Last month, lawmakers on the Colorado House and Senate education committees listened virtually to learn how the fall semester was going for schools, with a few teachers, superintendents and leaders from education groups dissecting the start of the year.
Outside of some words shared by the Colorado Parent Teacher Association during the eight-hour session, lawmakers didn’t hear from any parents, even as many have become much more directly engaged in their child’s education since the coronavirus shut schools down in the spring.
Earlier this month, Colorado State Board of Education members met virtually, with a stack of letters in hand submitted by Colorado parents through the nonprofit Transform Education Now. Rather than read them all into public record, Angela Maramba, director of state board relations, attempted to summarize the many different family experiences and needs the letters described.
Maramba later apologized to parents and noted that the letters will be read at the board’s November meeting, but the moment of disregard stuck with parents like Joanna Rosa-Saenz and Silvia Estala-Monreal, each of whom had penned a letter.
“They silenced us, and it was very disrespectful and hurtful because it takes a lot for someone to speak up,” Rosa-Saenz said.
Parents are as hands-on as they’ve ever been in education, particularly for students taking classes remotely. Yet some don’t believe that school leaders and elected officials, including lawmakers and State Board of Education members, are giving them a loud enough voice as they meet to try to understand how school is playing out for students across districts. Their conversations don’t amplify the experiences of people from diverse communities, a longtime problem that has sharpened into focus during the pandemic. The stakes are high for all kids, but perhaps more so for those who have continually been underserved, including minority students and students living in poverty. The prospect of learning loss is especially high for them.
“Families are struggling and we’re hearing it loud and clear, and it breaks our heart every single week,” said Ariel Smith, co-founder and executive director of TEN. “I have no answers for them.”
Her organization, which partners with parents to ensure access to high-quality education in Denver communities, makes between 700 and 1,000 phone calls to families each week.
“Those phone calls are becoming increasingly difficult,” Smith said, noting that the nonprofit evaluates food security, technology access and how families are faring with remote learning during those conversations, which it has conducted since March.
Smith said TEN is hearing from families who are trying their hardest but who lack support from districts and elected officials.
“No one’s listening to that,” she said. “No one’s taking that into consideration.”
Parents, left out, “should be the center” of the conversation
Shaping public education policy to respond to the wide-ranging challenges and needs of families living in different communities and with varying access to resources is no simple feat. Following the question of whether parents have been involved in education conversations is the question of which parents have been involved and how, said Michelle Valladares, associate director of the National Education Policy Center and faculty affiliate in the School of Education at the University of Colorado.
Valladares hesitates to critique anyone during the pandemic. She notes a silver lining: Parent engagement wasn’t working well before the crisis, and so perhaps communities could seize the opportunity to bring it back in a way that’s more connected and more supported. But that requires funding, which is part of the root of the problem.
“Are schools funded well enough that they have the capacity to be hubs of democratic community participation in meaningful ways?” Valladares asked. “And the answer is no. They all lacked capacity before COVID, and COVID has pushed them over their limit.”
The Colorado Department of Education and districts like Denver Public Schools have tried to incorporate parent voices into their decisions throughout the pandemic. For instance, an advisory committee that included parents provided input to the department as it devised a toolkit to guide schools on reopening, said Rhonda Haniford, associate commissioner of school quality and support. The toolkit also includes a survey button where people can share feedback. Half of about 1,200 responses have been submitted by parents, Haniford said.
DPS has reached out to families since the start of the pandemic through surveys in the spring and summer, telephone town halls for parents and the district’s annual family update, spokeswoman Winna MacLaren said. Individual schools have also created their own communications and outreach for families, with school leaders sharing what they’re hearing from parents with the district.
But education advocates like Tyler Sandberg, vice president of conservative education group Ready Colorado, see a lack of parent voices as a chronic problem that’s only worsened with the pandemic.
Sandberg, who tuned into the legislative hearing in September, said parents have “been left out of the conversation at which they should be the center.”
“How do you create an education system that is predicated on parents leading the way without talking to parents?” he asked.
Sandberg particularly worries about the state’s most vulnerable families, including immigrants and those in low-income households who must choose between devoting time to their child’s education and putting food on the table.
Estala-Monreal is one of them. She wanted to help her youngest daughter, Yuliana, a first grader at Rocky Mountain Prep Berkeley Elementary Charter School, thrive in school, but she also needed to work. Estala-Monreal, who works in food service for DPS, stayed home with her daughter for four months but was told in September that if she didn’t return to her job she would lose it. Yuliana, who has an Individualized Education Plan, joined the pod that Rosa-Saenz runs.
“I feel like I am being put in an impossible dilemma — send my daughter back to school and risk her getting sick or someone in my family getting sick or keeping her home and risking her falling behind and not being able to work,” Estala-Monreal wrote to the State Board of Education.
The suffering among families facing the same kind of tough decisions will be one of the biggest repercussions of COVID-19, Sandberg said, with the damage caused by the virus far outweighed by the damage inflicted by closed schools on low-income families and underprivileged communities.
He said the ramifications “will reverberate for generations,” with increased poverty rates, higher incarceration rates and lower literacy rates “all stemming from the inability to serve underserved communities.”
Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican and member of the House and Senate education committees, acknowledged that parents’ voices need to be amplified in conversations about schooling during the pandemic. He raised that concern during the legislative hearing and said he is committed to incorporating more parent input in a meeting scheduled for December.
“The only person who has any personal interaction with the student in many cases is the parent,” Lundeen said. “We absolutely must hear from them.”
Lundeen said he has had conversations with parents and constituents, asking them about their family’s and child’s experience, which differs from family to family. That’s why lawmakers should be listening, he said.
“You get the universe of experiences if you talk to enough people,” Lundeen said, adding, “we need to do a better job.”
Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and chair of the Senate Education Committee, said lawmakers made a conscious decision to hear from the Colorado PTA rather than listen to disparate stories of parents from different communities. Parent perspective was also communicated through superintendents and teachers during September’s legislative meeting.
She insists that it’s more effective for a parent to work with their child’s district and school than it is for them to work with lawmakers.
“I think the parent voice was very loud and clear through the work that had been done with our principals and our superintendents and our teachers along the way,” Todd said.
Aurora families are creating their own tables
Smith, of TEN, submitted five parent letters to the State Board of Education in hopes of conveying the message that families simply need more support.
“Families need more resources to support their students’ at-home learning, and they need more choices for how they can navigate school in this unprecedented moment,” she said.
The board’s last meeting was the first one in which written public comment was added back onto its agenda, Maramba wrote in an email, and the board did not decide on a time frame in which it would accept public comment. All the letters were distributed to the board. Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder noted that the board had not carved out a half hour for public comments as it typically does. Moving forward, all written public comments will be read during board meetings but must be submitted to the office by 5 p.m. the day before.
“Parent voice is critical,” Schroeder said. “It’s valued by the State Board of Education. It’s hard for parents to take the time to provide input, and I think the State Board appreciates that extra time that parents put in. I hope that they also do that at the local level where there’s some chance of getting the help they need.”
But parent Rosa-Saenz, an author of a letter to the board and single mother of three sons, feels her input is critical at the state level, too. Parents are the ones beside their children, and so they’re the ones aware of what they need, Rosa-Saenz said.
Rosa-Saenz, who created a learning pod at her Denver home, worries about one of her sons who, before the pandemic, was in the process of being evaluated for an IEP. He was already behind in school and, concerned he would only fall further behind in remote learning, she advocated for him to return to school at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval earlier this month.
Her school listened to her then, but she doesn’t always feel heard by DPS.
Manuel Aragon, a parent of four students enrolled in DPS, said parents’ involvement in district conversations about education has been “a mixed bag.” Teachers have been among the strongest advocates for parental voices across the district, he said, and they’ve worked with parents to ensure that students’ needs are met.
DPS has also participated in parent forums, but as a longtime member of school committees and subcommittees, Aragon knows that even as parents are heard in those settings, “very rarely does it fuel or change the district trajectory.”
For their voices to be included at the district and state level, parents must join together and actively push and build coalitions, he said.
That’s how some Aurora families have found success in turning the volume up on their own perspectives.
Through RISE Colorado, families have taken the lead on expressing their needs and concerns during the pandemic. The Aurora-based organization empowers low-income families and families of color to pursue educational equity in public schools. Its approach is a grassroots one largely inspired by leaders of other social justice movements, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ensuring those impacted most by educational inequity are leading the movement for change, co-founder and CEO Veronica Crespin-Palmer said.
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Through the organization, which works with Black, Latinx, immigrant and refugee families primarily in the Aurora and Cherry Creek school districts, families and students have developed surveys they’re distributing this month to gauge how families and kids are doing. The survey, building off one conducted last fall, will collect data that will be shared with the school board and district leadership so they can rapidly respond to families, Crespin-Palmer said.
Families also took initiative in August to host a virtual community forum. Family and student leaders met with three Aurora Public Schools administrators to ask questions and relay concerns along with ideas and solutions before the start of the school year. More than 140 family and student leaders, district leaders and community members attended.
Families won’t wait for systems to invite them, Crespin-Palmer said, noting families plan to keep hosting forums as district plans continue to evolve.
“Families are going to organize and activate and create their own tables and invite district officials to co-create and collaborate alongside them,” she said.