When D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray selected Kaya Henderson as schools chancellor, he touted her as a reformer who would take more care than her predecessor, Michelle A. Rhee, to consult with parents before key decisions.
But Henderson now finds herself at odds with a community of parents who charge that she is replicating Rhee’s unilateral approach. The dispute reflects a major issue in urban school reform: how to engage low-income parents who face myriad other challenges in their daily lives.
Henderson decided in July to close a trio of Parent and Family Resource Centers in the Ward 1 section of Northwest Washington and Wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia River, created several years ago under then-superintendent Clifford B. Janey to help parents manage their children’s education. Henderson has said that the centers, which cost $1.2 million last year, were underused and ineffective.
“It was a not a good decision,” said Ana Rondon, head of the PTA at Tubman Elementary in Northwest, site of the Ward 1 center, where courses were offered on topics such as nutrition and how to keep children learning over the summer. “It was like cold water thrown on us,” she said.
Henderson said the closures are temporary, and that the centers eventually will be reopened and operated by community groups yet to be named.
In communities served by the centers, however, some say the decision is the latest sign that low-income parents do not figure prominently in the visions of urban school reformers such as Henderson and Rhee, who regard the quality of classroom teachers as the key to raising student achievement.
“They don’t want parents to be really engaged,” said Absalom Jordan, chairman of the Ward 8 Education Council and head of the steering committee that helped set up the centers. “Why would you want to wake up this sleeping giant that would start demanding things?”
Henderson declined to answer questions seeking more detail on the basis for closing the centers. She said she wanted to wait until a meeting with parents Thursday evening at M.C. Terrell elementary in Southeast.
Last month, Henderson told WTOP that a 2010 city survey found that the centers were underutilized and that the vast majority of neighborhood parents didn’t know about them. The poll also showed that most parents preferred parent engagement activities at their child’s school, rather than frequenting a center at another building.
Advocates of the centers said the city failed to publicize them.
The city folded the centers in mid-July with no advance consultation, eliminating the jobs of about a dozen paid staff members. Henderson’s office then organized an Aug. 4 meeting at Miner Elementary in Northeast to discuss what it called new plans for “Strengthening DCPS Family and Community Engagement.”
But before new plans were revealed, the session devolved into a bitter round of recriminations and accusations aimed at Henderson, who was not there, and her interim family engagement chief, Kelly Johnson, who attempted to preside. Parents demanded that the centers be reopened.
“We talk and talk but you don’t listen to us as parents,” said Gwendolyn Griffin, president of the D.C. Congress of PTA. “Are you really going to listen to us? You’re not listening to us.”
D.C. school officials have said in other settings that they don’t want to discourage parent engagement but to refocus it. In broad terms, they said they intend to make teachers and principals more accountable for establishing relationships with families. Some research shows higher test score growth in classrooms where teachers have frequent face-to-face meetings with parents — including home visits — phone them regularly with good and bad news about their children and send materials home with advice on how to support learning. Many leading public charter schools pursue such practices.
The centers as originally conceived had a broader mission: to strengthen parents and raise their capacity to become advocates for their children. The Ward 1 center had courses on time management and support for single parents, on raising children with autism or attention deficit disorder, and the signs and impact of bullying. The Ward 8 center, based at M.C. Terrell, offered a Saturday Learning Partnership for parents and children to work together on math and literacy. The centers also had computers for parents without online access at home.
“I used it on a regular basis,” said Bridgette Mack, who went to the Terrell center with her grandson. “I was really upset when they told me it got closed.”