Julia Steiny: The Only Federal Funding for Parents? Gone.

Parent Information Resource Centers are about to be de-funded, writes Steiny, despite being a critical link between parents, schools and communities.

Julia Steiny

Every state has at least one Parent Information Resource Center (PIRC). But on September 30th, all 62 will close their doors.

PIRCs are the first and only time the federal Department of Education has dedicated funding just to parents, specifically to the work of involving them with their kids’ schools. PIRCs educate families about their rights and schools about their responsibilities. For example, the feds require all schools to develop policies that establish meaningful, two-way communication between school and home. PIRCs helped them do that.

PIRCs are dying for no good reason except that D.C. is paralyzed. Lost among the grid-locked political battles was a one-year extension that would have tided PIRCs over until next year’s reauthorization of the Education and Secondary Education Act (now called No Child Left Behind). These Centers were so successful at promoting home-school collaboration, the feds wanted to double the allocation.

But oh well.

The total allocation for all 62 PIRCs was a piddling 39 million dollars. In Rhode Island – population 1 million – that paid for 8 Family Involvement Coordinators. Eight workers helped forge productive relations between difficult-to-reach families and school staff who resent outsiders demanding they take on extra chores regarding families.

“We were thrilled to hear a U.S. President say that parents are key to high-quality education. Everyone is saying it. Research has been saying it for years!” Deborah Meiklejohn is the very frustrated Executive Director of the Rhode Island Parents Information Network (RIPIN), which houses this state’s PIRC.

Parents are potentially a massive labor force with strong motives to promote academic success. But historically, they were never part of the education system’s design.

Over the years, parents have been changing radically; schools, not so much. When America was building a universal public education system at the turn of the last century, families were stronger, stabler. Extended families, faith-based congregations and ethnic communities raised the kids together according to their standards, beliefs and values. Kids seemed to come to school better disciplined and with fewer problems.

But also stronger at the time was a thriving manufacturing economy ready to hire plenty of kids who left or got kicked out of school. So parents, employers and educators all considered schooling past 8th grade optional.

Actually, public schools were designed to replicate the efficiency and productivity of those shiny, thriving American factories. A kid moved on a self-propelled assembly line to get some English, math, science. Those who couldn’t cut it left school as acceptable casualties or breakage.

In 1950 the high-school drop-out rate was 52 percent, and no one fussed about it.

Educators had limited obligations to families. Disagreeable parents could use the same door as the disagreeable kids.

Then in the 1960s, the factory-model labor contracts cemented and protected the rights of the adults inside the schools. Increasingly, schools became bureaucratic fortresses that are still notoriously hard to penetrate or change. By the 1970s, parents began looking for ways to get around the intractable bureaucracies by starting alternative schools, cross-district busing, and eventually charter schools.

Now, in the 21st century, low-skilled manufacturing jobs are scarce. Businesses and the feds insist that schools graduate every student to satisfy an economy starved for skilled workers. But many kids find traditional schooling intolerable, for many reasons.

And the parents, well. Even suburban principals complain bitterly about the disengaged, dysfunctional, or blindly-defensive parents. Still, public schools routinely push parents and care-givers to one side, if only out of habit and thoughtlessness.

Kristin Campbell was one of the PIRC Family Involvement Coordinators at RIPIN. When she first started, she loved the prospect of empowering parents and marshaling their voice, enthusiasm and love of their kids to support their schools.

The work turned out to be much harder than she’d anticipated.

“I did lots and lots of community meetings with the schools. I would try to get involved with the superintendent, the Child Opportunity Zone coordinator, the Family Center. They meet you. And smile. Then nothing would happen.”

Campbell stayed in schools’ faces. She’d pitch in on menial tasks like handing out goodie bags at the door of an Open House. She gave schools draft parental-involvement policies and then helped them adapt and use them effectively. Her assistance was free, for heaven’s sake.

Finally, time-strapped principals began to want her gifts. And district staff started requesting her help. Campbell says, “Our evaluations from the schools started to glow. And word-of-mouth spread.” Parents were indeed more engaged. School communities were happier. Federal requirements were fulfilled.

So when news of the PIRCs’ demise went public, RIPIN’s phone ran off the hook. How would the schools manage now? With standardized testing driving everyone insane, who has time to forge great relations with anyone, never mind parents? RIPIN is looking at ways to keep up the work, by charging fees or writing grants.

When ESEA is reauthorized, my bet is that the popular PIRCs will be back in some form. But the momentum will be gone, and much work will be starting over. I suppose that in the scale of today’s fiscal and political craziness, dismantling these Centers is a detail. Still, 39 million bucks to empower parents was a drop in the federal bucket. And oh, how they and schools need that relationship help.

Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years. She is a freelance writer and consultant on data projects such as infoworks.ride.ri.gov , RI’s school-accountability site and ridatahub.org , an innovative data-analysis tool. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative. She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at www.juliasteiny.com.

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July 20th, 2011

Julia Steiny Columnist EducationNews.org

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