Taking on a task usually handled by PTAs and other parent groups, the Maryland Department of Education has launched an awards program to recognize parents who have made significant contributions to the schools in their community.
The unusual project—which includes cash awards of up to $1,000 and which state Superintendent Nancy Grasmick views as a complement to “teacher of the year” programs—illustrates the role state education leaders in Maryland and elsewhere are taking in encouraging parent participation.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, districts and Title I schools are required to have a parent-involvement policy, which includes having parents serving as advisers to school leaders as well as being involved in their own children’s education.
“Some of their contributions are absolutely huge,” Ms. Grasmick said of the part parents can play in the schools.
She hopes Parent Involvement Matters, co-sponsored by Comcast, a cable-television company, will help replace what she calls “the old perception” that parents’ primary role in schools is running fundraisers with the idea of parent support for the education that schools provide.
Successful partnerships between educators and parents take place at the local school level, noted Joyce Epstein, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and an expert on family involvement. Districts can also encourage those partnerships, making it more likely that all schools will take such efforts seriously, she said.
But the role of a state education agency is more complicated, she said.
“Most states really cannot tell districts that they should use one approach,” Ms. Epstein said. Instead, states can create awareness about the contributions that parents make, help districts and schools develop partnership programs, and celebrate successes—as Maryland’s awards program aims to do.
The National Network of Partnership Schools, a Johns Hopkins-based organization that Ms. Epstein directs, has compiled a list of strategies specifically for state education departments. Recognizing hard-working parent volunteers is just one of them.
They also include giving small grants to school districts to help them build parent-partnership programs, holding workshops for local school officials on research-based practices, and even promoting workplace policies that allow employees the flexibility to volunteer at school or attend conferences.
The states where efforts like those have been the most visible recently, Ms. Epstein added, are ones that are working with Parental Information and Resource Centers, or PIRCs, which in most cases are private, non-profit organizations that receive federal money under the NCLB law for their work.
Currently, 60 such centers exist across the country, with at least one in every state. Their purpose is to provide information and other help on parent involvement from the early-childhood years through high school.
“We think that when PIRCs and state departments work together, they can maximize all the resources in the state,” said Catherine Jordan, the program manager at the Austin, Texas-based National PIRC Coordination Center, which provides technical assistance to the centers.
Connecticut is one example of a state where the center and the state education department are drawing on each other’s expertise.
“We work on different projects together all the time,” said Veronica Marion, the coordinator of the Connecticut Parent Information and Resource Center, based in Middletown. For example, the department and the center recently collaborated on the production of a DVD on supplemental educational services available to children from low-income families. The DVD is being given to organizations that work with families.
In Maryland, Ms. Grasmick has also formed a parent advisory council that continues to focus on ways that parents can support student achievement. Its latest priority is the educational needs of children in foster care. Ms. Grasmick’s call for parent participation in the schools has also increased in part because of the recent beating of a teacher by students at a Baltimore high school, which received wide attention.
The state superintendent said that Maryland is fortunate that it has only 24 school systems, a number that can make communication easier. “We can really galvanize ourselves around an important purpose,” she said.
Maryland’s program also shows that sometimes the parents who are the most upset about an issue—and the most outspoken with administrators—are the ones who end up being the most effective. “They are really activists,” Ms. Grasmick said. She mentioned as an example honoree Annette Jackson-Jolly, one of five semifinalists, who, as the PTA president at the 530-student Hyattsville Elementary School in Prince George’s County, Md., led a successful letter-writing campaign to spur renovations to the school gymnasium.
In its inaugural awards earlier this month, Maryland recognized 23 parents nominated by a variety of school leaders, parent groups, and community organizations. The statewide winner received $1,000, and four semifinalists $250 each.
Susan Rattman, another semifinalist, started a parent-training program, called the Educational Partnership Initiative, for parents of children with disabilities in Harford County, Md.
As the parent of a son who was diagnosed with multiple disabilities and a progressive disease at age 3, she said she began the program to help other parents better understand the special education system.
State education departments can take steps to nurture programs that make parents part of the educational process.
• Create awareness about parent- partnership programs.
• Align parent-involvement programs with state policies, requirements, and procedures.
• Guide learning and program development through professional development.
• Share knowledge about activities throughout the education department and with other state organizations and school districts.
• Celebrate milestones.
• Document progress and evaluate outcomes.
Source: National Network of Partnership Schools, Johns Hopkins University
“Parenting a child with a disability brings in way more professionals in your life than anyone should ever have to deal with,” Ms. Rattman said. “I really did know him the best, but I didn’t know how to communicate that.”
Though her son Adam died last month at age 19, Ms. Rattman plans to stay involved in the program, which is now in its fourth year and has spread to neighboring Cecil County.
“It’s quite an honor to him,” she said of the parent-involvement award.
The overall state winner, Larry Walker—a minister in Columbia, Md., and the parent of a senior at the 1,450-student Mount Hebron High School—became more involved because he was unhappy with the way the school’s former principal handled an accusation of rape involving three African-American boys and a white girl in 2004.
He has stayed involved, he said, because he felt there was a need to address the growth of diversity in the schools as the community’s black population increased. Mount Hebron’s enrollment is 14 percent African-American and 38 percent minority overall. Mr. Walker launched a mentoring program for boys, and has helped Asian and Hispanic parents form their own groups.
“[The principal] knows that I am going to be the one who is going to roll up my sleeves and be in the cafeteria and walk the hallways,” said Mr. Walker. “I do what I do because there is a need. The award I get is when you see kids who make different decisions because of some of the influence that you’ve had.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Parents’ Role in Schools Earns Fresh Respect