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LA parent voice: ‘The district is making it harder and harder for parents to be engaged’

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | October 15, 2018

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Every week, we sit down with Los Angeles parents to talk about their students, their schools, and what questions or suggestions they have for their school district. (See our previous interviews.)

As vice president of her school’s PTA, Alicia Liotta is getting an earful from parents who want to volunteer but are being held up by a new district policy.

This school year is the first that all volunteers who have any contact with students must be fingerprinted, and it took two months into the school year before the first batch of volunteers were cleared last week.

“It feels like for a lot of people in order to be able to volunteer at their child’s school and be an integral part of their children’s education, there’s a burden. And I just feel that’s not what it should be,” said Liotta, mother of a second-grader at Overland Elementary in West Los Angeles. “It’s not that we believe there shouldn’t be fingerprinting. It’s the process, it just doesn’t feel like it was rolled out appropriately.”

At Overland, some programs are run entirely by volunteers, including math, science and gardening activities and festivals, in addition to the vital help parents provide in the classrooms on a daily basis. The 500-student school each year has about 300 parent volunteers, but Liotta said there are not as many this year.

“We see, at least at Overland, that a major part of why our school is so successful is because we have so many parents volunteering.”

• Read more: New fingerprinting requirements are keeping LAUSD parents from volunteering

The district for years has required that volunteers “who had a lot of contact with students” be fingerprinted, but only “at the discretion of the principal,” a district spokeswoman said. This year, the requirement has been expanded to all volunteers who have any contact with students.

Liotta said her school wasn’t notified of the new requirement until four to six weeks before the start of the new school year, and she said most parents have found that it “is a process full of barriers.”

Parents must show up in person three times: first in the school office, for their office staff to make the fingerprinting appointment for them. Then they must go to one of the sites that offer the fingerprinting, but “there’s none on the Westside. They have to go either to Beaudry (the LA Unified headquarters) in downtown, Woodland Hills, or Gardena. There’s absolutely nothing near or around our school.” Then they have to pick up their badge in person at the school.

The fact that school officials have to make the appointments for the parents is also a burden on school staff. “Schools are short of staff to begin with, so that’s a problem because that’s taking away their time from other things they should be doing. Just scheduling is an issue.”

Then there’s the $56 fee. While that isn’t an issue for many Overland parents, Liotta knows it is for other parents in the district. At LA Unified, over 80 percent of the students live in low-income households.

The problem is not new. Liotta pointed to a 2013 op-ed by former board member Tamar Galatzan that highlighted the same issues. “Between now and 2013 nothing has changed!” Liotta said. In 2014, the district did open six additional sites besides Beaudry where parents could be fingerprinted, in response to a resolution Galatzan sponsored.

Liotta said parents are not against fingerprinting being required for safety. “I’m not saying that we should not have the fingerprinting, but I just think the process should be made easier.”

She hopes the district can fix the process to make it more convenient for families, particularly for those in underserved communities.

What needs to be fixed?

The parents in our school have risen above it, and people are going both days wherever they need to go to be fingerprinted (first to the school office to arrange the fingerprinting appointment, then to the site to be fingerprinted). But it definitely poses a burden to parents in areas where it is more difficult for them to be able to have the time to do that, as well as the means to pay the $56 fee. Parents in our school are definitely not happy about it. After the ‘This is ridiculous, we’re not going to do it’ — in the end we have a very engaged community and people are doing it for the benefit of the kids. But not all parents are able to do the same. We all have struggles, but this in particular shouldn’t be an obstacle.

How do you balance school safety?

We have discussed this with all other parents in our school, we all understand it. These are our children. We don’t want someone in the classroom with children that shouldn’t be. However, when parents are volunteering, they’re never alone with a child. There’s always a librarian or a teacher supervising, or another parent is there.

I’m not saying that we should not have the fingerprinting, but I just think the process should be made easier, whether that means open more sites closer to other schools, whether that means the district bringing mobile live-scan (vans) to school sites. I just think they are making it very difficult for parents to get into the classroom, and that’s what schools need, especially given the school cuts.

How does this affect kids in the classroom?

For someone like me who runs two major programs in our school that are educational and curriculum-based, I rely on volunteers to do these programs. I’ve been like, ‘Oh my God! How am I going to be able to put on these programs in six weeks if everyone has to have an appointment, then get fingerprinted, and then I’m hearing it is taking two weeks to a month to get the badge to be able to actually volunteer. We found out about this six weeks ago. Everyone was ready to go, and we were basically told, “Hold!”

Also because our class sizes in LAUSD are a little bit bigger, the teachers rely on parents coming in so they can have more individual one-on-one time or they can monitor reading groups or whatever. Volunteer parents can walk around and help so that the teacher can focus on a child, whether it is to do testing or grading. Again, I think the reason why our school especially excels is because the parent involvement is huge, and I think the district is making it harder and harder for parents to be engaged. It’s frustrating! But I’m sure the district can rectify the situation.

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