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Reach Out to Inform Parents
Parental choice is the core of NCLB's supplemental educational services provision. The right to choose among educational supports for their child offers parents a powerful voice and directly involves them in some of the most important experiences in their child's life. Informing parents of their SES options starts that process. Ensuring that parents understand the options and can act on them is essential to fulfilling the intent of NCLB.
Parents are their child's first and most important teachers, and they have a vital interest in their child's educational progress. Some are able to hire a tutor when their child is falling behind or struggling. Prior to NCLB, low-income parents rarely had this option. Now these parents have the opportunity to select tutorial help for their child.
To do so, they need information: What services are available? Who will provide the services? How do I enroll my child? Districts are responsible for anticipating and answering these and other questions about SES. To help parents make an informed choice, they must convey the information clearly and fully. Although written communication with parents needs to meet legal requirements, the language should also be readily accessible to a range of parents with differing education and language backgrounds themselves. Any communication should present a straightforward and encouraging perspective about NCLB supplemental educational services.
Communicate Options ClearlyTo select a provider, parents must first understand the opportunity provided under the SES provisions. Although written communication alone rarely suffices, sending a letter to parents letting them know about their child's eligibility for SES services is an important first step. San Diego mailed a letter home to the parents of every SES-eligible student. The straightforward letter contains seven basic components, which should be included in any SES parent-notification letter:
- clarification of NCLB supplemental educational services,
- explanation of how students become eligible for them,
- notice that the services are free,
- where to return an accompanying application,
- the district's timeline for enrolling,
- the district's process for notifying parents about enrollment dates and start dates, and
- who to call with questions.
Figure 9. Questions for Providers*
Either in the letter itself or in an accompanying publication, the district must include information about the providers that are offering services in the district and how to contact them. Because the services are free to eligible students, parents need not know the costs. But in choosing a provider, they will need to weigh cost- related information, such as how many sessions their child could have with each provider, how many hours per session, and how many other children will be taught at the same time. The district should include this kind of information in its communication to parents.
Along with its letter, San Diego sent a list of SES providers and a parent application form that offers brief descriptions of each service provider. Using the application enables a parent to enroll his or her child and select a provider in one step (see figure 8).
Los Angeles also mailed a basic informational letter home to the parents of SES-eligible students. With the letter was enclosed a provider selection brochure giving parents very clear, comparable information about each of the 26 providers that offer services in Los Angeles. The district wanted to give parents fair and parallel information about providers, whether they were a large corporation or a small community- or faith-based organization. For that reason, each provider was allocated one page in the brochure and was given specific guidelines and template instructions for describing its program: In developing its description, the provider was asked to address ten questions about its services and to include contact information. (Figure 9 identifies key provider information parents need in order to make a good SES choice for their child.) The brochure included fall and spring deadlines, a notice that the brochure was available in five languages in addition to English and Spanish, and an "official request form" that parents were encouraged to use to select a provider and to sign up an eligible child for services. A self-addressed envelope was included so parents could just drop the application in a mailbox. By making the return process easy and uncomplicated, Los Angeles hoped to persuade parents to take advantage of this new opportunity for their children. Los Angeles also sent reminder mailings designed to be eye-catching, such as the flyer in figure 10, which announces information available at the school site. The district's Web site includes, in both English and Spanish, background information on SES along with all provider descriptions from the brochure.
All of the districts in the study found that getting basic information to all parents of SES-eligible students was a challenge. Having accurate and up-to-date addresses in the district's student database is essential to avoid wasting time and postage.
Enlist Schools in a Campaign to Reach Parents
Generally speaking, parents' most trusted connections to their school district are at their child's school, with the principal or classroom teachers. As required by NCLB provisions, Toledo initially sent a letter to parents of SES-eligible students informing them of the law and encouraging them to request supplemental services for their children. But low response to this mailing caused Toledo's Title I leaders to consider that the district might have more success getting parents' attention by engaging schools in a collaborative effort to get the SES message out. Anticipating an 80 percent turnout for the November 2003 parent-teacher conferences-a number consistent with the district's past attendance patterns-Toledo's NCLB facilitator identified the conferences as a key opportunity to reach parents of SES-eligible students. She met with principals and teachers during regular staff meetings to lay out the plan: The district's NCLB staff would prepare classroom packets that included an individually addressed letter and a provider-description brochure for parents of SES-eligible students. Classroom teachers would hand these packets to parents during the conferences, explain the opportunity, and encourage them to request services for their children. Successful implementation of that plan proved a turning point for Toledo's SES participation.
Toledo's Title I leaders also kept schools informed about the numbers of their students enrolled in SES and urged teachers to contact parents of students not yet enrolled. The focused and consistent message to school staffs began to persuade them of the importance of SES in their overall school improvement efforts. Even principals and teachers who might initially have been skeptical about the value of SES came to embrace it as an essential opportunity for all of their eligible students. That enthusiasm revealed itself as they communicated with parents about taking advantage of the opportunity. Involving the principals and teachers at targeted schools in this team effort has resulted in many more children receiving the extra academic support that is rightfully theirs (see figure 11).
Figure 10. Los Angeles Flyer
Figure 11. Toledo School Site Instructions
In Los Angeles, a similar campaign was initiated after an extensive mailing to parents yielded disheartening returns. Acknowledging that mail from "the district" might not grab parents' attention, district leaders held strategy meetings with principals and Title I coordinators from the 104 identified "program improvement" schools. Together, they undertook an information campaign to get parents' attention and encourage them to return the request form in the booklet they had received. In addition, staff prepared SES supply boxes for each school. The boxes contained extra provider selection booklets in English, Spanish, and five other languages; mailing labels for all eligible students; a CD listing all of the eligible students; and informational flyers in multiple languages to be sent home with eligible students. Schools became local information centers and principals and teachers communicated with parents about SES opportunities by holding parent meetings, greeting parents when they brought their children to school or picked them up, and by calling eligible parents to urge them to enroll their children in supplemental services.
Expand Communication Channels
The districts in this study have discovered through many attempts that merely notifying parents by letter, as called for in NCLB guidelines, is insufficient. Because of the low return from their initial mail campaigns, every district in the study started seeking other methods and media to let parents know about SES opportunities. As noted above, connecting with parents through their children's schools is a practical strategy for informing them of their options. The broader school community offers other possibilities to connect with parents and let them know about their SES options. Parents can communicate the information through their informal networks-for example, as one mother tells another and she, in turn, tells yet another, the news spreads throughout the community. Natural gathering places like community centers, churches, health centers, and commercial shopping centers also lend themselves to serving as information and recruiting locations.
Other marketing strategies that districts have used include:
- articles and ads in local newspapers, especially in neighborhood and ethnic publications;
- press releases and news conferences;
- public service announcements on radio and television;
- flyers and posters (see figure 10, for example);
- interviews on radio and television;
- refrigerator magnets; and
- postcard reminders.
When effectively deployed, these strategies successfully accomplish six important communication goals:
- get parents' attention;
- inform them about their SES options;
- help them understand how to access their options;
- motivate parents to take action to exercise their options;
- encourage them to follow and communicate about their children's progress; and
- influence them to provide evaluative feedback regarding the impact and quality of the services their children receive.
Increase Community Involvement in Getting the Word Out
Using the natural informal communication networks of a community may be one of the most effective ways of getting information to parents about the NCLB supplemental educational services available to their children. With many people, word-of-mouth recommendations from credible people seem to be an effective way to sell an idea or a service.
For example, with the help of its very active Title I District Advisory Council, Rochester began to get the word out about SES opportunities through its existing parent information networks. Parents whose children were receiving NCLB supplemental educational services were asked to "spread the word" to other parents about the opportunities available. Parent liaisons at SES-eligible schools began calling parents and encouraging them to sign their children up for SES. The parents' marketing strategy worked: Many more eligible students began working with tutors and other providers.
The Rochester parents also suggested taking advantage of the district's popular regional parent outreach centers by using them as information and enrollment centers for SES. Having information about providers and enrollment forms available in these parent-friendly environments was another successful strategy for attracting and informing parents about the services their children were eligible to receive. Similarly, Forsyth's Transition Center has been successful in overcoming cultural and language barriers and has had similar results recruiting parents to select providers and enroll their children in supplemental services.
Working with respected community leaders and community- and faith-based organizations is another approach that several districts have used to encourage parents to take advantage of their new options. Community leaders and local grassroots organizations have well-established avenues into their communities and can generate a sense of urgency and importance about SES. Stressing the importance of parental choice as a newly available right for parents, community leaders can also emphasize parents' responsibility to use their opportunity to assist their children's academic progress.
Districts can also partner with any of a number of other organizations focused on improving education opportunities for children, in part, by getting relevant information to parents. To find out about specific organizations of this ilk, including each state's Parent Information Resource Center, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, and the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education, see appendix C: Resources.
Summary for Help Parents Make Informed Choices
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