Parents as Turnaround Specialists: Ricardo LeBlanc-Esparza Tells Us How It’s Done
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 stuck with me. A mom came in and told my wife that she was not happy with her son's fifth-grade math scores. Okay. Why?
Because this mother had basically mapped out math skill sets from fifth grade all the way to twelfth grade, because she wanted her son to be in Calculus AB. I'm like, “Wow. That is a parent involvement and engagement.” But I'm also thinking, how does our system really work?
[That mom] knows the power of education. She's actively involved, and she knows [these skills will] open the doors for her son to do well on the SAT and the ACT. [They will help him with] scholarships, college, post-secondary choices.
But how does our system really work? Every time I've gone to a different state I analyze the schools and ask, are they any different? And really, they aren’t. Here's how [secondary education] works: One teacher is in charge of 100 to 180 students. A counselor, depending on the state, has anywhere from 400 to 600 kids they're supposed to keep track of. I think California has 600-plus. The same with an administrator -- anywhere from 400 to 600 kids. Then you look at coaches. They're in charge of 20 to 30 athletes who want to be there. That's how our public system works.
It's okay if you have a parent like the one I just described at my wife's school, who's mapping their kid's progress. That seems to work fine.
And elementary does a better job, in having parents actually coming in. But as far as secondary… [parent engagement can be close to zero]. My wife calls [some schools’ engagement efforts] a “cattle call.” She's been part of that process, though I’ve never experienced it.
Basically a teacher sits in a room and the parents stand out in the hallways in line and wait their turn to get in their five minutes. “I have your daughter, Kay Lee. Here she is, here are her current test scores, dah dah dah dah. Do you have any questions?" Again, with the system with the teacher trying to meet a hundred to 180 different sets of parents, you don't have time to really get into what's going on in that child's life.
We ran, my first year, what you call “arena-style” parent-teacher conferences. All the teachers are sitting in the gym. The parents line up, and they try to talk to the teachers. They go from teacher to teacher, and hopefully get five minutes in. And I say you actually have more privacy filling your prescription at the pharmacy. Here's a teacher saying, "Oh, your child misbehaves and doesn't do his work" and a parent sitting there going, "How many times do I want to hear this with people behind me listening to the whole conversation?"
The saddest thing is that the students aren't even involved. They don't come to these conferences.
So does that system work? It does work for parents who understand the power of education, who are tracking their kids' skill sets, who themselves got an education and know that their kids need to do well. Where I see our system really failing is with so many parents who don't know the system, like at Granger.
People say, "What do you mean, they don't know the system?" But if they didn't have an education…I'll share a quick story of when I had an epiphany: "Wow. We're that disconnected?"
I had a parent my first year approach me very upset because I had to suspend her senior son. She was just adamant that I needed to get him back in because he needed to graduate.
She did not know that her son had a total of six credits to his name. They were just P.E. and vocational credits. It took 21 credits to graduate. She had tried her hardest. She was a single mom. She says, "I fed him breakfast, I gave him lunch money, and he promised he was graduating this year because I don't have a husband at home. I need him to get a good job to help the home."
I'm thinking, "Wow. How disconnected are we from our parents that I have a mom here thinking that her kid's going to graduate just because he came to school for four years?"
That's where I look at this whole poverty piece, [with] people who don't understand the power of education, how the system works, and how to access that power of education. One, you look at the research. [Low-income] kids come in behind on their skill sets because maybe [their parents] didn't read to them—whatever the reason, they come behind and they stay behind. They just kind of go through the system and they end up with a fourth or fifth-grade reading level [when they are in] high school.
That's the thing that I really focused on at Granger: How do we counter this whole disconnect between the parents, the students and the educators working towards that common goal that [students are] going to have the skill sets to be able to be successful? [So all students can] be like that fifth-grade kid who more than likely is going to take calculus AB and access the power of education.
How Granger Does It
Public School Insights: What you've described is the barrier that happens in those lower income households, and you've described what didn't work at Granger—those arena-style conferences. What was effective at Granger, given the kinds of populations you served at the school?
Esparza: I'm glad you asked that question. I see so many educators working so hard. It's not that they're not working hard, it's that they just don't have a system in place that is able to keep track of the kids so that they can help them be academically successful.
Basically what we did was make it like the dentist. I have a dental plan, and every six months I go and see the dentist, and he cleans my teeth and all that stuff.
I looked at it with that perspective at our school. We met with our parents twice a year, once at the first quarter and then once at third quarter, which is right in middle of the semester system. It was an appointment.
And it was personal. Just like your dentist, you don't have people lined up and looking over the dentist's shoulder, going "Is it my turn yet?" You sit down and it's a conference.
Here’s the other piece: You truly involve the student in the conference. They lead the conference, and it's centered on a personalized education plan that's developed by the educator and the student. Basically you look at their skill sets in math and reading, and their current progress. Here's an opportunity to educate the parents if they don't know the difference between an A or an F.
There is also an agreement in which everybody's going to have a part [both in these conferences and in the educational process]. What are you going to do as a parent? What are you going to do as a student? And what am I going to do as that mentor/advisor/educator person who's there to help facilitate the whole conference?
I look at that setup and ask, is this different? No. I look at my wife's school, which is just awesome. Her school has very few free and reduced-lunch kids. How does their system work?
She has a K-8 school. They start at second grade with the student leading the conference, and the student starts becoming in charge of their learning. They're the ones who are saying, "Here's how I'm doing in reading, writing, math.” I don't know if at second grade they actually say, "Here's my career goal. I want to be a fireman, I want to be a policeman or a pilot." They might. But that's one of the key pieces when I look at it.
I am working on developing a program I can hopefully start using with other schools and that is basically what I'm talking about here. It's developing a system where students are actually kept track of. Where the student is empowered. The educator is part of the system, and the parent—even though they might not be able to read and write, they can learn the difference between an A and an F.
My whole goal is that no one ever has to face a parent like I did, who thought their kid was going to graduate in four years, even though they hadn't done the work to graduate in four years.
The key piece behind [this conference system], though…there also needs to be constant communication. What we evolved to was, every two weeks we were sending out a detailed progress report through the student to the home. And the parent, because we had that twice-a-year meeting, knew it was coming.
I look at other schools. If they have the technology and the parents have the technology—they just do this stuff online. We've gotten to the point where you can check [student] attendance, tardiness, what they ate for lunch, if they have an overdue library book. That's how far technology has gotten in that respect.
Handling the Challenges
Public School Insights: What do you say if you hear from educators that they're trying to engage parents, but the parents just don't show up? We hear that all the time.
Esparza: That's a good point, but when they are saying the parents don't show up—what are they not showing up to? Are they not showing up to a five minute superficial, "Here's your kid's progress; do something about it"? Or are they actually not showing up to a personalized, detailed meeting where it's just them, the educator, and the student?
Public School Insights: How do you manage the outreach to the parents for the first time, to let them know that this is what they can expect?
Esparza: We managed that through [our advisory] system, where we meet with kids like a class. It was four days a week. I myself was a mentor, and I had 18 kids that I had picked up from their freshman year.
The kids understood that this was about them -- that the meetings were going to be about their grades, their career goals, how they can access scholarships…All the key pieces it's going to take for them to get out of that level of poverty.
When I left [Granger], my last year, my counselor shared with me that 78 percent of my kids were first-generation high school graduates. So they knew -- and I had taught them, and all my teachers taught the kids, "This is your one way out of poverty -- graduating and going on to hopefully post-secondary education."
And so the kids would bring the parents in [for these conferences].
Public School Insights: Interesting. So the kids become the outreach mechanism.
Esparza: Definitely. And again, the word spreads…When we first started, we only had about 60 percent [parent participation]. But that was sure improved from the 10 percent when we had the arena-style scheduling.
We went to 60 percent. And then the word spread that, "Hey, all you do is sit down and you talk about your kid." And that it's private, because everybody has a room and it was a scheduled appointment.
[Others may] say, "Well, when do we have the time to do that?” But a lot of districts have early release time to schedule parent conferences. I found in the Philadelphia school district, for example, they do, but it's only for elementary. Then when they get to the high school and middle school, when they need it the most, there's nothing.
Then it's like, "We're sending you progress reports every four weeks. We send you another progress report at the nine-week time, and then you're going to get a semester grade. And of course our door is always open for you to come if you have any questions or concerns." That is not parent engagement. That's not parent involvement.
And that's where, again, the system will work for kids whose skill sets are good. I keep going back to that story of the parent who's been tracking their kid and is going to track them all the way through. [Parents like that] can go with detailed progress reports and so on, and they know when they really need to step in. But for all these other parents, who don't have a pulse of how their kids are doing, they're just falling further and further behind.
I also always look at the self-esteem of the students themselves. They know if they're doing well or not. How many people actually wake up in the morning and go, "Yeah, I'm going to go to school today and I'm gonna get another F. I'm looking forward to my paper, red and wrong and not getting all the right answers"? It just perpetuates this whole cycle of failure that just keeps going on and on. Then we wonder, why do we have a 50 percent graduation rate for certain populations?
Public School Insights: You mentioned earlier that personal attention to kids through advisories is what helped turn them into the best ambassadors for parent engagement. But you also talked about how in so many schools you’ve got 180 kids to an adult, or at least that's how it's organized. How do you get past that, to that personal attention you've been talking about?
Esparza: That's where I advocate that you have to break your system down, so it’s not that one teacher saying, "I have 180 kids and here's what they struggle with." We need to break the system down, because if you actually divided these schools up by certificated staff members, you're talking about a 1 to 20 ratio. That's what we had.
We designated a half-hour period of time where every certificated staff member had their 20 kids. They basically kept track of them like they were their own kids.
What do you need to do? When you have these conferences, you need to make sure [parents] have attendance and grades. That's the power of the middle class. They [make sure] their kids attend school and have good grades.
On the kids' side, to empower them…I remember going through school. If you're really pragmatic and seeing that your parents are working hard but barely making it, you look at yourself and ask, "What am I going to do?"
Trying to figure out what you want to do, especially when schools are geared towards reading, writing, math, science and history, and you're asking, "How am I going to make a living doing this?" [is not easy]. That's what the whole career goal orientation piece is -- trying to help kids find out what they want to so that they themselves will be motivated to do whatever schoolwork is necessary so that they can reach their goals.
Public School Insights: Are there are any questions I should have asked you, but didn't?
Esparza: Again, I'd talk about the triangle piece -- about if we truly would connect the student with the educator and the home. And I say "the home," because a lot of places the home is the grandparent or the aunt and uncle. That's what I found in my own experience -- I only had five kids, I think, out of the 18 [in my advisory], who actually had a mom and dad at home.
If you really truly were to implement a system like that, I believe educators would find that their jobs would not be as difficult. The research -- like I said, I'm doing my doctorate and it's about parental involvement/engagement -- shows that the parents would be more actively involved. And also, research shows that 75 percent of their kids' lives are spent away from school.
So if we were actually truly able to involve and engage the parent to be part of this process, they would help monitor that child. So more homework would come back and teachers would be spending less time sending out these negative progress reports and on all the stuff that they deal with. I know educators like when their students come to class prepared and their homework's done and they're doing well on tests.
If they actually had the parents being part of the process, I think they would experience more of that success.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
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- 2013 School Counselor of the Year Mindy Willard on the state of her profession
- Supervisor of Administration John Swang on saving money in energy costs
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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