Parent Engagement in LAUSD: Fact or Fiction?

By Guest Blogger

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Public education is full of buzzwords, used individually or strung together into slogans.  Nowhere is this public-relations practice more evident than in the Los Angeles Unified School District. You’re always hearing and seeing them: Student Achievement, School Safety, Transparency, Accountability, I Love LAUSD and, most recently, Kids First.

Another popular slogan often tossed around is Parent Engagement. This sounds wonderfully warm and fuzzy when it’s mentioned at Back to School Night, in a PTA meeting or at an orientation session for school volunteers. The term conjures up visions of bake sales, field-trip chaperoning, helping teachers in classrooms, working with the principal to hammer out next year’s budget, and all the things we usually associate with being an involved parent at our child’s school.

While some school principals understand the tremendous value of proactively engaging their students’ parents on campus, many don’t. Whether it’s due to inexperience as a school leader or a wrongheaded philosophy that parents are a potential problem to be controlled, the belief among some administrators that they don’t need or want to parents to fully participate in the education of their children is unfortunately pervasive throughout LAUSD.

So it’s no surprise that as administrators rise through the District ranks to positions of increasing authority, their mixed feelings about parent engagement continue to influence their actions and decisions. This same uncertainty affects the trio of District-level parent committees: the Community Advisory Committee (CAC), the District English Learner Advisory Committee (DELAC) and the Parent Advisory Committee (PAC).

Members of these committees are recruited from schools all over LAUSD, and while they come with the best of intentions to volunteer their time in the hope of helping the District improve their own kids’ education and the education of all students, often they find that their contributions are not valued and appreciated in the way they expected.

Wanting to help beyond my kids’ schools, I accepted an opportunity to serve on one of these committees. Talking with parents in my group as well as several on the other two committees, I’ve discovered that many of us are beginning to wonder if all the time we spend in our meetings is actually making things better for LAUSD students. 

Parents typically do their best to carry out their responsibilities on these committees, at least those who bother to show up. (A fair number attend once or twice and then drop out, while others we never see at all.) The problem is that upper management, including the Board of Education, doesn’t always “walk the talk” on parent engagement. Sure, every now and then a Board member will launch into a little speech on how important parents are to the academic success of their kids, while congratulating LAUSD on how well it’s engaging parents. Yet when these same parents try to contact Board members for help with a problem at school, they often find it hard to get through and, depending on which Board member represents them, they may or may not get a response.

During our committee meetings, parents sometimes feel that they’re being managed by staffers rather than supported. More than once the head administrator of the office where we meet, Parent and Community Services or PCS, stepped in during a meeting to tell parents what they should or shouldn’t be doing, even though all three committees have their own executive boards and bylaws.

Speaking of which, these committees began the process of reviewing their bylaws over a year ago. Yet between delays caused by PCS and the District’s legal department, which insists on reviewing any changes suggested by parents, the process still hasn’t been finished.

This institutional disrespect for the role of our parent committees was evident on April 10, when the Board pushed through a resolution changing the way money coming to LAUSD through the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) is allocated. Here’s the Problem: The state Education Code says the DELAC and the PAC are required by law to advise our District on how LCFF money will be used. Even though this law is on the books and well known to LAUSD, neither of these two committees was ever asked to review the proposal before it came up for a Board vote.

A procedural loophole put Board President Monica Garcia’s Equity is Justice 2.0: Moving Toward a New Direction resolution in front of Board members for a final vote on the very same day it was first presented to them. This had a lot of parents upset, particularly those on the committees. The PAC went so far as to send a letter to the entire Board, expressing its annoyance and disappointment at being bypassed.

Garcia’s stated reason for the rush was that this resolution could not wait if schools were to incorporate its additional funding into their budgets for the upcoming 2018-19 school year. Even so, parents were left feeling that this is yet another example of how LAUSD claims to value parent engagement while acting in a way suggesting the exact opposite.

My experience on a District parent committee reminds me of the School Site Council I used to serve on. The principal told us at the first meeting how much she appreciated parents showing up and agreeing to be nominated. She thanked us for taking the time to help our school do the heavy lifting that an SSC tackles every year. Then I watched as she hijacked the council to make sure she got everything she wanted, as we parents sat there, frustrated, because we had never received any training on what to do as representatives of all parents at the school.  At least we received certificates of appreciation at our final meeting … WOO-HOOOOO!

So far what I’ve seen at the “central” District level has been oddly similar to that hijacked SSC: Administrators pretend to want parents involved but then proceed to completely ignore their advice, their concerns, and their requests for information.

Veteran colleagues on our committee often tell us that parent engagement in LAUSD is less about truly engaging parents and more about something they call check-box compliance.  After what I’ve observed passing for “engagement” at the highest level an interested parent can reach in this District, I’m sad to admit that I have to agree.

The Board’s vote on Tuesday to bring in a new superintendent from outside the District probably won’t do much to improve the way LAUSD, our kids’ school district, views us, though things may be different this time around.  Stay tuned.

-- This opinion piece was written by a concerned member of an LAUSD parent committee, who wishes to remain anonymous. Speak UP supports the intent of the resolution to ensure that LCFF funds are equitably allocated, as required by the law.