Getting parents, community involved for student achievement

December 26, 2018

Public schools superintendents come and go but the community and its children stay put.

Status quo is not the goal of public education. Yet in many Connecticut cities, including New London, the numbers that reflect student achievement hardly seem to budge. Despite shining exceptions among recent high school graduates, parental and public frustration persists over low percentages of children achieving standard goals — an innovative magnet school program notwithstanding. Dr. Cynthia Ritchie, who took over the leadership of the city schools in July, recognizes that improving student achievement is Job One. 

The new superintendent appears to be one who speaks softly and wields a big box of tools. In a recent meeting with The Day Editorial Board, she and her central office “cabinet” demonstrated an impressive array of plans and strategies to deal with the city schools’ chronic low performance. Many are well underway. A key component, engaging parents and the community, starts in earnest next month.

As one of 33 state-designated Alliance Districts and one of only 10 state Opportunity Districts, New London performs poorly enough to remain closely tethered to the oversight of the state Department of Education and to get additional support with grants beyond the Educational Cost Sharing funds that go to all towns. Repeated experience shows, however, that money alone can’t make schools work better for children.

Ritchie began in July by developing a strategic plan linked to district and schoolwide improvement plans, which the New London Public Schools should have had long ago. Those blueprints are guiding action on everything from student achievement to overdue updating of the bookkeeping system. Ritchie is now about to tackle one of the building blocks of student success that is also one of the schools’ most intractable problems: getting parents involved and the community engaged.

A new public schools website, designed in-house, will launch in the spring. A “Parent University” will hold periodic workshops proposed and conducted by school employees on topics that can be of practical help to parents. The school system budget, which is being developed departmentally, rather than school-by-school, will be aired in a series of public sessions starting in January. Budgeting will have aims of efficiency and what Ritchie refers to as “coherence” for both school leaders and the community. A newsletter, “Our Schools at a Glance,” is planned to come out three times a year.

Suburban schools systems routinely use websites, emails, social media and newsletters to keep parents and the community aware and excited about progress. It sounds basic, but in a school system where many parents’ own school experience may have been discouraging or just utterly different in another country and another language, it’s far more complicated. 

Almost half of all New London students are Hispanic. Parents may not speak English. Translation into Spanish will take care of that for many families. Much harder to overcome is a culture of parents not knowing how to become part of their children’s schooling or not even realizing they have a role once the child gets on the bus.

Past administrations have tackled parent involvement problems at the school level and with districtwide community meals that have, we hope, prepped today’s parents for a new normal of freely visiting their children’s schools, communicating with teachers and volunteering in classrooms. With students from 40 towns attending the city’s magnet schools, not all parents are from New London. That offers an opportunity for both city residents and others to learn from shared events such as those the superintendent envisions.

By committing to an interdistrict magnet program, New London long ago declared its intention to end socioeconomic isolation in its schools and to improve student achievement and graduation rates to model levels. At her six-month mark as superintendent, Cynthia Ritchie is bringing new vision and an energized leadership team to the task. She is proposing leadership development for teachers by giving them new opportunities to educate parents and the community, and empowerment for parents who take advantage of the invitation to participate. 

It’s up to her and her team to translate adult engagement into children’s academic and developmental achievement. If they succeed, a missing element for success will be in place at last. Without it, status quo. 

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