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School Board Candidates on Parent Involvement

by Michael Higham, published
From left to right: Dr. John Lee Evans, William Ponder, Mark Powell, Marne Foster

san diego unified school board

A factor in a public school's success is the level of parent engagement. This could range from classroom volunteering to simply helping students with homework. Since many voters who pay close attention to the San Diego Unified school board candidates are parents, the debates cover future efforts to involve parents at local school sites.

Marne Foster stresses that schools should open up as "educational hubs." What she means by this is partnering with outside organizations to take part in local school activities. This brings in resources that the district budget does not cover. This approach was mentioned in her answer to overcome budget issues. However, the plan includes making schools more inviting to parents:

One way we can do that is to have a heavily engaged and involved parent, like I have been. Get parents the training they need so they can do outreach to other parents in the community that they already have a relationship with. Empowering the parents and putting them in leadership positions to empower other parents.

Marne Foster mentioned she is an active parent volunteer herself:

I have been a parent facilitator with the Parent Institute of Quality Education, training parents on how to collaborate with teachers to ensure that their children are successful in the classroom.

Marne Foster has four children who all attended San Diego public schools. Two of which are on full scholarships at universities. She also fought for Individualized Education Program opportunities for one of her children who has special needs. Her fight took her all the way to the California Department of Education.

Dr. John Lee Evans has been a proponent of establishing cluster councils. This approach is aimed to get community members who know their schools best to be involved. Clusters include all the middle and elementary school communities that feed into certain high schools. There were only two cluster councils in 2008 and Dr. Evans has helped establish 16 councils in San Diego Unified.

While we still have a district structure we have a lot more input at the local level. One of the first things I did as a board member was hold a summit meeting with parents and community members to really get going on establishing cluster councils. The parents have gotten very involved and taken ownership of the schools that are part of the community.

Like Ms. Foster, Dr. Evans was actively engaged in his children's schools. His children have graduated from San Diego city schools and stated he, "[W]as a regular classroom volunteer on a weekly basis and involved heavily in what was going on in their particular schools."

Mark Powell approaches parent involvement with the notion that teachers need to be actively seeking parent input. "How about unsolicited phone calls from teachers? How about inviting them to the classroom to talk about their student, maybe offering a cup of coffee," says Mr. Powell when asked about parent outreach.

 I believe the schools should be reaching out to the parents. When you have an open house, you know families have extra kids. Maybe hire a baby-sitter and leave the auditorium open. Why not give them popcorn or cook some hotdogs, play a movie and have some daycare. Not every single family has the ability to afford baby-sitters.

Mr. Powell is also a parent of children currently attending San Diego Unified schools. He has two daughters, ages seven and ten, and participates in their arts programs. He stated that he makes props for his daughter's dance program and its performances.

William Ponder is a heavy proponent of what charter schools have been doing. "They actively go about and bring parents in and ask parents to fully engage in their child's education," says Mr. Ponder, advocating local school site to do parent outreach. He also believes parents can be a factor with district functions like budgetary decisions:

I think the parents who are informed and educated can make the best decisions for their children can help us. So I'm an advocate of finding opportunities for parents to provide input, including what we do with the budget. There are some very bright people out there and they are parents, they understand finances just as well as we do.

William Ponder does not see Dr. Evans' cluster councils as effective. "All clusters are not equal, not every school has access to the same resources as others do." While this may be true, clusters are intended to focus on community-specific issues to help leaders understand its needs. For more on addressing inequities, read our article on approaches to budget issues.

Each candidate has a differing perspective on how to approach increased parent outreach. While each approach has its merits, it's important to look at how the candidates build an infrastructure in which parent involvement can be effective. The school board candidates also understand what it means to be an active parent. However, a board member must also understand how parent organizations will function to make a lasting impact.

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