Parent leaders trying to engage with LAUSD meet with frustration
Mike Szymanski | February 5, 2016
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Parents representing some of the most important advisory committees to the LA Unified school board lodged a litany of complaints this week about a lack of connection with the district.
Long distances to meetings, inconvenient times, police intimidation near meeting sites and a lack of consideration of the parents’ advice were some of the complaints brought up in more than an hour of public comment at the Early Childhood and Parent Engagement Committee Tuesday. The parents said they often felt their advisory committees were held merely to comply with some legislative requirement and that the ideas they advised went nowhere, adding to the difficulty of getting parents to volunteer for the committees.
The three school board members listening to the complaints seemed surprised and dismayed and said the parents’ issues would be addressed. The parents had been invited to Tuesday’s meeting by committee chair Ref Rodriguez, who had asked to hear their concerns.
Some of the dozen speakers were community leaders and officers of major advisory committees to the school board. The Parent Advisory Committee, for example, has 47 parents who meet monthly downtown and come from all over the district, said Chairwoman Rachel Greene.
“We have people coming from Porter Ranch and San Pedro so it is difficult for some to get to the Central Area. But there are there are pros and cons for meeting centrally there are certain record-keeping requirements for [the Parent, Community and Social Services] to comply with that can be accomplished more easily there. And they do provide food and beverage for members there. If they start moving to Porter Ranch, the people from San Pedro will have something to say about it, and vice versa. But having some moving around is something to consider. Having a joint meeting with some of the other committees so we could hear others’ input could be good but could also be a burden. But as Mr. Mangandi mentioned, the lack of childcare is a problem.”
She said the parents who attend the meetings “were usually at some point stymied by LAUSD, or something went wrong with the district or their school down the street or the one that our children take hours to ride buses to get to. We want to work with you, I don’t think there is any other group of human beings who want to see this district succeed as much as we do.”
Some LAUSD staff members said they were looking into improvements of districtwide parent meetings and looking for alternatives, but the parent leaders said it is not enough.
“Many parents are not in agreement that parent participation is improving,” said Diana Guillen, the secretary of the District English Learner Advisory Committee and a member of the Parent Advisory Committee for four years. She pointed to the audience behind her and said, “You can see behind me there are less than 10 parents here.”
Guillen echoed complaints that the meeting locations are held at inconvenient times, inconvenient places and provide no childcare.
“I can’t afford childcare, I have to bring my child,” Guillen said. “We deserve to be humanized. I consider this a personal insult.”
LA Unified has $4.6 million budgeted for parent participation. At one point, some of that money was used to reimburse people who paid for childcare, but that was stopped when the budget crisis hit in 2008, said Rowena LaGrosa, chief executive officer of Parent, Community and Student Services for LAUSD. No childcare was ever provided on site for children younger than 5, and liability issues and lack of space also ended providing childcare for people attending the parent meetings.
“We as parents would like to have more power and not just push the agenda of administrators, we would like to implement our own agendas,” Guillen said.
The chairman of DELAC, Juan Jose Mangandi, testified through an interpreter that he and other parents felt they were treated by administrators at LAUSD in a “quasi-servitude manner, not as partners in the education of children.” He said, “What I’ve seen in a majority of locations where Title 1 (low income) and E-L (English learner) families are a majority, there is a lack of participation by parents. They don’t trust the system and don’t trust the district.”
Mangandi said he has seen police officers intimidate parents who are at meeting sites and has heard complaints that families can’t afford gas or childcare so they don’t attend the meetings.
“How can we fund these obligations?” Mangandi said. “The intent I have now is to work within the structure despite the difficulties that continue to mount. It seems like only those with money can afford an education. I’m here with a noble cause and as a dreamer.”
The three school board members reacted with concern. Scott Schmerelson, a former principal, noted, “There are many principals out there who care about our bilingual counsel, and they will have meeting times convenient for parents, in the mornings, evenings, even on Saturdays. Have faith, there are those who support you.”
Rodriguez, who chairs the monthly Early Childhood and Parent Engagement Committee where the complaints were made, said, “It sounds like we don’t want certain parents involved, we have to have a way to explore this.” He asked that staff give an accounting of how the district money is spent for their next meeting, and what the concerns are about providing childcare.
School board member Mónica Ratliff noted that “it is a burden for people in my area in the San Fernando Valley to make it to these meetings, and we have to think about solutions. My office got more versed at using devices so they won’t have to travel to the meetings, and that is one option to look into. We keep acting like these problems are insurmountable, and I don’t think that is true.”
Kathy Kantner, chairwoman of the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, said that her group has trouble keeping a quorum so they can do business.
“In the past people quit because they felt the district was just going through a check list of compliance,” said Kantner, whose committee is made up of 33 teachers and parents from independent, charter and private schools focusing on special needs. “Parents feel a sense of urgency that is not reflected by the district. Our committees exist to give advice, and we hope that sometimes you will take it.”
Mother of an English Learner student, Maria Daisy Ortiz, said through an interpreter that she has seen many limitations to parent participation. She said meetings should be held at one of the six Local District offices throughout the district and suggested that staff be more forthright about providing information and statistics to the advisory committees.
Karina Lopez Zuñiga said she has felt “less wanted” at district meetings and said it is difficult to find out information about meetings. She said, “If parents knew that they could have come down to talk about parent engagement today, there would be a line out the door. Parents want to participate and want to be involved.”
Vania Valencia, who has a son in the Roosevelt High School magnet program, said if the district doesn’t shape up “then it will ensure privatization of the schools, and this is a public institution.”
Paul Roback, who is the parliamentarian of the Parent Advisory Committee, said that parents at the schools don’t know much about what goes on in these districtwide meetings. “There is zero connection between the school sites and the district level committees, and that is a huge problem.”
Some parents gave suggestions such as staggering the term limits for the committees and making them two-year rather than three-year terms.
Families in Schools, a nonprofit school reform group dealing with parent engagement through a federal grant, has been working with schools since 2000.
“It is important to get parents and communities involved at an early grade level,” said Sandy Mendoza, the advocacy manager of the program.
Rodriguez expressed his concern and said, “The parents you all represent say they want to engage with us. We made some changes and are making some changes, and there is still work to do.”