Families & the Community

Grassroots Activists Reaching Out to Parents

By Karla Scoon Reid — March 17, 2004 6 min read
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Veronica Rivera is a foot soldier in the movement to spread the gospel about free tutoring to public school parents.

In the morning, she serves as a translator and advocate for a Latina mother meeting with a Camden, N.J., principal. In the afternoon, she leads an intensive training session for Hispanic parents at an adult education center. Just before dinner, she stops off to visit a Latino family for a one-on-one chat. At night, Ms. Rivera is the featured speaker at a church.

Her audience: parents who often have never heard of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and know nothing of their children’s right to receive free tutoring under the law’s “supplemental educational services” provisions.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $1.3 million in grants to three organizations to reach out to minority families in 10 cities with information about their options under the law, including their right to transfer to other schools.

“We are training parents to find ways to better their children’s education,” said Ms. Rivera, a Camden-based field organizer for the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, known as Hispanic CREO. Using part of its $500,000 federal grant, the group has trained more than 2,300 parents nationwide.

The need is urgent, Ms. Rivera and representatives of organizations that have received the grants say. Many school districts so far have made only flawed and inadequate attempts to inform parents about their children’s educational choices, critics and advocates for students complain.

Confronted with uninformed or confused parents, field organizers say they are left to make sense of district guidelines and encourage frustrated parents to assert their rights. The federal-grant recipients are using billboards and radio advertisements in English and Spanish, community meetings and workshops, door-to-door campaigns, appearances on local-access cable shows, and easy-to-read letters and fliers to reach their audience.

“It’s not a matter of pointing fingers,” Ms. Rivera said. “It’s collaboration to make the schools better.”

Jargon and Complexity

Under the No Child Left Behind law, schools that receive Title I funding and fail to reach state goals for “adequate yearly progress” for three years must offer supplemental services to poor children, using Title I money. (“Tutoring Aid Falling Short of Mandate,” Feb. 25, 2004.)

Advocacy organizations that have been monitoring the implementation of the supplemental-services provision say districts have sent jargon-filled, complex letters to parents. Sometimes letters are sent in the wrong language, said one Chicago advocate: “If your name was Lopez, you got a letter in Spanish.”

Other common criticisms include: no attempts to reach parents, beyond an initial letter. Short enrollment periods to sign students up for tutoring programs. Inconvenient tutoring sites that stymie parents without transportation. Limited choice of providers of tutoring services.

“It was so technical and so thick, we knew parents wouldn’t even read [the tutoring letter],” said Merrilyn Wilcox, a Detroit grandmother and the president of a local school committee in a building where only a handful of the almost 300 eligible children are being tutored. “It’s as if they did not realize ... you have children raising children.”

In Chicago, a federation of local school council members filed a complaint with the Illinois education department, calling the tutoring program a “bureaucratic nightmare.” Xavier E. Botana, the Chicago schools’ director of No Child Left Behind accountability, said the district made “strong efforts” to reach out to parents, including developing a tutoring hotline.

In addition to Ms. Rivera’s employer, the Washington- based Hispanic CREO, the federal Education Department awarded grants to the Black Alliance for Educational Options, or BAEO, also based in Washington, which is working with parents in Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia, and the Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, which is targeting parents in Denver and Gary, Ind. Hispanic CREO is helping families in Camden, Miami, and the Texas cities of Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio.

All three organizations support and promote school choice, including publicly funded vouchers.

Nina Shokraii Rees, the deputy undersecretary in charge of the Education Department’s office of innovation and improvement, said that at the most basic level, districts have to send a letter to parents. Informational fairs highlighting the offerings available from tutoring providers are being held “sporadically,” she said.

“To really help parents understand, ideally districts need to do more, and most are not doing that,” she said in an interview last month.

Outside Their Realm

Monique D. Miller, the executive director of Project Clarion, BAEO’s parent-outreach effort, said outside organizations had to become involved in fostering greater parental awareness.

“We knew school districts would not go out of their way to make sure that parents are informed and understood the provisions,” she said.

But Jennifer Harmon, the deputy director of the supplemental educational services quality center at the American Institutes for Research, in Washington, said it was too early to assess districts’ effectiveness in implementing the 2-year-old tutoring provision.

AIR received a $1 million, two-year grant to develop ways to raise awareness of tutoring; increase the number of providers; and coordinate the efforts of those working to meet both of those goals.

School districts, Ms. Harmon suggested, have limited experience in reaching out to parents, who may have a range of literacy skills. Reaching individual parents about specific options is often outside their realm. As a result, Ms. Harmon said, some districts are relying solely on the federal guidelines.

Bart Leff, the spokesman for the Camden public schools in New Jersey, said: “I think we’ve done a better job than most in letting our parents know about supplemental services.

Mr. Leff explained that the district sent parents an informational flier and held a town meeting in November that drew roughly 200 people. The meeting is shown frequently on the local-access cable channel. The 18,500- student district is able to pay for tutoring for 1,800 students; 1,400 are now being served, and another 300 are scheduled to begin receiving tutoring next month.

Carmen Malavez received a notice from the Camden schools about the tutoring option for her son Juan Castellano, 12, who has speech problems and has been suspended from school multiple times.

She filled out the notice. Then she filled out a second form at school. But nothing happened. “I thought he didn’t qualify for the program,” she said in Spanish.

Ms. Malavez got in touch with Hispanic CREO after learning about the group’s parent-training sessions at a local church. Ms. Rivera, the Camden organizer for the group, then accompanied the mother of four to Juan’s middle school to speak with the principal last month.

If it weren’t for Ms. Rivera’s insistence, Ms. Malavez believes her son would not be enrolled in tutoring sessions today.

Assistant Editors Catherine Gewertz and Mary Ann Zehr contributed to this report.

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