflammatory than report cards, which suggest that parents are being graded even if they don't actually assign letter grades. "I hope that Chicago Public Schools provides a welcoming environment for parents," she said.

Parents generally hear from school only when there is a problem, said Ms. Woestehoff of PURE. She added that good communication has to flow both ways.

"This report card is a one-way communication of parents' weaknesses," she said. Another problem, she said, is that five weeks is too long to wait to express certain concerns to parents. For example, if children are attending school without their eyeglasses, their parents should be informed immediately, she said.

A group of community-based organizations will be working with district officials to develop the checklists, which will vary depending on a student's grade level, Mr. Vallas said. "We are not developing this in-house in a vacuum," he said.

Missing Link

Beverly Tunney, the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said she supports the idea of sending home checklists. Parents have traditionally been the missing link in a child's education, she said.

Beverly Tunney

"Parents need to be held accountable for doing their part," Ms. Tunney said. "We want to make sure we are working together as a team to do what is best for the child."

Because many parents whose children attend public schools are inexperienced, the checklists will facilitate parent involvement by keeping them better informed, Mr. Vallas said.

"The bottom line is: We are either going to talk the talk or walk the walk," he said. "Let's stop complaining about parent involvement and do something about it."

Vol. 19, Issue 38, Page 3

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