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Published in Print: November 8, 2000, as Chicago Parents Get Report Cards On Involvement

Chicago Parents Get Report Cards On Involvement

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Celia Martinez got a surprise last week when she picked up her son's report card: She received one of her own.

As part of an experiment here to prod parents into being more involved in their children's education, Ms. Martinez received a "Parental Involvement Report Card" that appraises how often moms and dads read to their children, check their homework, and get them to school on time, among other tasks.

Thirty Chicago public schools agreed to hand out the parent report cards along with student grades last week, in an effort led by United Neighborhood Organizations of Chicago. The nonprofit community-advocacy group works primarily with Hispanic residents.

For the inaugural report cards, parents were supposed to grade themselves and then review the marks with their children's teachers. In future grading periods, teachers will issue the grades. While schools nationwide are looking for innovative ways to reach out and involve parents— especially in poor urban communities that often have large immigrant populations—grading them is practically unheard of.

But Juan Rangel, the executive director of UNO, says parents are ready to be judged. "We believe that parents are willing to be held accountable, because it's in the best interests of their children," he said. "We need to stop making excuses as to why parents can't be involved with their children."

Alienating Parents?

The report cards go further toward holding parents accountable for their children's achievement than a 23-point "parent's checklist" distributed last week by the 430,000-student Chicago district.

It's unclear how many schools handed out the ungraded, optional checklist, although district officials put the number at around 200, or about one-third of the city's public schools.

One thing is clear, however: Among some parent-advocacy groups, the idea of a checklist is far less controversial than the idea of issuing parent report cards.

"A checklist parents can keep is OK," said Sue Ferguson, the chairwoman of the National Coalition for Parental Involvement in Education, a Fairfax, Va.-based umbrella organization of parent groups. "To actually get a grade, and have the teachers put in the difficult position of making the decisions, is definitely an alienating issue."

But at the 800-student Octavio Paz Charter School, Ms. Martinez took the report card in stride, calling it "what we need these days" to get parents involved.

She took the grading process seriously, giving herself high marks in most subjects. Her lowest mark was a C was for participation in school activities.

When her son's 2nd grade teacher looked at the grade, she gave Ms. Martinez an A, saying she did a great job of attending conferences and other school functions.

"I was thinking bake sales, or something bigger," Ms. Martinez explained of how she had graded herself.

Teachers at Octavio Paz, which is an independent, K-8 public charter school run by UNO, were not always sure what to do with the report cards, though. While some gave them to parents to return later, others graded the parents on the spot.

Teresa Burciaga and Uriel Sanchez looked a bit solemn after being given low grades for checking their 4th grade son's homework.

"We got two Ds," Mr. Sanchez said. "It's important to know. We need to do a better job checking his homework."

Ms. Burciaga, who speaks Spanish, pointed out that she doesn't always understand what it is that her son is supposed to do for his homework.

Her son's teacher, Lois Fowler, hopes the discussion about homework will lead to a better understanding of what is expected.

"There's a big difference between reviewing homework and talking about it, and just checking off the homework," she said. "I get homework back that's signed by the parents, but the paper is empty."

She acknowledged that the parents who need the feedback most are the ones who don't show up for parent-teacher meetings, and so are the least likely to get the guidance provided by the report cards. "I'm not sure it will make a difference for those parents," Ms. Fowler said. "It's that way all year."

For parents who did show up, the report cards helped spark discussion that led to other issues.

As 2nd grade teacher Cutina Anderson went over the report card with parent Gabriela Velazquez, for example, she told the concerned mother that her daughter often didn't have a pencil.

While not an academic crisis, the lack of supplies was a distraction for student and teacher, Ms. Anderson said—and a complete surprise to Ms. Velazquez. "This is good," the mother said of the exchange. "These are things I don't know."

Ms. Anderson admitted she was skeptical initially about doing the additional work to evaluate parents, but said she was less concerned after last week.

As for Ms. Velasquez, when she heard she'd be graded by the teacher, the young mother didn't miss a beat in asking, "Will I get to grade you?"

Looking Ahead

Mr. Rangel of UNO didn't say anything about grading teachers, but he hopes that his group's approach to parent accountability will catch on and even be copied by the Chicago school board.

"When we get through the first year, and there's no backlash, I think they will feel more at ease," he said of the district leaders.

Asked if the city school system is considering the idea of grading parents, Armando M. Almendarez, the chief officer for the office of language, cultural, and early- childhood education, said, "Not right now."

He called the district's own checklist "a self-evaluation."

"That's how principals can use it," Mr. Almendarez said.

The notion of grading parents faces resistance, though, in schools that UNO already works with.

Miguel Velazquez, the principal of Eli Whitney Elementary School, said that while his site is part of other UNO- sponsored efforts to promote parent involvement, the report card program will not be one of them.

"Am I contemplating doing the parent report cards? Not really," he said. "I don't see how you can get any accountability by grading parents. If anything, you might arouse animosity."

He said he discussed the idea with teachers at the 1,250-student school. "Basically, they said, 'We have enough to do. We need to focus on teaching kids, not grading parents,'" Mr. Velazquez said.

Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of the Chicago advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education, said there were better ways to get parents involved than to evaluate them.

What works is to have a program at school, devised by the school and parents, that is welcoming and nonjudgmental, she said: "Whatever a parent brings to the school is welcome."

Not all advocates for parental-involvement immediately rejected the idea of parent report cards.

Reatha Owen, the director of regional centers for the nonprofit Illinois Family Education Center, suggested that educators tell the parents that working on the issues identified in the report cards "is what we need to do to help your child." It would be a mistake, she said, to simply say, "We're going to grade you."

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

Vol. 20, Issue 10, Pages 1,20-21

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