Parents and teachers listen to San Diego Unified board trustee Mike McQuary at a 2018 town hall meeting organized by the teacher’s union at Ocean Beach Elementary School. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Parents and teachers listen to San Diego Unified board trustee Mike McQuary at a 2018 town hall meeting organized by the teacher’s union at Ocean Beach Elementary School. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

San Diego Unified School District has long provided little more than lip service to meaningful parent engagement. It provides parents recommendations on “High Impact Home Strategies” geared to elementary school children and offers classes to learn such topics as computer basics, internet safety and navigating preparation for college. And it finally has a robust family engagement website that helps parents find these resources.

These are all examples, however, of how the district, perceiving its role as educator, talks at parents. The district does not treat parents as true partners in their children’s education because it largely ignores them and leaves them out of meaningful decision-making.

In theory, parents have more robust engagement opportunities in their school site council, site governance team or English-learner advisory council. But in reality, these groups are often led by principals who have met separately with school staff to make decisions and merely present the results to the committees for rubber stamping.

There are districtwide opportunities for parent engagement in a number of advisory committees, several of which are mandated by federal or state law: the District Advisory Council for Compensatory Education Programs, the English Learner District Advisory Committee, the Community Advisory Committee for Students with Disabilities, the District Advisory Committee for Gifted and Talented Education, the Calendar Committee, etc. The district, however, routinely ignores recommendations from these committees, and instead puts forward “staff recommendations,” which the school board trustees approve with minimal, if any, discussion.

When a Local Control and Accountability Plan, or LCAP — a guiding document that links spending and metrics to a school districts goals — became mandated by state law in 2013, parent leaders were hopeful because “parent involvement” is one of eight indicators school districts must addressed. But the actions of San Diego Unified leaders have been disillusioning.

In fact, San Diego Unified and its leadership have actually withdrawn from more meaningful parent engagement over the ensuing years. The superintendent used to meet quarterly with the parent leaders of the districtwide advisory groups to engage in meaningful conversations, but that was discontinued. Now parent leaders are treated as the occasional “focus group” by a district staff member to provide “feedback” on decisions that are actually made out of public view. The district used to provide parents the opportunity to become involved in a districtwide LCAP planning team, but that was disbanded. Even presentations on the LCAP to advisory committees for feedback have been drastically reduced.

Similarly, the school board eliminated non-agenda public comment from the beginning of its meetings, forcing students and parents to wait hours until the end to allow them one to three minutes to address district leaders.

As a result of these and other actions, parents feel that San Diego Unified provides them little to no authentic engagement in decision-making. This is even more evident now.

The sudden closure of the schools as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting switch to distance learning has created a giant shift in the role of parents. Unfortunately, this massive increase in parental involvement has not translated into any real change in the district’s standard operating procedure toward parents.

In the response to distance learning, the district created a Parents as Partners Task Force, but of the 22 members of this task force, only two are parents. The district negotiated with the teachers’ union to provide teachers wide flexibility in creating plans for distance learning, but by not engaging students and parents in the decisions, the district failed to recognize the huge impacts to students and their families.

By granting teachers complete autonomy in choosing online tools and programs, many families were forced to navigate multiple log-ins, passwords and accounts. And with a teacher’s workday requirement reduced to four hours, no requirements for formalized lesson plans, and no obligation to provide formal instruction, parents were essentially thrust into the job of co-teacher for their school-age children while simultaneously caring for younger siblings as well as working full-time jobs.

There is no question that the coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge and created hardship for all stakeholders in the district. Now more than ever it’s important for San Diego Unified to recognize that meaningful parent engagement is more than a box to check off, #BetterSD eblasts or encouraging words during Facebook Live with the superintendent: it’s working with parents, not just talking at them.

The district will be presenting a plan for next school year to the school board on June 16 and is currently in the process of deciding what instruction will look like: Will there be a continuation of distance learning, under what conditions will schools reopen and who will choose what to fund and how to close the district budget shortfall in the absence of the normally required LCAP? For any of the decisions to be successful, the district cannot continue to ignore their most important stakeholders: students and their parents.

Parents as “co-teachers” during distance learning has given them insight into what works — or doesn’t — in distance learning, and parents will decide under what conditions they feel safe having their children return to the classroom. San Diego Unified needs to stop making the important decisions behind closed doors, followed by dog and pony show presentations that don’t allow for meaningful parent engagement in decisions. Students’ academic futures are at risk. The district needs to give students and parents a seat at the table where the decisions are made.

Tamara Hurley is a parent of two San Diego Unified graduates and a former parent representative on multiple school site councils, site governance teams, parent-teacher organization boards and district advisory committees.

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