The following is the text of Chancellor Walcott’s speech as prepared for delivery at Park West Educational Campus on, Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Answers from Chancellor's Q&A with Audience
Welcome parents and families, community leaders, elected officials, teachers, principals, and all the staff who support our schools.
I want to thank the schools on Park West campus for hosting us today. You should be proud of the strong community you’ve built in the past several years. The students in this building are graduating in higher numbers than ever before, and it’s thanks to the hard work of the principals, teachers, students, school staff, and families.
Back in April, before I became Chancellor, I announced that one of my first goals was to improve the tone of debate, and shift the focus back to our students.
Indeed, with the help of everyone here today, and the hard-working professionals in our 1,700 schools, we’ve come a long way.
As you know, there have been some difficult challenges and tough conversations over the past few months.
But in spite of those realities, we’re still here today, pushing ourselves and our schools to do more. Across the city, the conversation is now focused on how to help our students succeed, and our work is fully underway.
Last month, I laid out a plan to provide better middle school options for families and address the lagging performance among students in grades 6-8.
I talked about my visits to successful middle schools and my conversations with their principals. And one thing that stood out was that great middle schools have close relationships with their students and work in strong partnership with their families.
Today, I want to talk about how – and why – we must work to develop strong partnerships with families in all of our schools. It’s what I discussed last night with parents at an event on the new Common Core standards. And it’s what we’ll be focused on throughout this “Parents as Partners” week.
Mayor Bloomberg and I have always believed that a child’s zip code, economic status, or family situation should never determine the quality of his or her education.
Across this city and country, we have schools beating the odds, giving students the tools to graduate and go to college, even in the toughest of circumstances.
It’s one of the reasons I feel so passionately about education: it has the power to change lives. With a great teacher, a strong principal, and a supportive school environment, any child has the opportunity to succeed. A great education can trump other obstacles.
And yet, no one would disagree that family involvement is important. In fact, outside of what’s going on in the classroom, it may be the most important factor in whether a child is engaged and successful in school.
In study after study, we see that when families are involved, both at home and in school, the students benefit. The Harvard researcher Karen Mapp, who spoke to our parent coordinators and CEC members in July, believes passionately that family involvement leads to higher grade point averages and test scores, better social skills, and attendance.
Indeed, it’s deeply personal for me as well. I know that I never missed an opportunity to talk to my children and grandchildren about the importance of education and their future.
Of course, our schools can never be a substitute for parents and families. It’s not our job to be in every child’s home at night making sure parents are reading to them, turning off the television, and putting them to bed at a reasonable hour.
But collectively, as a school system and a society, we need to speak bluntly about what it’s going to take for our children to compete in this 21st century economy.
Because of our Mayor’s deep belief in the importance and power of education, he has shielded our schools from the deep cuts in federal and state spending, committing an additional $2 billion to our public schools just this year.
But let me be clear—these are tough fiscal times, and we need to move away from the mindset that the solution to our problems is more money, more money, more money.
Like our families, we must learn to live within our means, and keep our eye on the ball.
Everything we do needs to be focused on our overall goal: and that is getting our students on track for success in college and careers.
Perhaps more than ever, we need to articulate a set of values and expectations for our families and enlist their support.
I know there is more we can do to make parents our partners in preparing students for success.
Before I get to how we improve, I want to address what we’ve done so far.
Since 2002, we have introduced a number of citywide initiatives to help schools better involve parents:
We created a parent coordinator position in every school, giving parents a primary contact for questions and concerns about their children’s education.
For everyone here who serves as a parent coordinator, I want to thank you for your service. Some of you have been in your schools for as many as nine years, and represent the nerve centers of your communities.
We launched Parent 311, which builds on the Mayor’s idea that New Yorkers deserve easy access to information about their government. Last school year, more than 250,000 parents called with questions about how to enroll their children in Kindergarten, how to sign up for free summer meals, and where to find information about applying for college financial aid—just to name a few topics.
Since 2002, we have also made translations available for all our documents, workshops, and public events, to serve a growing population of immigrant families. This is no small thing: more than 40 percent of our students speak a foreign language at home, and we need to do everything we can to make the transition easier for families new to this country.
For the first time last year, we created two citywide parent councils in each district: one for parents of English language learners, and another for parents of students with disabilities. The issues facing these populations are unique and challenging, and it’s important that their interests and needs are fully represented.
We’ve also encountered difficulties along the way:
In many neighborhoods, we hear from schools that too few parents show up at parent-teacher conferences, have a relationship with their child’s teachers, or attend school events.
I hear feedback from parents who don’t feel welcome at their schools and are discouraged from getting more involved.
And as you all know, we didn’t do the best job with last year’s CEC elections. Some of the rules were misapplied, and we heard you loud and clear: the process needs to change. I promise to you that the 2013 elections will be better managed and more inclusive, and we are in the process of meeting with parents to gather specific feedback.
But above all, the real sign we need to do better is our bottom line: We have made tremendous progress over the past nine years, with graduation rates at an all-time high of 65 percent. These are tens of thousands of lives changed for the better.
But too few students are graduating ready for college.
This has real consequences: When students take remedial courses in college, they have to pay for them, sometimes with money they received through scholarships.
So as we raise standards and push for more rigorous assessments, it’s crucial that parents, students, and schools understand how important it is for their children to be college and career-ready. We can’t let them fall behind.
That’s why, since I started in April, I’ve been out talking with parents and schools, making clear that this is a priority.
I’ve been out to more than a hundred schools already, held meetings with families and parent leaders.
I appointed a new director for Family and Community Engagement, Jesse Mojica, who is a fierce advocate for parents, as you can tell from his introduction.
We reviewed the research on how the best schools make parents their partners in raising student achievement.
We studied the systems that do parent engagement well from Denver’s Standards for Family Engagement, to Charlotte’s Parent University, and Michigan’s Parent Involvement Rubric.
We held meetings in June and July with parent coordinators, parent associations, and family advocates – many of whom are here today – to talk about what students need to be on track for college.
And we distributed the first-ever Family Feedback form, which received more than 9,000 responses from parents.
Through these meetings, surveys, and visits I’ve realized that we need to rethink parent engagement in New York City public schools.
We’ve made our schools more accessible and informed parents more often, and that’s important. But it’s not enough.
Successful engagement means partnering with parents to support our students.
So before I proceed, I want to state clearly what we mean by successful family engagement in New York City schools: Family engagement means informing and involving parents to get students on track for college and careers.
How do we get every school involved in this mission? Today, I want to lay out a plan for parents and families to be a bigger part of their students’ success.
First, if we’re going to ask more parents to be involved, we need to provide the resources, the tools, and the information to make it a reality.
To ensure that parents have a role to play in their school communities, we are developing a Parent Academy to guide and support them during the 2012-13 school year.
Parent involvement comes in many different forms, and the Parent Academy will encourage all of them.
Through borough-based workshops, the Academy will help parents become involved and informed at all levels—from those who want to become school leaders, to others who simply want tips to help their children with homework.
I know that every parent wants their child to be successful. And part of our job is to provide parents a roadmap to support their child’s academic achievement.
In the next few weeks, we will begin soliciting proposals from various organizations on how the Academy will be structured.
In the end, we may select one or many different groups. What’s important is that the ideas are compelling, and give parents a clear path to supporting their children’s achievement.
The second part of our plan will be to strengthen and reaffirm the role of the parent coordinator. Parent coordinators have great flexibility in their roles: they can facilitate outreach; convene meetings; recruit community organizations.
But far too often, I hear that parent coordinators feel constrained. Families and communities often see them as a hotline for complaints, but not as leaders or organizers.
Parent coordinators, we need you to be the bridge between schools and parents. Often, you are the first person parents turn to, and that’s hugely important in our goal of preparing students for life after high school.
So, we plan to strengthen the role of parent coordinator, increase their trainings, and encourage them to facilitate parent engagement across school communities.
Parent coordinators will create agendas for family engagement, organize events, and play a key role helping parents focus on the goals of college and careers for their children.
In particular, as parent coordinators, we need you to get parents – and even school staff – talking about college and careers. Ask a parent if their child is on track to advance to the next grade, has enough credits to graduate in four years, or knows what questions they got wrong on the last test.
You are the experts in parent engagement, and the whole school community can learn from you.
The third item in our plan is well-timed for this week’s activities. Tomorrow, high schools will begin the first parent-teacher conferences of this school year.
Parent-teacher conferences are an extremely important time of year for our schools and families. For some parents, it may be the only chance to get a clear and accurate picture of their children’s progress, strengths and weaknesses.
And for teachers, it may be the only time to share with families what are the best study habits, important benchmarks for graduating and applying to college, and goals for the school year.
To ensure our families and schools are focused on that common goal of preparing students for life after high school, we are taking steps to strengthen parent teacher conferences.
This month, we developed a tool kit for parents that includes a bookmark with questions to use in conversations with teachers; a tip sheet for how to prepare for the meeting; a sample invitation; and other useful resources.
The tool kit was sent to principals and parent coordinators last week, and you should have all received the bookmarks this evening. Looking over those questions now, I wish I had these when I was a parent of school-age children.
In an ideal world, the parent-teacher conference is one of many opportunities for a parent to be in school, talking to teachers and staff. But we know that for many parents it’s one of the only opportunities, and we need to make sure that time is well-spent.
I remember my time at parent teacher conferences. It reminded me of speed-dating that I saw on TV.
Now, I’ve never done speed-dating myself. But I know that you don’t get a lot out of a meeting where the clock is ticking, you move rapidly from one topic to the next, and there’s no real chance to dig deeper.
We can’t afford to just go through the motions, and in many schools that’s what is happening.
Next, the most common piece of feedback we heard from parents was that, as a Department, we need to improve how we communicate with families.
Well, we heard you loud and clear. The fourth piece of our plan is a catalogue of new resources to enhance communication between parents, schools, and my administration. They will help schools keep families up to date with what’s going on both locally and across the system.
We’re creating a new online library of resources, including information on policy initiatives and information sessions in the community. Tonight, you should receive information about two of these initiatives at the door. And I encourage you to visit the new website, at: http://schools.nyc.gov/parentsfamilies
We’ll offer parents a better understanding of where to direct their questions and concerns.
And we will bring together a group of parents, parent coordinators and staff to discuss the best ways to keep parents involved during middle school. Eventually, we will share the findings with every middle school, so that parents can help students navigate those difficult years.
Of course, it’s not only the Department that needs to step up and do a better job. Just as we are raising the bar on ourselves, I believe we need to raise the bar on schools and families as well.
As the fifth item in our plan, I am announcing a set of five standards that individual school communities can follow to better involve their parents. These are the characteristics that make schools effective at getting parents involved in their students’ success. What does that kind of school look like?
As I mentioned earlier, other states and cities have developed standards for family involvement. So we’ve taken that basic idea, and built our own standards around the needs of New York City public school parents and families.
The partnership standards were developed by a group of parent coordinators, parent association members, and staff who looked at thousands of survey responses and met with groups of parents in every borough.
Some members of that working group are here tonight, and I want to thank you for your participation and terrific insights.
By announcing this set of standards, we are raising the bar on parents, families, and schools.
The first standard is successful communication. A school where parents are truly engaged communicates successfully with parents, sharing information about student progress, activities at the school, and events for parents to get involved.
At the Rafael Hernandez Dual Language School in the Bronx, for example, Principal Rosario hosts monthly breakfasts for parents to meet with school staff to ask questions and learn about school-wide initiatives and events.
The second standard for a successful school is to provide a diverse range of roles for parents in the school community. This may extend beyond the roles of parent coordinator, or parent association member.
At PS 101 in Queens, the Parent Association meets throughout the summer to map out workshops for parents during the school year. Topics for each workshop can range from how to understand the Progress Report, to analyzing the new Common Core standards for our tests and curriculum.
These workshops give more parents a real role in the school community, while also involving them in the work their children are doing.
Next, parent-friendly schools maintain a welcoming, positive school environment.
Principals, I need you to open your door to parents. I never want to hear about a school that discourages parents from getting involved.
And at the same time, I am calling on parents to spend more time in their schools. Get to know your child’s teacher and the work they’re doing in class.
At PS 36 in Harlem, parents and families work with teachers to tutor students who are falling behind, focusing on reading and other core subject areas.
This may be especially important for immigrant families, who arrive midway through the school year and need help catching up on work their children are doing.
Fourth, these schools and their families share high expectations for students, and set a clear path to reach them.
At PS 321 in Brooklyn, the first Friday of every month is titled “Parents as Reading Partners.” This gives parents the opportunity to come to into class and read with their child or groups of children.
There’s a huge turnout with grandparents, babysitters, and other family members coming in to read or work in other curriculum areas such as math games or science experiments.
And finally, a school working in partnership with families collaborates with the entire school community, including parents and community-based organizations, to set goals for students’ academic and personal growth.
At PS 130 in Chinatown, for example, the School Leadership Team, Parent-Teacher Association, and staff came together to design a clear, understandable guide to school policy and expectations for students.
The handbook is now quite popular with parents.
Altogether, these five draft partnership standards are based on the idea that we must hold schools and parents to a high bar for family engagement, just as we do for student achievement, teaching, leadership, and school environment.
To begin, we’ll start piloting them in a group of 10-15 schools, gather feedback, and see how schools respond.
After that, we will expand the standards citywide, with a plan to measure how schools are doing on them. We will encourage principals to look at how their teachers are engaging families; and we will examine whether principals are making their parents partners in student success.
If you haven’t gotten a copy of these standards, then make sure you do on the way out today. We’ll be distributing them to networks and schools next month.
That is my broad vision for making parent involvement a real priority in New York City public schools.
As Chancellor, my team and I are working to put a great teacher in front of every classroom, provide quality options for families in every neighborhood, and give schools a curriculum with complex texts and developing critical thinking skills.
But sometimes, it takes more for kids to stay on track. The work to get our kids ready for college and careers must involve not only teachers and principals, but students and families as well.
Our schools can’t do it alone.
So parents, I hope you take advantage of the upcoming Parent Academy, learn more about our Partnership Standards, look at our tips for parent-teacher conferences, and explore our new resources.
And principals and parent coordinators, make sure you read through the standards for parent involvement. They are tested, successful strategies for getting parents behind our common goal.
Thank you, and I look forward to discussing these priorities with you in the coming days and weeks.