Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Role of Parent Coordinators - by Jacob Morris

Conceptualizing the Optimum Role & Skill Sets of Parent Coordinators in our Education System’s New Ecology of Power
by Jacob Morris
This is an exploratory concept paper - not a training manual. Ultimately how to respond to common problems that arise (a casebook approach) must become part of the training curriculum for Parent Coordinators. For now, let us recognize that the people in these new positions have no power. Influence and effectiveness is the most we can hope for. If we can achieve that, we’ll know we did something right. The key for them being perceived as successful in a system of competing interests and egos, is prompt, positive feedback from the constituency they are being paid to serve - Parents and their Children.
So how do you develop respect for yourself and your new profession from the other players in the Power Ecology of a school community? Integrity and competence are critical to credibility, and innovative diplomatic problem solving must be valued in the nature of communication. Smooth, calm, non-adversarial persistence is essential, and follow though is necessary. A new profession (Parent Coordinator) must be developed by those responsible for productive involvement. Towards that objective, multiple systems and instruments of evaluating satisfaction, responsiveness, and optimum problem-solving should be implemented.
Inventing a new profession is not easy, so don’t expect perfection the first year. If we get continuing improvement we’ll know we’re on the right track.
It is necessary to take a systems approach to solve this problem. The new Coordinators will not interact in isolation. An understanding must be developed as to who the people are that they will need to deal with to solve problems. Principals must be trained to utilize them productively - almost in effect as their ambassadors to the parents, as well as the point of first contact with the school system. Customer service representative is another very valid analogy.
Let’s start with a problem - when you get right down to it, a perception of unfairness or injustice underlies passionate dissatisfaction with any institution or organization. If a Parent feels their child has been unjustly treated, that motivates them to do something about it. Subsequently, if the system is unresponsive, and they feel they’ve been rolled over by the weight of organizational inertia, then we have the present state of affairs - widespread alienation. The Parent Coordinator positions were created precisely to enhance responsiveness and help deal with organizational gridlock within our school system.
It’s been said before, but along with the establishment of the new positions, a fervent commitment must be communicated by the new leaders of our school system for individual schools, clusters, and regional districts as well as the entire system to become learning organizations. What does it mean to become a Learning Organization? Several years ago, I developed a Tool for Under- standing that can be very useful for the leaders of organizations to not just solve the symptoms of problems but to prevent them from arising in the first place. It’s called “Problem Prevention through Encounter Analysis.” This method can be paraphrased as “The Solution is in the Problem.” As the hoped for point of first contact (encounter) with the school, the development and use of an intake processing form will enable us to take an systemic approach for leadership to understand better the nature of the problems that parents feel the need to come to school to deal with. Let’s us emphasis here the deep truth that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
There are various scenarios that can be described when a parent arrives at the school to deal with a problem that has arisen with their child. Among these potential problems are:

1) Referral to special education or resource room
2) A fight or an attack on or by the child
3) A suspension (with or without due process)
4) A failing grade and/or homework problems
5) Problems or questions about admission to the next level of school
6) Transfer to another school or tutoring available under NCLB
7) The child being retained in grade (left back)
8) College admission and scholarship information
9) Push-out of the child to a GED program
10) Attendance and/or cutting
11) Possible malfeasance or arbitrary and capricious behavior within the PTA
The above list is inherently incomplete, but in looking it over I am confident that readers in leadership positions will begin to see an awareness of systemic solutions emerging through insightful description and categorization of problems. At it’s root communication is the key to prevention. A transparent school web-site and voice mail system would do much to alleviate the perception and reality of unresponsiveness that the school system is known for. Wouldn’t that be a resource for all constituencies and make everyone’s lives easier?
Even after the implementation of the school web-site and the closing of the “digital divide” quite a few problems will remain that can only be solved through a personal meeting at the school.
Let us trace the steps of a typical parent with a typical problem from our list to see what understandings we can derive.
The child brings home a failing report card, because the child had the flu for ten days.
Three of the child’s teachers gave a failing grade for that marking period on the child’s report card. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual circumstance, sooner or later every child gets sick. For us, the question arises why do some of the teachers fail the child and yet other teachers understand and do not? Right there we identify a systemic issue. Of course inconsistencies in policy lead immediately to a perception of injustice.
So now we have a parent who is justifiably upset, but when the parent calls the school administration, some how, no one returns the parent’s phone call, (perhaps because of language or other reasons the parent is not able to articulate clearly what underlies their unhappiness). Should not the parent coordinator have a role in helping the parent articulate and communicate the essence of their dissatisfaction to the school administration? But we digress, let’s continue with the scenario. Since the school, for whatever reason, has failed to be responsive within a reasonable time frame in returning the parent’s phone call, Murphy’s Law continues to operate. The justifiably upset parent then comes to the school and meets the school security guards who proceed to treat the parent, who is already upset, in an adversarial manner because they have not been trained to be aware of “The Parent Involvement Policy.” In essence this is an awareness and respect for the fact that “every parent has an integral role in their child’s education.” They wind up blocking the parent from entrance to the school - a totally unsatisfactory result. At present the great majority of schools have no mechanism or waiting area for a parent with a justifiable concern, except perhaps outside the principal’s office which you can’t get to without an appointment. Talk about frustration! It is very conceivable that right there a child’s future has been destroyed. Ask yourself - how it feels to the child to see his or her parent so profoundly disrespected!
Just a description of the scenario gives us insight into answers and solutions. Let’s start with the report card and its inconsistent use by the child’s teachers. If you are the parent coordinator, how do you deal with it, when it is bought to you by the parent?
A systemic solution would be for all teachers to know that the education system’s policy is to give a medical incomplete in the event of illness or accident (broken hand, etc.).
Until the time that the system communicates that uniform policy to its teachers and administrators, the parent coordinator’s job in facilitating a solution to the above problem becomes much more difficult. Let’s keep in mind here that the primary mission of the school is the satisfactory academic improvement of the child. In the event that there are involuntary medical problems, the school’s response should be to remediate, not to punish. Failing a child under these circumstances is punitive and destroys motivation.
The parent coordinator would then bring this problem to the attention of the principal who, in lieu of a system wide policy, could establish a school wide policy allowing the use of medical incomplete as a grade on the report card. If not, then hopefully the principal would see the negative ramifications of inconsistencies in grading. He would have to delegate to his respective APs and department chairs the solving of this problem. Of course this approach is much more time consuming for the organization because then the school must deal with each individual circumstance on a case by case basis. This eats up a tremendous amount of managerial time. Let’s not forget that on an individual basis, if the teacher refuses to change the grade then either the child is screwed or the child must be transferred out of that teacher’s class. This leads straight to huge scheduling problems which must be coordinated with the guidance office; obviously a lot of follow-through attention would be demanded of the parent coordinator. Its easy to see that a simple policy change is a lot easier for all concerned. This brings us right back around to the concept of a learning organization - what do we learn how- and how do we learn what?
There are universal principles in implementing continuous organizational quality service improvement:
1) Focus on the student
2) Streamline the process and conception of solutions
3) Leaders and administrators must value system-wide quality improvement
4) The vision of the school must be compelling and exciting
5) Use team work and partnerships to solve problems - each person can be a part
of the solution
6) Invest in creating a learning organization
7) Understand that a few big things done right, is better than a lot of small things done halfway (strategic understanding)
Remember; here are many ways to feel pressured and do things wrong.
1) Be defensive
2) Blame others
3) Go for the quick fix
4) Demand uncritical allegiance
5) Ignore suggestions for improvement
6) Insist everything be an immediate priority
7) Keep your vision a secret (if you have one)
8) Become incapable of delegating responsibility
9) Be rude, abrupt, and insulting ( or bury people under meaningless verbiage).
Today, more than ever, it is the people in our schools who will determine what quality improvement will mean. Appreciation of quality and a search for excellence and discovery breeds a respect for others which improves us all. Quality improvement is something you practice with others - not to them. These principles are as appropriate at home as they are at school or any work place. More than a type of management practice, it becomes an underlying value for a better way of life for all of us; especially if we desire to fully develop the potential of our children!
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