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ESSA May Provide Opportunities for More Parent Engagement, Advocates Say

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By Andrew Ujifusa. Cross-posted from the Politics K-12 blog

Plenty of issues have gotten more ink and pixels in coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act than parent, family, and other forms of engagement. But advocates for those issues are excited about how the federal education law could reinvigorate communities' relationships with schools and enhance their impact on policy.

Here's one big theme in the article I co-wrote this week on how ESSA could change engagement: A lot of the potential changes for the issue don't necessarily have to do with how the law's language departs from the No Child Left Behind Act. Instead, there's a sentiment that because the law shifts more decisionmaking power to states and districts, it's a big, fresh opportunity for local and state groups representing parents, civil rights groups, and others to work from the ground up with K-12 officials and policymakers. 

To be sure, there are new provisions in ESSA designed to change how schools think about engagement. For example, the term "parental involvement," used for requirements in NCLB, has changed to "parent and family engagement" in ESSA. That might not seem like a huge deal, but it does indicate to people who study the issue that the law recognizes that family members who aren't parents could have an important role in a child's education. And swapping in "engagement" for "involvement," they add, seems to hint at more collaborative possibilities.

And there are also new Statewide Family Engagement Centers authorized in ESSA that could get people involved in discussions that in many cases have been pretty narrow, although funding for those centers may not be in the cards. "High need" schools have priority for the Title I dollars that districts must set aside for engagement, ESSA says. 

But as I note in my story, Wisconsin Superintendent Tony Evers is excited to replace the federal School Improvement Grant program with new turnaround ideas that are informed by a variety of groups. 

The doors may be open for groups to work with schools and policymakers, but community groups and parents have to walk through them and be proactive in a variety of discussions. For example, there's the "fifth indicator" of school quality that states will have to use for accountability under ESSA. Discussions over the best way to satisfy that requirement "will compel state and local leaders to pay attention to factors outside of classrooms impacting academics," said Mary Kingston Roche, the director of public policy for the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership.

"The actual one they choose is important, but just as important is the conversations that it starts," Roche said.

But even if parents, civic groups, and others get a seat at the table to discuss how Title I dollars are used and the school turnaround strategies that can effectively use community resources, they still have to look beyond themselves, said Donna Harris-Aikens, the director of education policy and practice at the National Education Association.

"Make sure that when you are at the table, and if there is some group or some organization or some person you believe to be critical, make sure they are at the table as well. It's not enough just for you to be at the table," Harris-Aikens said.

Contact Sarah Tully at [email protected].

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