Sunny Chico (Photo by Jennifer Shaffer Photography/Photo by Jennifer Shaffer Photography)

Earlier this year, a D.C. government agency paid a Chicago consulting firm $89,995 to participate in a one-day parent-engagement conference. The agency used D.C. tax dollars to pay the fee — which included a half-hour keynote speech, three 45-minute parent workshops and hundreds of copies of parenting books to be given to conference attendees — though other speakers that day volunteered.

As The Washington Post has reported, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education hired the firm without soliciting or considering other bids. The agency selected SPC Consulting based on a recommendation by Chief of Staff Jose Alvarez, a top agency official who knew the firm and its founder from a previous job in Chicago.

The founder and head of SPC Consulting is Sunny Chico, a former U.S. Education Department official who contracts with school systems. She is married to lobbyist Gery Chico, who ran for Chicago mayor in 2011 and serves as chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education.

Chico answered questions by e-mail about her firm; its parent-engagement program, known as “YOU: Your Child’s First Teacher”; and her thoughts, generally, on the state of public education. Her responses are reproduced below.

What do you think is the most important aspect of public education today?

SPC Educational Solutions (SPC) was created to help all forms of education: public, private and home schooling at all levels. The most important aspect of education is parental involvement. Parents are the key to academic success. Parents are a child’s first teacher and schools succeed when parents are effectively engaged.

SPC helps to prepare children to succeed in the world. The need for literacy and critical thinking skills has never been more important. Children need to graduate with the ability to pursue sustainable livelihoods. If they can’t sustain themselves and their families, we can’t expect our country to move forward as a global leader. In order to achieve that level of rigor in the classroom, the foundation of learning must be laid at home.

What is the mission of SPC Consulting?

SPC Educational Solutions’ mission is to be an innovative leader in shaping education with an unparalleled commitment to improving the lives of children and families within the diversity of their community.

What is the mission of the YOU Program — the combination of workshops and books — that you offer schools and school districts?

The YOU Program works to advance the lives of families and communities by promoting school success one parent at a time. Program books give parents tools and strategies to support their child in a holistic way, taking into account all of their child’s needs. Program workshops bring parents together to share strategies, strengthen their support networks within the school and to motivate each other to strive for their child’s success. Program training workshops help education professionals to understand what effective parent engagement is and to put in place the practices that decades of research have shown to be most effective.

What experience and qualifications do you bring to this work?

I have spent more than thirty-five years in education as a special education teacher, principal and collegiate executive director. In government I held roles as the assistant for education to Illinois’ lieutenant governor and the Midwest regional secretary of education for the U.S. Department of Education.

As part of my civic and community involvement I serve on the Board of the Illinois Literacy Foundation and the Board of Mujeres: Latinas En Acción. I co-founded the Penedo Charitable Organization to help mentor young women throughout their education, offering scholarships to colleges or universities of their choice.

I have been honored as the 2010 Latina Professional of Year Award by the Chicago Latino Network, the 2001 YWCA Women of Distinction Award and I was also named the 2013 Mujer Destacada en Educación by La Raza. More importantly, however, I am a mother. I understand challenges parents face today and have had to overcome many of them myself. We are all in this together, and I want every parent to realize how much they have to give, not just to their child, but to each other.

What can parents, teachers and school systems do better to improve public education?

Schools and parents are working very hard, every day, for our students and children, but too often they’re working at cross-purposes. There needs to be a model that allows schools and parents to speak a single language of student success. Parents should be given the resources to support their child’s education and schools and teachers can be given the tools and strategies to best communicate with and engage parents in their community. If schools invest in themselves, invest in their families, and invest in their communities, they will be doing more for their students’ achievement than any single curriculum could ever do.

Have you provided the YOU Program to any other school districts outside of Chicago?

We have implemented our program in California, Florida, Ohio, D.C. and Illinois.

How much time did you and your employees spend preparing for the 2013 D.C. Parent and Family Engagement Summit, and what did that preparation entail?

Once SPC was chosen, our team of six full-time employees spent 24 business days preparing for the YOU: Your Child’s First Teacher Program delivery. The preparation included evaluating conference needs, advising on event planning logistics, tailoring program information for delivery, as well as designing and manufacturing event giveaways. All of the deliverables were prepared in two languages, both English and Spanish, to meet the Washington D.C. community needs. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) shares SPC’s passion for helping area parents.

Other keynote speakers for similar parent engagement events, both in D.C. and in the city’s suburbs, have provided their services for free. Individuals and organizations who have provided multiple workshops at one-day parent engagement events in the D.C. area have charged anywhere from nothing to $8,000, and some of them, like you, provided hundreds of copies of books for that price. How did you come to be involved in the D.C. event, and why did your program cost the city $90,000?

SPC came to be involved with the OSSE Parent Conference through Jose Alvarez, who had worked in Chicago Public Schools when SPC delivered the initial YOU Program several years ago. OSSE staff members asked SPC to submit a proposal for OSSE to see if we could help the District with parent engagement. The proposal was created using the current pricing SPC uses for all proposals across the country.

Once retained, OSSE was unsure if the scheduled speaker could make it. SPC included in its contract if they gave SPC notice by August 15th, I would speak at the conference at no additional charge. In the end, their scheduled speaker couldn’t make it and I gave the keynote address at no additional cost to OSSE.

SPC was contracted to provide book sets for 500 parents and Parent Workshops for 300 of those parents. SPC is very proud of the program that was delivered and believes the OSSE Parent & Family Engagement Summit showed a high level of care and commitment to D.C. families.