When principals and teachers usher in their students on the first day of school September 9th, parent coordinators will be a magnet for parents, that go-to person who can answer almost any question, get almost anything done, and listen with almost unlimited patience. Along with serving as the connective tissue between parents and schools comes an extensive list of responsibilities, as a recent job posting in Queens shows: create a welcoming environment for parents, work with the principal to address parent issues, convene parent workshops, assist PTAs for meetings and elections, manage community organizations providing outside services, run back-to-school and other events, and much more. Hours required: “Early mornings, evenings, weekends…to meet the needs of parents.” Annual salary:$25,000-$40,000. Despite performing these vital functions, the parent coordinator position has often come under scrutiny and is a topic in the current Mayoral race, making the 1,600 parent coordinators in schools across the City anxious that their job description might be rewritten or that lay-offs might even be on the horizon.
Ten-Year Bumpy History
The parent coordinator position was created 10 years ago with some fanfare as essential to the family engagement component of Mayor Bloomberg’s education reform. The first cohort of parent coordinators was heralded for having an immediate impact on making the school system more parent-friendly. In 2005, Chancellor Joel Klein doled out $500,000 in grants for Parent Coordinators Best Practices Awards so that new projects could be developed to advance their work.Although the Department of Education (DOE) eliminated the position in high schools in 2010 due to budgetary constraints, the DOE continued to fund parent coordinators in elementary and middle schools. Last year, the District Council 37 union successfully fought back against proposed lay-offs of parent coordinators and school aides by filing a law suit against the DOE,claiming that schools in poor neighborhoods were losing a disproportionate number of those crucial support positions. Although parent coordinators’ jobs have been in jeopardy off and on, the DOE has continually trumpeted its commitment to parent engagement, establishing the Division of Family and Community Engagement, launching the Parent Academy, and creating several new policy initiatives, always pointing to reams of research that prove how critical parent involvement is for successful schools.
Day-to-Day in Chelsea Schools
As the job demands, 10-year veteran parent coordinator Stephen McGill at PS 11 in Chelsea wears many hats. He is the point person for admissions recruiting (PS 11 is a choice school vs. zoned school), school tours, student enrollment, school safety, the DOE’s sustainability program, and more. In his relationships with parents, Stephen likens his role to a “triage nurse in an emergency room.” “I have a knack for anticipating parent questions and helping them figure out how to get what they need, and I really understand the resources inside and outside the DOE.” Although PS 11 was a Title 1 school when Stephen first joined (over 60% of students were on free or reduced lunch), with the gentrification of Chelsea, there are now many stay-at-home parents eagerly signing up for PTA and School Leadership Team positions. Other PS 11 parents, though,never venture into the school building. “Non-responsiveness does not mean the parent is not a good parent,” advises Stephen. Sometimes there are language or other barriers. Stephen works closely with the school’s Spanish speaking social worker and hosts monthly morning meetings after drop-off targeted to Hispanic families.“Sometimes I will stop a parent on the street and offer to fill out their forms – this is the rewarding part of the job I like best.”
At the Clinton School for Writers and Artists, a highly regarded middle school in Chelsea, parents and school staffers file in and out of parent coordinator Cindy O’Neill’s office, just a few feet from the school’s main entrance. “I am the first stop for parents, and I approach my job as parent-to-parent,” says Cindy. “Sometimes they just need to talk about their middle schooler, and I know when to let things set so the waves don’t get bigger and when to take action.” Cindy was one of the first parent coordinators hired and has performed a multitude of tasks over the years, even pinch-hitting as Assistant Principal in the early days. Although Cindy is eligible to retire soon, she has no interest. “This is not a glamorous job, but the best jobs are invented, like this one.”
Parallels and Contrasts in the Bronx
A borough away up in the South Bronx, parent coordinator Dorothy Gutierrez at PS 25 has spent her eight years at this bi-lingual elementary school creating parent outreach programs that have become embedded in the school’s culture and traditions. Her signature“Second Cup of Coffee” read-ins every month bring streams of parents into the school where students and parents read to each other throughout the day, and free books in Spanish and English are distributed to families for home libraries. However Dorothy is worried, because the sponsoring publisher recently stopped donations and the school is running out of books.Her parent workshops are well attended on topics such as helping your child to read, fostering self-esteem in your child, and parent-child communication. The “Mommy & Me” breakfast for 4th and 5th grade girls and the “special women in their lives” is especially popular.
Parent communication is not easy at PS 25. “A lot of our families don’t have computers or e-mail addresses,” Dorothy reports, “so I always post flyers around the school yard and stuff students’ backpacks with the monthly calendar and any new workshops.”Many PS 25 families recently immigrated from Latin America and the Caribbean, and Dorothy attests that “it is very tough for undocumented parents.” The school security guard requires IDs and may not recognize a new face. Dorothy can be a lifeline for parents, tapping into her own expertise as a former immigration legal advisor and her referral network of organizations such as The New York Immigration Coalition. Some of Dorothy’s proudest moments have been encouraging PS 25 parents to pursue their own education, and several have received their GED.In May, she hustled up a bus to take a dozen PS 25 parents to the Javits Center for the DOE’s annual English Language Learners (ELL) Parent Conference. The conference schedule was packed with presentations, speeches, break-out workshops, and a rousing key note speech by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Expanded Role in the Future?
Throughout the numerous Mayoral forums on education, front-runner candidates have stated their commitment to retain dedicated funding for parent coordinators. Fading candidate Anthony Weiner is the only outlier, proposing to eliminate the position entirely, claiming that parent coordinators are “a waste of money” and $9 million could be saved. What is less clear among candidates is whether they would redefine the position so that parents have substantive input into the job description, hiring, and ongoing evaluation of parent coordinators, a demand made by several City parent organizations. Ever since the position was created, there has been ongoing debate about whether parent coordinators can be effective advocates for parents when they are hired and fired by the principal.
Even if policies change under the new Mayor to a system of dual reporting lines for parent coordinators to both parents and principal, now is the time to also consider whether parent coordinators should be given greater leadership stature within schools, a broader mandate that includes parent organizing, and more training and resources to be effective in a ramped-up role. As Chancellor Walcott proclaimed in his October 2011 speech announcing his new Partnering with Parents initiative, “Our plan is to strengthen and reaffirm the role of the parent coordinator…families and communities [need to] see them as leaders and organizers.” Addressing the parent coordinators from around the City assembled in the auditorium, Walcott continued, “You are the experts in parent engagement, and the whole school community can learn from you.” Let’s hope the new Mayor brushes off that plan and makes it a reality.