San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten listens to parent presentations at Burbank Elementary. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

When Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Local Control Funding Formula into law in 2013, parent input was a big part of the deal. He and state leaders wanted to provide districts with more funding for low-income, foster and homeless youth and greater flexibility to spend state funds. In exchange, districts would be held to higher accountability and transparency standards.

Accompanying the new legislation was a requirement that each district create a plan to make sure it worked. State leaders designed the guidance for the Local Control & Accountability Plan to bring parents, educators and the community together to create measurable actions and services that aligned with state and local priorities, to increase academic achievement. When parents are engaged, not only does academic achievement go up but so does buy-in and eventually, enrollment.

But five years into the new law, family and community engagement has actually gone down in San Diego Unified, particularly around the review and revision of the district’s LCAP.

When the process began, there were a lot of opportunities for parents to participate. The district invited parents, staff and community members to engage in discussions around district priorities and how they aligned with state priorities. District leaders recruited administrators, central office staff, parents, community organizations and representatives from every department in the district to create an LCAP planning team. The initial process attracted statewide attention.

I am a parent volunteer and chair an advisory council for the district. Parent engagement and helping parents advocate for their children’s education has long been a focus of mine. I was part of the LCAP planning team and served as a representative for my neighborhood schools. We reviewed data and feedback from stakeholders, made suggestions and served as intermediaries for information and feedback.

Initially, the planning team met quarterly until meetings ended in May 2017. Since then, opportunities for parent and community engagement around the LCAP have decreased. Some participants questioned the effectiveness of the planning team.

“At the beginning, there were a lot of meetings that didn’t really collect info from parents and the community. Also, the meetings run by the district were more about controlling the conversation,” said Amy Redding, a parent who formerly served as DAC chair and is the current chair of Kearny Neighborhood Schools.

During the 2016-17 school year, district staff gave 14 updates on LCAP goals, actions and services at board meetings. Advisory groups were given copies of the annual update to provide feedback. The following year, there were half as many and no annual update was provided for feedback. Area superintendents were instructed to share the LCAP presentations at cluster meetings and gather input and feedback. Without a designated planning team and an LCAP coordinator, organizing presentations and gathering feedback at advisory meetings fell to the chairs and their district liaisons. Engagement is dependent on parents showing up to make public comment at weekly Board of Education meetings, attending parent advisory council meetings or cluster meetings, and participating in an online budget priority survey to meet the state’s parent engagement requirements. In other words, parents had to educate themselves on the LCAP and seek out information in order to provide feedback. This reduced the amount of family and community engagement around district priorities and how state and federal funding are used to support those priorities.

Also in 2016, the district created the Family and Community Engagement department, based on a goal from an earlier LCAP. It set a goal to increase feedback from parents, families and communities during the 2017-18 school year, stating “additional stakeholder outreach on the LCAP will be coordinated through Family and Community Engagement in conjunction with the area superintendents, instructional team and central office in an effort to ensure that stakeholders throughout the district are aware of the LCAP and how the district is implementing the Goals, Actions, and Services.”

The district first offered the CalSchools Parent Survey in 2017 to gauge “parent opportunities for input and participation.” These surveys were to help school sites create their own family engagement plans. During that initial year, the return rate for the survey was 35 percent. During the second year, the return rate was 27 percent. According to published results, only 23 percent of fifth grade parents agreed or strongly agreed that the school offered opportunities for “meaningful participation.” For ninth grade parents, only 12 percent felt the same.

Due to budget issues, the district disbanded the Family and Community Engagement department in June, before it was able to do any LCAP outreach. Many of the proposed actions and services under the LCAP’s Family and Community Engagement goal for that year were not accomplished. Family engagement plans were not created, as results on the parent surveys were not widely released. Only a few school sites shared survey results with their parent groups. A plan to hold parent workshops to inform and educate parents on the LCAP was also not achieved. Other goals for the year were vague and spoke of providing opportunities but didn’t list specific measurables.

“When we started this, we knew parent engagement was down,” said Pamela King, program manager for the district’s family engagement, a role she took on after the department was eliminated. Moving forward, she said she hopes to give parents more opportunities to be engaged. “When parents see themselves in the LCAP, they know that their voices matter,” she said.

A recent study from the Opportunity Institute found that on certain issues, “most districts have not risen to the challenge of facilitating new, more meaningful and effective ways to partner with local stakeholders” when it came to implementation of LCFF and its accountability piece. The authors noted the need for “authentic and sustained effort to engage” stakeholders, particularly in communities underrepresented in school and district-level decision-making. Underrepresented stakeholders tend to be people of color, those in poverty or recent immigrants and/or refugees.

For a school district with nearly 106,000 students, engaging families, parents and community members can be a challenge. Our own parent advisory committee struggles with a 36 percent attendance rate, so I can attest to that.

The focus on parent engagement is not new. Parent involvement is one of the state’s education priorities, with an emphasis on seeking parent input in decision-making and promoting parent participation in programs. Parent engagement currently appears as a local priority on the California School Dashboard, the state’s online tool for school and district accountability. Federal funding also puts a focus on parent engagement. Every school that gets Title I funding has a portion that can only be used on parent involvement. New guidance from the feds will require districts provide explanations in addition to those in their LCAPs as to how they are engaging parents.

According to the California Department of Education, local school districts are “required to consult with the parent advisory committee, the English learner parent advisory committee, as applicable, as well as parents, students, teachers, principals, administrators, other school personnel, local bargaining units, and the local community” in development of both the LCAP and the annual update. The annual update shows what was done, what wasn’t done and what changes have been made.

“Each community is unique and therefore needs a different plan for outreach,” said Redding, who now focuses on the Kearny cluster, its high school and the 12 schools that feed into it. “I feel advocating from the neighborhood school model has been more effective. I can see our advocacy in the LCAP.” King agrees that the cluster model is a good one, because each neighborhood is so diverse. “We are planning on engaging the clusters and working with area superintendents, making sure we’re there to offer strategies, workshops, whatever they need,” she said.

I was asked to be part of a dialogue around the LCAP in fall 2017. The invitation didn’t come from the school district, it came from the nonprofit SAY San Diego. The organization serves low-income families in City Heights and wanted to have a dialogue around the LCAP. It invited district leaders to listen to the needs of parents and families with the goal of bringing the community’s voice into the LCAP process. Its efforts began in 2016 with the Crawford High School community, expanded into the Hoover community last year and has already begun this school year. Feedback collected at its joint spring workshop made it into the 2018-19 LCAP. The group’s effort was the only example of community input listed under the stakeholder feedback section.

“That grew out of the community,” Redding said, “and now, San Diego Unified is responsive to their needs by providing support, not content, for their workshop and listening to the input they provide.”

San Diego Unified has not established a community or cluster-based engagement model for the LCAP, despite those successes.

Parent voice in education is important. Including parents in the process helps foster buy-in, leads to increased academic achievement for all children and lets parents shape the educational priorities for their children. It is an importance reinforced by Brown, who signed AB 2878 into law at the end of September. The legislation puts family engagement on the state priority list, imposing a “state-mandated local program” for family engagement. In other words, each district must have a plan in place for engaging families and the broader community. San Diego Unified has yet to put a plan up for discussion.

San Diego Unified’s current plan for engaging families and the community around the LCAP is not enough.

Educating parents about the LCAP requires more than just a user-friendly version available online. It requires ongoing conversations around the district’s actions and services in each school and community. When parents, families and the community are engaged around the decisions impacting students, achievement goes up. If budget woes are stretching district staff too thin to accomplish the goal of “meaningful engagement and participation,” perhaps it’s time to ask for help from the county or the state. Looking ahead, with a $41 million deficit, the district may need all the help it can get.

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