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Published in Print: September 17, 2003, as N.Y.C. Puts 1,200 New Parent Liaisons in Schools

N.Y.C. Puts 1,200 New Parent Liaisons in Schools

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Since he started his job three weeks ago as the parent coordinator for Public School 291 in the Bronx, Johnny Ortiz has been meeting with the school's principal to review his new duties, helping parents register new students, and— most of all—handling parents' questions about new busing regulations.

"It's been hectic," he said. "Even I got the runaround" from school staff members who he thought would know answers to certain questions, but didn't. "The environment is not always as parent-friendly as it could be."

But that's one reason this former school aide applied for the position, and was hired as one of the New York City school system's 1,200 new employees charged with being "parents' first stop in their search for information." That's the district's description of the job, which pays $30,000 to $39,000 a year.

"I think I can be a great bridge," Mr. Ortiz said last week. "I'm not clear on everything yet, but I'm trying my hardest to get information for [parents] within the day."

Hiring the coordinators, at a cost to the district of about $43 million this first year, is part of a series of changes the nation's largest district is undertaking to make it easier for parents to be involved in school affairs, to find the information they need, and to voice concerns when they have them.

"Parent coordinators are essential to our effort to make our schools more welcoming and to actively engage parents in the school community," Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said when he announced the new positions shortly before the school year started.

Navigating the System

The administration of the 1.1 million-student system has also published a 15-page "Guide for Parents and Families," which is being distributed to all parents with students in the schools. In addition, it has supplied each of the almost 1,200 parent coordinators with cellphones so parents can reach them more easily.

Beyond those changes, the district has opened a "parent-support office" in each of the city's 13 learning-support centers, which also house a variety of other services. In addition to having weekday business hours, the parent-support offices are open on some evenings and weekends.

Working 35 hours a week, each coordinator will also be on call some evening and weekend hours so that parents can reach them more easily.

Principals interviewed and hired the new coordinators. While many of the coordinators are or have been parents of children in the school system, some of them, like Mr. Ortiz, who is single, do not have children.

The coordinators received initial training over the summer, but it's ongoing professional development that will determine whether or not they are effective, said Jan Atwell, a program manager at United Parents Associations of New York City, an organization of local parent groups.

"They can play a very positive role in helping parents navigate the system, and offer a little more sympathy than a typical busy administrator," she said. "But there is a lot of concrete information that is going to take time for them to get. It's going to take a few months for it to sort itself out."

It is important for principals and other school administrators not to treat the coordinators as just clerical workers or lunchroom monitors, Ms. Atwell added.

As part of their duties, the coordinators will be expected to seek help from community and faith-based organizations for after-school programs, health care, and other services that support students and families. They will also work with local parent associations, but that is another area, Ms. Atwell said, where responsibilities will need to be clearly delineated.

"This person can't be seen as a replacement for a parent association," she said. "This is a staff person, not a parent representative."

'What Is It?'

Parent coordinators or facilitators, as they are sometimes called, exist in various forms throughout the country, especially in Title I schools, which can often use federal money aid for disadvantaged pupils to pay for such employees, said Joyce Epstein, an education professor at Johns Hopkins University who focuses on family and community-involvement issues related to schools.

Hiring people to work as liaisons between schools and parents is especially critical in large urban districts, which can often appear impersonal, said Charlotte Castagnola, the facilitator for parent activities in the 737,000-student Los Angeles school system's local District B.

As far back as 15 years ago, local schools in Los Angeles began hiring directors for their parent centers, and most of them are parents themselves.

"It's much easier because it's parents outreaching to parents," Ms. Castagnola said. She added that parents who are new immigrants and don't speak English are more likely to admit they need help with a problem if they can talk to another parent.

Some parents in New York say they're happy the district there is making a stronger effort to involve them, but they're not sure the responsibilities of the parent coordinators have been clearly communicated yet.

"What is it, a parent buffer?" asked Margaret Hays, whose daughter attends PS 234 in the TriBeCa neighborhood of Manhattan, where many of the issues parents have been concerned with recently have focused on safety and security.

"In concept, it's a great idea," Ms. Hays said. "But in implementation, is it going to be more of the same?"

Vol. 23, Issue 3, Page 5

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