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Published in Print: January 30, 2008, as Attendance Effort May Use Parents

Attendance Effort May Use Parents

Georgia governor wants to add parental aides in anti-dropout initiative.

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First he called on educators. Then he enlisted community members. Now Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is looking to parents as the next key to keep struggling students plugged into school and on track for graduation.

VIP—short for Very Important Parent—recruiters would be hired to serve as a resource for other parents in the 551 elementary, middle, and high schools across the state with the worst attendance rates, under a proposal the governor has made to the legislature.

The program “will help parents take a vested interest in their child’s education and remain involved throughout their child’s academic career,” Gov. Perdue, a second-term Republican, said earlier this month when he announced the initiative.

A VIP recruiter, according to materials from the governor’s office, would be a “designated contact” at the school, offering suggestions on how parents could better work with teachers to improve student achievement, informing new families about parent responsibilities, and pointing parents to outside resources that might help them.

Misplaced Spending?

According to the plan, each of the eligible schools would receive a $25,000 grant for the program, with the expectation that all or most of it would go for salary. If schools wanted to supplement the program by adding fringe benefits or increasing salary, they would have to use local money.

But some observers have questions about the role the VIP recruiters would play and whether the $14.25 million the governor wants to spend on the program in fiscal 2009 would be the best use of state money.

Dropout Prevention in Georgia

• Paid “graduation coaches” in high schools and middle schools to work with students who are falling behind.

• Volunteer “community coaches” drawn from the business community to back up the graduation coaches and help put them in touch with resources.

• Withdrawal of driver’s licenses from students who have at least 10 unexcused absences from school or who have dropped out.

• Proposed VIP, or Very Important Parent, recruiters who would work with parents and school staff members on student achievement and other issues.

“Is it somewhere between a guidance counselor and a social worker?” said Karen Hallacy, the legislative chair for the Georgia PTA.

Ms. Hallacy said the program could become another burden on school districts that are already financially strapped. She suggested that instead of turning the grants over to local districts, the state department of education could hire parents who would work across district and county lines.

Still, she said she sees potential in the position if the VIP recruiters help other parents “figure out all the ropes of the system.” Joyce Epstein, a sociology professor and family-involvement expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said she knows of interest among schools and education groups throughout Georgia in building stronger partnerships with parents.

“This means more than just inviting—or recruiting—parents to get involved,” she said. The state might be better able to increase parent participation in schools with high truancy rates, she added, if officials focused instead on instituting parent-involvement leaders and “teams” that were connected to school councils or school improvement committees.

Graduation Coaches

The proposed new position is the latest step Gov. Perdue has taken to raise Georgia’s graduation rate.

Beginning with the 2006-07 school year, graduation “coaches” were hired at the state’s high schools to work specifically on monitoring students who might be falling behind and on designing plans to help them catch up and graduate on time. ("Graduation Coaches Pursue One Goal," Nov. 15, 2006.)

This school year, the program expanded to middle schools, after the governor said he recognized that students often begin to withdraw from educational pursuits long before high school. In all, roughly $46 million is being spent on the graduation-coach program for 2007-08.

Also this school year, after issuing a challenge to the state’s business community, Mr. Perdue launched a “community coach” program, which creates a volunteer corps of business people to work with the graduation coaches and mobilize resources in the community. ("Georgia’s Graduation-Coach Team to Grow," Oct. 17, 2007.)

The community-coach initiative was conceived, in part, to relieve the graduation coaches from having to track down tutoring, internships, and other opportunities in the community that might help students meet their goals.

Jay Smink, the executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center, based at Clemson University in South Carolina, said the proposed VIP recruiters might help the graduation coaches in another way.

“You cannot have the graduation coach knocking on doors. They lose their power and influence,” he said. “But regardless, it’s critical that someone is knocking on the doors.”

Having a paid employee instead of a volunteer working in that role, however, takes the position to another dimension, he added.

“What they become is a truant officer who just happens to be a parent,” Mr. Smink said.

Jobs for Parents

Hiring parents—often to serve as liaisons or coordinators of volunteer activities—is not a new approach for schools and districts that are trying to bridge a gap between the home and the classroom.

In 2003, the New York City school district hired a parent coordinator for each school in the city.

At the beginning of the program, parents wondered whether the coordinators would be just another layer of bureaucracy or would prove to be a helpful resource for parents with questions.

Five years later, the position “is a solid part of the school operation” said Maribe Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the 1.1 million-student district. She added that because of the district’s racially and ethnically diverse population, the parent coordinator “is crucial.”

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg highlighted the program as one of his accomplishments when he gave his State of the City address Jan. 17.

“The families of New York expect a lot from their schools—and they have every right to,” the mayor said. “They’re the people we have to answer to. That’s why one of our first steps was putting parent coordinators in every school.”

In the 694,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, parents have long worked as directors of parent centers at schools, where families can find resources to help their children at home and information on other services in the community.

And the 174,000-student Philadelphia school district has hired parents for the past five years to work specifically on going to the homes of students who are not in school. The hope is that parents working in such a role might be better able than a traditional law-enforcement officer to gain insight into the reasons a student is skipping classes.

In Georgia, if the program is approved by the legislature, the VIP recruiters will work with partners who are already considered effective, the graduation and community coaches, said Marshall Guest, a spokesman for Gov. Perdue’s office.

“Adding a parent into that mix,” he said, “can only help.”

Vol. 27, Issue 21, Pages 17-18

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