Budget straits spark surge in parent action

One silver lining of the stormy budget crisis that has loomed over the Boston Public Schools for the past few months— a crisis that still threatens 212 teaching positions and 324 other jobs unless new revenues or budget cuts are found—is that hundreds of parents have come out of the woodwork to protect their children’s education.

With plenty of studies showing parental involvement can improve student and school performance, many active parents and advocates are now beginning to wonder if any of the energy that brought 500 parents to a State House rally last week can be sustained.

The new technologies parents are picking up, such as blogs and e-mail listservs, point to yes, but there are still a number of barriers that make making a difference that much tougher.

“One year in office and I was never asked to come to a parent council meeting. In the last month I have been invited to four,” noted City Councillor John Connolly last week, acting head of the Council’s Education Committee. “On the one hand it’s uplifting to see these parents so connected. On the other hand it’s really tough because it’s borne out of this terrible situation. But there’s no doubt that the parents have made their voice heard. My e-mail inbox since Feb. 4 has been bombarded.”

Feb. 4 was the day the school department first released its worst-scenario budget cuts, which would have necessitated some 900 layoffs (since reduced to around 536). Principals received their numbers, and some detailed the cuts they would have make at their own schools. That touched off an instant reaction. Particularly at Boston Latin School, where some 17 teachers were to be cut. A new website and e-mail listserv called BLS parents was up within days. After attracting attention from other school parents, the name was changed to bpsparents.org.

Karina Meiri, one of two parents who set up the website, said it was key to getting 500 parents to show up at the March 26 State House rally.

Some 700 parents are on the listserv so far, she said.

“It’s completely different from five years ago,” she said. “Back then we worked in a complete vacuum. We just did it with Boston Latin. There was no way to contact parents at other schools.”

The new BPS Parents listserv grows virally, said Meiri—passed along from parent to parent. But that process is just beginning, and the listserv’s reach is still limited. The majority of the parents at the State House rally were white, which is far from reflecting the diversity of parents sending their kids to BPS.

Also inspired by the budget cuts, Dorchester dad Jamaal Leek created his own blog called The Mather Parent, hosted at matherparent.wordpress.org. He writes lengthy posts about his activities on the behalf of the Mather parent council, such as a March 7 meeting with Mayor Thomas Menino and Superintendent Carol Johnson he attended.

“The school was established in 1639, 370 years ago this year,” read Leek’s first entry in the Mather Parent blog, posted Feb. 26. “Through vigilance, care and proper attention, the school has thrived through the years. Unfortunately… budget cuts threaten to cripple the school. The Mather is facing nearly $600,000 in budget cuts which will result in the loss of many essential teachers and staff, as well as over 50 percent of the supply budget.”

“I haven’t blogged in quite some time,” said Leek in a phone interview last week. “So this was kind of an opportunity to use the platform again. It’s one of the things where you can contribute something without being present at every meeting.”

In many ways, his blog, though not ruthlessly accurate, has more detailed information than most other sources on the current budget crisis, particularly on the Mather. At the very least it’s a good complement to bostonpublicschools.org/budget, where parents can find the official documents as the budget proposals change shape. Leek said it was a simple task to launch his blog at wordpress.org.

“It’s pretty user friendly,” he said. “Most of the sites are template-based, and it’s just about putting content on there. It took me all of 30, 45 minutes to set it up.”

Mather principal Emily Cox told parents in February that she would have to eliminate 15 non-teacher staff members under the proposed $600,000 reduction in her budget at the time. She quickly saw attendance at the parent council meeting skyrocket.

“For meetings we would have an average of three to four parents,” Cox said. “At the last parent council meeting we had maybe 25 parents show up, which I was thrilled to see.” On the chopping block were a librarian, a computer specialist, seven lunch monitors and four teaching assistants for ELL and special education. When the budget proposal for the Mather was raised by $200,000, she said she would keep the librarian, computer expert and lunch monitors. The latter allow her teachers time to plan lessons for one class period per day—a union requirement.

This kind of information is what Leek’s blog and BPSparents.org are good at disseminating. Things like the Boston Teacher’s Union wage freeze, the meals tax and the stimulus package are also discussed at length as possible solutions to the crisis. But as rich as all of this is, it is still serving a very limited subset of parents. Many parents do not have Internet access. And many principals did not detail to their school’s parents the cuts they were proposing.

“At a lot of schools, that [detailed information] wasn’t shared,” said Massachusetts Advocates for Children’s John Mudd. “We have many parents that tell us ‘We didn’t know.’”

Mudd, who spends his time advocating for the city’s more disadvantaged students, believes BPS doesn’t invest enough in parental involvement, and the efforts that are made are highly dependent on each school’s principal or family and community outreach coordinator.

“The principals are a lynchpin,” he said. And in many cases, “they don’t share with parents, they don’t engage with parents, and they don’t ask parents for help. It’s a professional system that thinks it can operate in a professional cocoon.”

Leek and his family had that kind of an experience at the Marshall school, where, with his brand of activism, he said he came to be treated like “the enemy.” But even at the Mather, where he said he now has a better relationship with the administration, there are other challenges. Two key obstacles are translation and the difficulties of finding and contacting other parents.

“One of the tactics we’ve employed here at the Mather is where we’ve actually typed out letters and translated them using Babel Fish,” Leek said.

Babel Fish is a free service offered by Yahoo that automatically, though imperfectly, translates text. The Mather has sizable Vietnamese- and Spanish-speaking populations.

“We always end up having somebody who speaks the language weed out any problems,” Leek said. “It’s usually a quicker turnaround than if you hand a volunteer a whole page to translate.”

Another frustration felt by active parents and advocates alike is BPS’s refusal to give out directories that include contact information for students or parents. As it stands, the only time a parent council or an advocacy group like the Boston Parent Organizing Network can identify a phone number or e-mail for a parent is if that parent shows up for a meeting. That means parents who work longer hours are often left out of the loop.

“We have asked and we’ve been told we can’t have a listing of all the parents,” said Leek. “Quite honestly, I think it would be something the parents would want to share with each other… I wonder if half the motive of that is to avoid an angry mob of parents.”

Meiri said she’s run into the same problem at the Latin School.

“This is a classic problem in organizations,” she said. “They conflate the way things have to be done with the way things have always been done. It’s not at all clear to me that it’s in the list of rules.”

“Our first priority is to protect the rights and confidentiality of our parents, some of whom have unique situations,” responded BPS spokesman Chris Horan when asked why directory information isn’t shared by the administration. “Certainly schools can explore that at the school level, but we don’t do that at the district level. This is all about the relationship between the parents and the principal and the school council.”

Horan said he didn’t know of any school out of Boston’s 144 that had given out a directory, however, and he also wasn’t able to provide the Reporter with contact information for any of the members of the school site parent councils, including that of the Mather.

“There is a great range in which policy is carried out in different schools, and certainly family engagement is one aspect of that,” said Horan. “Some do a marvelous job of that and others need to improve.”

Indeed, many principals freely give access to the ConnectEd phone system to parent councils, which automatically calls parent phone numbers with pre-recorded messages. But none of the advocates or parents queried for this story said they were able to obtain actual contact information for parents from any school in BPS, and some said the phone numbers used by ConnectEd can be out of date.

According to Cliff Ramirez, a widely-respected expert on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which governs such things, there is no law preventing BPS from giving contact information to parent councils. The Austin Independent School District for instance, collects addresses and phone numbers for its students and gives that to parent councils upon request, as do several other districts across the country. At Austin ISD, around half of elementary school parents consented to have their information shared, according to public information coordinator Melissa Sabatino, making available a list of over 27,000 parents phone numbers and addresses.

“As long as they get consent, sure, they can do anything with that information,” said Ramirez. “They would also need to look into the organizational part of it, collecting it and compiling it—the cost and work involved.”

At Arlington High School here in Massachusetts, parent Joe Lobel solved that problem by donating his own time to compile a giant e-mail list for parents. Around 500 out of the school’s 1,400 parents filled out forms handed out as they picked up their teenagers after school, forms sent home with students, or answered an announcement in the principal’s newsletter.

“To the extent that the law allows us to do that, we should definitely do it,” said School Committee Chair Rev. Gregory Groover when asked if parents should have access to BPS school directories. “The school district becomes a better one as parents become more involved and push, push the system. And that’s what we want.”

“I think the idea of a directory is great,” said interim director Myriam Ortiz of the Boston Parent Organizing Network. “The question for us has always been how to keep the parents involved after the crisis ends.”

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