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Picture of Rudy Crew
Rudy Crew
Recently named the 2008 National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, Dr. Rudy Crew is Superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS), the nation’s fourth-largest school district. During his 25 years as an educator, he has served as a teacher, principal, and superintendent, including 5 years as chancellor of the New York City Public Schools. He has also taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, California State University, and Lesley University, and has served as director of district reform initiatives at the Stupski Foundation and as executive director of the Institute for K–12 Leadership. Dr. Crew has received many awards, including the NAACP Educational Leadership Award, the Arthur Ashe Leadership Award, the Spirit of Excellence Award from Minority Development & Empowerment, Inc., and the Florida Association of Partners in Education Superintendent’s Award. He recently authored the book Only Connect, reviewed on page 19 of this issue. His work to close the student achievement gap in Miami-Dade County—recognized as a Broad Prize for Urban Education finalist in 2006 and 2007—includes the design and implementation of M-DCPS’s Parent Academy, School Improvement Zone, and Secondary School Initiative; after school, Saturday, and summer programs; literacy campaigns; and an extended school day and school year.

In your book, Only Connect, you talk about your vision of enabling all parents to become Demand Parents—that is, parents who “demand things from their schools because they understand that they are indeed owed something and it is their responsibility to get it for their children.” What is the role of the school district in helping parents become Demand Parents and in facilitating family involvement?

We can’t meet the interests of the school district without meeting the interests of the parents. In any other market, success depends upon people having a relationship with your product. We need more opportunities for parents and community members to encounter our institutional “product” in positive and reinforcing ways. To do this, we need to create a wider pathway and a more expansive menu of opportunities for parents. Currently, there is a very narrow pathway for the parent–school relationship, which does not invite all the different kinds of conversations that are needed and does not ask parents to operate in any actionable way with schools. We need a different architecture for this relationship, which must evolve as children and families evolve and change.

If we want parents to take action, we need to help build their knowledge about education and the importance of family involvement. Parents will get their kids to SAT tests if they know they’re important and fit into the picture of kids going to college. But many parents, particularly in urban communities and very rural communities, don’t have this knowledge. In Miami, one of the ways we are building knowledge is through the Parent Academy, which provides workshops, classes, events, and other opportunities to help parents learn about how to support their children’s education.

Who should be responsible and accountable for ensuring that families are involved?

Family involvement requires a cadence, in which parents and schools and kids all get into the rhythm of what it means to be an engaged learner, an engaged parent, and a school that rolls out a road for them to march on. I see the responsibility for this in thirds. Parents and the community have to do their third, the principal and teachers have to do their third, and kids need to do their third. If district and school site staff do not understand the value of parent engagement and its connection to student achievement, they will not do the work.

I expect principals to be entrepreneurs in creating a menu of options for the ways in which we communicate with parents. Schools will have different portfolios of options for parent involvement, depending upon the parents, their needs, the school’s history and traditions, and so forth. At each school, there need to be multiple ways, in addition to joining the PTA, in which parents can engage in the education process.

I also expect principals to be accountable for the results of the children at the school in a way that causes parents to meet them a third of the way, because principals and teachers can’t walk the full mile on their own. For their part, parents should monitor their children’s efforts and provide their children with opportunities to gain access to the knowledge and skills that they need to feel confident as learners.

How will you know if the district’s efforts to engage families are successful? What role should evaluation and assessment play?

I see this largely as an issue of customer satisfaction. The question of the relationship between parents and schools is important: Do parents experience a high value in and come back for what you are offering them? In M-DCPS, we collect parent feedback from questionnaires, and we then create a school-by-school summary report. My administrative team and I also regularly assess each school on a number of indicators. In addition to traditional indicators—such as the number of children who miss between 6 and 16 days of school in a given grading period and the number of children who have left the school and not returned—we’re going to start looking at a set of other indicators about the mental health of and support for students. These indicators include the number of contacts that have been made with students’ homes and parents.

Evaluation plays another important role: It helps parents to understand and support their children’s educational development. We already use data to provide parents with meaningful feedback about their children’s academic achievement via report cards. This data helps inform them about their children’s progress and needs. Now, we’re beginning to shape additional indicators to give parents a sense of their children’s broader development and what more may be needed at home to support that development. We want to create a conversation with parents about their children’s social and behavioral development and occupational knowledge and skills, because school isn’t just about whether you have passed the right test, but also about whether you have a blend of the values that will make you an appealing member of a democracy and a work environment.

What other kinds of evaluation data would you like to have to inform and build your family involvement efforts?

First, it would be helpful to know more about parents’ “consumer habits” and their use of schools. I’d like to ask them: What’s the proximity from your home to your school? Do you know the principal of your child’s school? How many hours do you, over the year, have a conversation with somebody in the school?

Secondly, through a comprehensive 2-year study of the Parent Academy, we’ve been able to determine whether or not parents view our menu of outreach and opportunities favorably. As educators, we need to market-test our “product” very often with our customers. We have data that suggests whether and how parents get involved in their children’s education, and we ask: “What do you feel about what you’re doing with us?” We talk to parents to figure out whether our efforts make sense to them and whether they are helpful. For example, does the “Back to School Night” hold any meaning for them? We have an outcomes-driven conversation, and to do this, we gather good research and good feedback from our parents.

What do you think it will take to build a more sustained and systemic commitment to family engagement in school districts across the country?

It’s going to take some incentives, largely from the government. For one thing, there should be incentives for greater collaboration among school systems, universities, businesses, social service agencies, and others. To date, we have not built those networks, and we need incentives to be more intentional about doing so.

One way of creating these incentives is financial support. Currently, school districts are funded based on demographics, such as enrollment and the number of students whose first language is not English. I would like to see a new formula that gives some weight to those things but also recognizes the dollar value of what school districts are doing and how they are doing it. In this equation, greater federal support would go to districts that are offering a broader menu of opportunities for family engagement and that are more efficiently serving parent populations throughout their communities.

Greater support would also go to districts that are collaborating with more partners. For example, does your network have a college or university that is providing you with quantitative and qualitative data to help you assess new and innovative strategies? Is your municipal government involved?

There should also be incentives to test and elevate new models that create and accelerate innovative pathways for parent engagement. What we’re doing in Miami right now is birthing a new on-the-ground model for education and family involvement. We need more live births like this one in order to examine which models have the greatest promise for providing deeper, wider, and more robust pathways to involvement for parents.

Suzanne Bouffard, Ph.D., Project Manager, HFRP

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