Families & the Community

Rules of Engagement

By Debra Viadero — October 30, 2002 17 min read
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At three schools in Spokane, children whose parents promise to volunteer enjoy plenty of enrichment activities. But what about the others?

Children often have a sharply defined sense of justice, focusing with laserlike vision on what is fair and what is not. Maybe that’s why Michelle Heacox took it to heart when she noticed that some of the children at her public elementary school got to do things that others didn’t.

It was 1997, and Michelle was a precocious 2nd grader at Franklin Elementary School, a friendly looking, red- brick building perched on a hill here on the south side of town. The school had—and still has—a special program called APPLE. The acronym stands for Alternative Parent Participation Learning Experience, because the program is designed for parents to become partners in their children’s schooling. To get into it, students had to meet two hurdles. First, they had to have a parent who was willing to sign a contract to volunteer in the school for 90 hours a year, and second, they had to win a seat in a special lottery.

Michelle was not in the program. Her mother was willing to put in the hours, but the family hadn’t been lucky in the lottery.

Such technicalities are neither here nor there to an 8-year-old. All that Michelle knew was that the children in the APPLE program were putting on a play, and she wanted to be in it. So Michelle, displaying the chutzpah that has characterized much of her young life, asked to try out.

The teachers told her no. You can’t be in the play, dear, they said, because you’re not in APPLE. She would have to settle instead for being in the audience.

Michelle came home from school crying that day. “I’m nobody because I’m not in APPLE,” she told her mother.

The experience, as it turned out, was a turning point for the Heacoxes, a retired U.S. Army family that had settled in Spokane in part because of its public schools. The more the family looked around, the more they saw inequities between regular classrooms and some of the special programs in their city’s school system.

‘It's a new form of public school discrimination.’

The APPLE classrooms, for starters, overflowed with parents willing to lend a hand, while other classrooms in the same building went begging for volunteers. The APPLE students also went on more field trips, had more guest speakers, and held a carnival.

Michelle’s family moved her to another public school nearby, only to have the same thing happen again. The special program in that school was a Montessori program. Michelle remembers sitting over a book in a hot classroom one day in May while all the Montessori children left for a three-day camp- out. “We get to do stuff because we’re special,” the children would sometimes tell Michelle on the way to school or on the playground.

For most of those extra educational opportunities, the price of admission seemed to be having a family member who was willing—or able—to volunteer. Unlike APPLE, the Montessori program had no 90-hour contracts. However, its informational materials, which Michelle’s mother has saved all these years, made it plain that volunteering was expected.

The Heacoxes began to wonder about the parents who couldn’t afford to take time off from work to come to their children’s schools. What about those children? What about the single mothers who had no one to watch their younger children for them at home? Did the parent- contract system “cream” the more involved parents from the classrooms that needed them the most?

“It’s a new form of public school discrimination,” says Becky Heacox, Michelle’s mother, who has since become a vocal critic of parent-contract programs. “The critical variable that determines the success of the child isn’t race, or religion, or socioeconomic status. It’s whether you have an active parent.”

The family’s concerns, as it turns out, could have ramifications that extend far beyond this Northwestern city. In an era when schools are trying both to respond to calls for more individualized instruction and to make parents partners in the classroom, special programs with parent-participation contracts are popping up in a lot of places.

The Spokane public schools, for example, now have APPLE programs in three elementary schools. They serve 172 of the school district’s 30,000 students. A similar middle school program, going by the acronym SPRINT, for Students Parents Responsible Integrated Nurturing Teaching, requires 30 hours of parent participation. Just this month, however, district officials said they were rethinking all of the parent-involvement programs.

Such programs can also be found in the West Valley district next door to Spokane, in the Central Valley school system, and in a handful of other districts scattered across Washington state.

And a 1997 study of newly developed charter schools in California suggested that parent-involvement contracts were common in many of those programs, too.

“There’s been this shift to make parent involvement more and more of a requirement, rather than something that supports what schools do,” says Kathryn Nakagawa, an Arizona State University researcher who has studied some of those contracts. “It’s this idea that we’re going to give a particular kind of education, if parents are involved in a particular kind of way.”

But what Michelle Heacox, now 13, simply wants people to think about is, “Is it really fair?”

No one—not even the Heacoxes—argues that involving parents in their children’s schooling is not a good thing.

“Research shows that kids who have parents that are involved in their education are going to learn more,” says Lisa Beeman, who teaches a multiage 1st and 2nd grade APPLE class at Garfield Elementary School, which serves a mostly poor neighborhood just blocks from the heart of Spokane’s downtown.

A visit to Beeman’s class makes it easy to see how that kind of learning success might occur. As classical music plays softly in the background, children work quietly at their desks. A parent volunteer takes children into the hallway, one by one, to listen to them read and record their progress. Another mother sits beneath the comfortable-looking loft at the back of the room, repairing broken books.

This is a light day for parent volunteers. In many APPLE classrooms, as many as six parents a day are apt to show up, three in the morning and three in the afternoon. All the while, Beeman circulates around the classroom, helping children who need one-on-one attention.

“I find it’s a lot easier to do individualized programs for kids when you have parents coming in,” she says.

Next door, in an APPLE classroom lined end to end with stuffed animals, teacher Diane Wesley echoes that idea.

“There’s a huge difference in how I can work with kids independently,” says Wesley, whose 24 pupils greet her with hugs at the start of the day. “I would never be able to do this if I had 24 kids and I was the only adult in the room.”

With more individualized attention, parents and teachers say, children can progress at their own pace, without the stigma that sometimes comes to those who get too far ahead or too far behind their classmates.

On this day, Wesley’s 5th and 6th graders are getting ready to go on a walking field trip to nearby Gonzaga University. When Wesley put out the call for chaperones, 10 parents stepped forward. Nine are along for the trip today.

Last year at Garfield Elementary, APPLE parents provided maps for one class, once-a-week Spanish lessons for another, and organized and raised thousands of dollars for a three-day trip to dig for dinosaur bones in Choteau, Mont. This school year, the three classes are talking about heading to the San Juan Islands off the northwest edge of the state to do some whale- watching.

“These parents are very committed to their children, and very committed to doing things their children will remember,” Beeman says.

Parents say they are eager to come in and help because the experience also makes them better parents.

“We’re getting the inside track so we can continue learning at home that is in sync with what our children are learning at school,” says Dale Johnson, a department store manager who has a 2nd grade son in the APPLE program at Franklin, Michelle’s old school. He passes by three other elementary schools on the morning drive to his son’s school. Were it not for the program, he says, his towheaded son, J.J., would still be in a private school.

In 1977, when the APPLE program was born, parents were not as welcome in the classroom as they tend to be in many schools now. That was a time when classroom teachers were more likely to close their doors and not see another adult for the rest of the day.

Even now, educators say it takes a special kind of teacher to work in classrooms with so many parents coming and going.

Even now, educators say it takes a special kind of teacher to work in classrooms with so many parents coming and going. Some teachers are reluctant to put their work on such public display.

“Teaching was kind of a personal thing in some ways, so learning to share that was a hard thing to do at first,” say Mark Perrier, who teaches the 3rd and 4th grade APPLE class at Garfield Elementary School. Plus, teachers say, it takes extra planning to ensure that every parent will have something to do when he or she shows up at the classroom door.

The APPLE program was pioneering here because it not only welcomed parents into classrooms, it made them an integral part of academic planning. Parents in the program meet on a monthly basis and do everything from helping to set curricular themes for the year to supervising enrollment processes. At two schools over the years, they have even sat in on interviews with prospective families.

For the Heacoxes and other critics of such programs, the question is whether the 90-hour volunteer requirement takes the zeal for parental involvement too far.

Parents who are in the APPLE program say clocking that many hours is not nearly as onerous a task as it might seem. Working parents can still meet it by attending evening meetings, fund raising, taking home projects or paperwork, doing research for the teacher, or correcting papers in the evening.

“The time commitment scares a lot of families, who don’t realize it’s not that hard,” says Jean Russell, who has a 2nd grader and a 5th grader in the program at Garfield. She works full time at home as an account manager for a consumer-products company. She manages to juggle the job and the volunteer hours, she says, by doing some of her professional work in the evenings.

“Also,” she adds, “a lot of families just aren’t really that interested in being involved.”

Over the years, the program has also become more flexible, allowing aunts, uncles, grandparents, or other family members to do the volunteer time when parents cannot.

For families that still fall short of the 90-hour commitment, teachers say they will continue to work with them and help them meet the goal. Sometimes, that means recruiting other families to provide child care so that a single mother can come in to help at school. Or an unrelated parent may offer to pinch-hit for the needed volunteer hours.

But critics say that not everyone knows that kind of flexibility exists. Contracts in use this year at all three of Spokane’s APPLE schools make plain that volunteering for 90 hours is required for program participation. Franklin’s contract goes even further, stating that children whose families do not meet that commitment will not be invited back into the program the following year.

Only Logan Elementary School’s APPLE contract suggests that “extenuating circumstances” can be an issue for some parents, though it also warns families that their hour accumulations will be monitored on a quarterly basis.

The perception that the 90-hour requirement is hard and fast is what kept Solita Brown from enrolling her 7-year-old daughter, Aushalya, in the program at Garfield Elementary. With a day job at a hair salon and a full load of courses at Spokane Falls Community College, Brown says she knew she would not be able to clock 90 hours of volunteer time.

“I still think this school system is a great school system,” says Brown, balancing her 3-year-old son, Brock, on her hip as she talks. “I just don’t have as much time.”

Brown may not be alone. Enrollment figures for last school year obtained by the Heacoxes and local advocacy groups suggest that disproportionately fewer students from lower-income or minority families tend to take part in the special programs at all three schools.

At Garfield, as of January, pupils whose families were poor enough to qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program made up 68 percent of the enrollment in the regular classes, but only 27.5 percent of the students in the three APPLE classrooms.

‘These disparities raise the question of whether programs such as APPLE and SPRINT, intentionally or not, disproportionately favor children of white, relatively affluent families.’

Poor children accounted for 59 percent of the students in regular classrooms at Franklin last school year, but only 13 percent of the students in APPLE classrooms. Half the students in Logan Elementary’s two APPLE classrooms came from low-income families. The percentage in non-APPLE classrooms, however, was nearly 82 percent.

Racial imbalances between the APPLE and non-APPLE classrooms also are evident. At Franklin, for example, three of the 47 APPLE students were Asian-American, but there were no Native American, African-American, or Hispanic students enrolled. In comparison, the 336-student school’s regular classrooms included eight Native American students, 26 African-American students, seven Hispanic students, and seven Asian-American students.

At Garfield, minority students last year accounted for 82 of the school’s 457 students. Only four of the those students, however, attended the APPLE program.

Only one of Logan’s APPLE students last year was a member of a minority group, compared with a schoolwide minority population numbering 81. The school had 441 students in all.

“These disparities raise the question of whether programs such as APPLE and SPRINT, intentionally or not, disproportionately favor children of white, relatively affluent families,” the Center for Justice, a local legal-advocacy group, wrote in a September 2001 letter to the school district, 86 percent of whose students are white. “The concern is that APPLE parents, primarily white and affluent, would be able to maintain the program as a separate ‘school within a school,’ tantamount to a private school, for the benefit of their children and to the exclusion of other children.”

While groups such as the Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union have joined the Heacox family in their campaign against the parent contracts, Becky Heacox has had a harder time enlisting other Spokane parents in her cause.

Some parents have never heard of the APPLE program, even though district officials say they advertise it each year in the Spokesman- Review, the city’s main daily newspaper, and in smaller newspapers serving the city’s minority communities. District leaders also say they send program notices home with kindergarten pupils each year. The program starts in 1st grade and goes through 6th grade.

For her part, Michelle Heacox wrote letters to the editor, and met with principals, state legislators, and even Gov. Gary Locke. She also testified before legislative committees considering bills on charter schools and bullying. It’s Michelle’s contention that programs that seem to offer some students special opportunities pit students against one another, leading to an atmosphere in which harassment and bullying can flourish.

In the beginning, Becky Heacox tried to dampen her daughter’s activism. “I was always really passive and afraid of confrontation,” says the retired Army nurse and captain. “But then I realized Michelle’s right.”

The two spoke in their modest 1950s ranch house, just a few blocks from where Mick Heacox, Michelle’s father, a retired U.S. Army captain, grew up. In a living room lined with family photos, Becky Heacox shows a visitor the three notebooks that she has painstakingly put together to document the family’s six-year-long campaign to eradicate the parent-contract provisions.

In the letters and articles, Spokane school officials talk about the APPLE programs as “important complements” to the regular school, and about a need to avoid a “one size fits all” curriculum when so many students have different learning needs. They also ask, subtly, whether the issue could be one of sour grapes, because the Heacoxes failed to land a spot in the lottery themselves. Michelle was offered a seat in the program at one point, it should be noted, but turned it down.

The notebooks also contain batches of letters to the editor that appeared in the Spokesman-Review after Michelle’s own letters were published. Most of the letter-writers point out that Michelle herself had announced at a school board meeting that she was planning to attend a private school the following year. She is being home-schooled this year.

“My friends and I acknowledge that it is not fair that everyone who applies is not accepted to these programs,” reads one 1998 letter from a former Montessori pupil. “How much fairer is that Michelle’s parents send her to a private school when others can’t afford it?”

By most accounts, the APPLE programs at Franklin and Garfield elementary schools have evolved since Michelle and her mother first encountered them. At Garfield, for example, one APPLE mother runs a young writers’ program that is open to the entire school. Another organized a schoolwide math competition, and an APPLE father serves as a playground monitor.

“When I first came, there was more of an APPLE-versus-Garfield mentality,” notes Perrier, the 3rd and 4th grade APPLE teacher. “The program has really made a point over the last 10 years to be more a part of the whole school.”

At Franklin, parents in the program work on the school’s Web site and computer systems. The program also contributed money to help pay for a troupe of Masai dancers to put on a schoolwide African-dance performance this month.

Still, the nagging fear that children in the rest of the school could use more of the same kinds of resources eats at even some of the parents of APPLE students.

“This is just me, but I think the parents should be spread out in other programs. They shouldn’t affect just APPLE,” says Dennis Davis, the father of a 6th grader in the APPLE program at Franklin. When his son leaves the program next year for middle school, Davis wants to come back and volunteer for non-APPLE classrooms.

Questioned about the parent contracts this month, district officials said they planned to rethink them.

“It’s clear to me that the 90 hours is kind of an arbitrary number that we have here,” says Nancy J. Stowell, fresh out of a meeting in district headquarters with teachers and parents in the program from all three schools. “These parents don’t want it to be a hindrance to the program. They don’t want it to keep parents out.”

“I would imagine the 90-hour requirement will be gone soon,” the associate superintendent for educational services adds. “What the program still says is that an important component is parent engagement.”

At a time when schools face pressure to raise test scores and meet their benchmarks on the state’s testing program, the regular classes are beginning to look like those in the APPLE program and vice versa.

Most elementary schools in the city, for example, now have multiage classrooms, just as APPLE does. And, at Garfield for the first time last year, both APPLE and non-APPLE students scored comparably on the state’s 4th grade reading and mathematics tests, according to Joann Ekstrom, the school’s principal. In previous years, she said, the APPLE students tended to have higher scores.

As one Garfield APPLE teacher notes, “The biggest difference is that there are more adults in our rooms.”

Stowell says the review of APPLE, SPRINT, and Montessori programs in Spokane is happening now because the district has a new superintendent, Brian Benzel, who wants to re-evaluate all special programs.

“This transformation of the system has a focus, and that is that it really doesn’t matter what the ethnic background or socioeconomic level of a child is,” she says. “Every child needs to be a successful learner.”

Back at her home on the south side of town, Becky Heacox notes that the superintendent has been on the job for 16 months. She contends the district may be expressing a change of heart on the parent-contract issue because an Education Week reporter has come to town asking questions about it.

Whether the Heacoxes have won their battle remains to be seen. The effort has taken a toll on the family, which is trying to decide now whether to send Michelle to the public high school next year. They are afraid she might meet up with resentful APPLE graduates there. Even now, some of the neighborhood children are not permitted to play with her because she continues to publicly criticize the program.

Looking back on their experiences, Becky Heacox says the family never really had another choice, however. Michelle, whose hero is Martin Luther King, Jr., never really gave them.

“If we teach our children about injustice and inequity,” Becky Heacox says, “then we have to follow through ourselves.”

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