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Ricardo LeBlanc-Esparza rose to national fame for turning around a classic hard-luck school. A key ingredient of his success? Parent engagement. Yesterday, he told us about his work to bring the parent engagement gospel to schools around the country.

The Current State of Parent Engagement in Public Schools

Public School Insights: As people who've read our website before know, you've gained national prominence by helping turn around Granger High School in Washington State. What lessons did you learn from that experience that you really carry around with you now?

Esparza: There are so many lessons. It's hard to say. Public education is so big when you talk about instruction, curriculum, discipline and motivation. The piece that I really want to talk about is the whole family involvement/engagement piece.

I have traveled across the country, from Pennsylvania to Florida to Iowa to Arizona to Texas. Our public schools truly are lacking true public or parent involvement, engagement—whatever you want to call it when parents are active participants in the whole educational process.

Public School Insights: Exactly problems are you seeing in the schools that lack this engagement?

Esparza: I guess I need to frame that question…Because when I look at public schools, I see they typically meet the needs of the middle class and above population.

My wife is a principal of a K-8 magnet school for gifted and talented students. She told me a story that ...

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Of Customers and Citizens

Rich HarwoodHere's a wonderful excerpt from a speech public engagement guru Rich Harwood made to the Learning First Alliance earlier this year:

When I've worked on public schools over the last 20 years a lot of folks who are doing engagement around public schools have this notion that … people should look at public schools like gas stations. You drop your kid off in the morning, you hope the teacher fixes the kid. When the kid comes home, if somehow or other they can't read or write, we need to go to a school board meeting and complain like you would to a mechanic. …

If we're serious about engaging people, we need to see people not as consumers, not as customers…but as citizens. As people who are able and willing to step forward and engage the tough issues; as people who are willing to deal with trade-offs and choices; as people who are in fact even willing, under the right conditions, to make sacrifices, not only for their kids but for other kids in our communities. …

I have not seen any change, process or movement in current times or over history in America where when we treated people as consumers we got what we thought we needed. It's only when people step forward as citizens that we're able to create the change that we need. To me, that's the beautiful lesson of American history.

You can read more about Rich's remarks here. ...

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Pursuing our Interests

Watch out for those teacher interest groups! They'll smother a good reform every time. Or so the argument usually goes....

I object to this argument not only because it is reductive. I object to it because it implies that all the other groups clamoring for and against changes to schools aren't interest groups. The fact is that the education landscape is simply crawling with interest groups. And that's both good and bad.

The formidable Geoffrey Canada is only the latest person to depict teacher groups as the major barriers to a promising reform. He asserts that they oppose giving students more time in school:

Some educators and unions won’t even consider working longer hours or a longer school year. (New York Times Magazine)

"Some" is the operative term here. In fact, both national teachers unions have supported extended school days and years, provided teachers get paid accordingly.

More to the point, there are legions of others who oppose longer days and years. Take, for example, the 68 percent of adults who voiced their opposition in a very recent national poll. Then there's the vacation and travel industry. And don't forget the virulent opposition of employers who can't shake their addiction to teen ...

The PTA is about far more than suburban bake sales and school carnivals. The national organization has been moving aggressively in recent years to bring more urban families into the fold. It has been getting more fathers involved. And it has embraced a robust policy agenda to ensure all children equal opportunities to succeed.

National PTA’s first-ever male president recently spoke with us about these efforts. He also told us about his journey from volunteer hot dog duty at his son’s elementary school to the helm of one of the largest volunteer organizations in the country.

Download the full interview here, or use the audioplayer (~14:22 min).

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You can also read the interview transcript:

A Place for Fathers

Public School Insights: It’s been widely noted that you are the first male president in the National PTA’s history of 113 years. What do you think is the significance of that?

Saylors: For an association that started as the National Congress of Mothers, I’m very proud of the fact that we are moving in the direction that we are. I follow in the footsteps of a number of ...

"Say Yes to Education" may finally get its due. Joe Biden, Arne Duncan and Tim Geithner converged on Syracuse yesterday to learn about the innovative program.

We've honored Say Yes time and again on this website. The initiative has nearly closed high school and college graduation gaps separating urban youth from their suburban peers. How? By providing low-income youth comprehensive supports ranging from health care to academic help and college scholarships.

So will this event catapult Say Yes into the national consciousness? Early signs aren't good. The event has been covered, well, almost nowhere. Not in the education press. Not in the blogosphere.

It did get a few hits in the local Syracuse papers, but those focused mostly on college affordability: an important, but small, facet of the Say Yes program. I suppose I can understand why. The White House Task Force on Middle ...

Granger High School in Washington State has garnered national attention for its remarkable journey from bad to great. Most Granger students come from low-income families working on farms in the surrounding Yakima Valley. Many are children of migrant workers. In 2001, Granger was plagued by gang violence, low morale and an astronomical dropout rate. Now more than 95% of Granger students graduate, and almost 90% go on to college or technical school. (See our story about Granger here.)

Granger principal Paul Chartrand recently spoke with me about the critical work of sustaining the trend. The overriding message I took away from our conversation: Forge strong personal connections with students and their families.

Sustaining the Turnaround Trend

Public School Insights: Granger High School has been described by quite a few people as a real turnaround story. Do you think that is a fair description?

Chartrand: I do think it’s a fair description. My predecessor, Richard Esparza, really started the turnaround. I took over last year, and we are trying to continue the trend. We have been successful in a couple of areas, and we are still working on it in ...

Principal John O'Neill has earned his chops as a turnaround expert. In the past ten years, he has helped turn around two schools in two different states--no mean feat for a man who once struggled in school.

As principal of Forest Grove High School in Oregon, he has presided over a dramatic surge in test scores and graduation rates. In addition, many more low-income students have been signing up for challenging AP courses since O'Neill arrived in 2002. (Read our story about Forest Grove here.)

O'Neill recently told us about his school's journey from mediocrity to distinction. Some big lessons emerge from his story of school turnaround:

  • Create a climate of personal attention to student needs.
  • Do not remediate. Accelerate.
  • Build broad commitment to change.
  • Go for early, visible successes.
  • Create reforms for the long haul.

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of talk recently about school turnarounds. I understand you have actually turned around two different schools. Is there some kind of a broad prescription, do you think, for a successful turnaround strategy?

O’Neill: I think you need to have a clear plan of action and clear targets that you want to impact. For myself, in ...

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Survey Says...

The results of the 2009 PDK/Gallup Poll of Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools became public yesterday, and they're fascinating. There is something in the poll to please and dismay education ideologues of every stripe.

Here are some of the tidbits I found most interesting:

Most people like charter schools (whatever those are). No big surprise here. President Obama's strong support for charters has probably fueled their rise in popularity. But most respondents think charters are private schools that charge tuition and select students on the basis of ability. (Note to the uninitiated: None of that is true.) Public enthusiasm has outrun public understanding. Charter supporters and skeptics alike have much work to do to educate Americans about this piece of the president's reform agenda.

Most people like merit pay for teachers, but the devil's in the details. Almost three out of four respondents favored merit pay for teachers, and about as many said teachers should should be paid ...

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Starting at Home

Teacher/blogger/Twitterer/
author extraordinaire Larry Ferlazzo recently published a gem of a little article on teacher home visits. He writes about the impact of his own efforts to visit students’ families and calls for much more extensive home visit programs. One story he recounts jumps out at me:

Immigrant parents whom I visited developed the idea of having our school provide computers and home Internet access so that entire families could have more opportunities to study English. I was not only able to learn what these parents thought would help their children and themselves; down the line, I was also able to help other parents who had the same interest connect with each other and help us develop a plan of action.

As a result, the Luther Burbank High School Family Literacy Project has produced dramatic English-assessment gains for students and was the Grand Prize winner of the International Reading Association Presidential Award For Reading and Technology.

I like this story, because it turns a common assumption on its head. Teachers are not coming to parents as missionaries converting the unenlightened. Instead, they are forging strong partnerships with parents, discovering shared aspirations ...

Change.org’s education blog just congratulated Dover Elementary School in Richardson, Texas for its inspiring resurgence after more than two decades of flagging community support and low academic performance.

The Dover story illustrates important conditions of school success and failure. Part of Dover’s history is all too familiar: An influx of immigrant families changes school demographics. Wealthier families flee the public schools. Academic performance drops, and the school labors under a stigma.

That’s where the story takes a different turn: ...

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