family ties At this CICS campus, the school’s success is tied to parental involvement by Elisabeth A. Sullivan
Parents of charter school students are anything but passive. They are engaged in their children’s education from the start, electing to send their young scholars to a charter school rather than to a traditional public school—a process that takes time, research, and energy. Their involvement shouldn’t end there; the challenge for administrators and educators is to foster an environment in which parental contributions are both welcomed and encouraged. Amy Torres, director of the Chicago International Charter School (CICS) Irving Park campus, has done just that. Ms. Torres knows that a charter school is a community with parents as prominent members. “What we want is for parents to be a real part of the fabric of the school,” to step beyond their duties as homework helpers and be a real presence in the educational process, says Dr. Elizabeth Purvis, executive director of Chicago International. “Every CICS campus has, at a very minimum, a parent organization.” Within days of the campus opening, Ms. Torres worked to establish the Irving Park parent organization. Several parents were eager to help Ms. Torres steer CICS Irving Park to success, including those who served on the Irving Park launch committee. The committee helped the
new campus with everything from community outreach and recruitment to uniform selection and painting the school. “Many were on board and ready to move,” Ms. Torres says. “I wanted to solicit parent feedback systematically as I created the school’s systems and procedures. Having parents come in spontaneously was great, but I needed an organized forum for them to have discussions and report consensus back to me.” During the second month of the 2007–08 school year—and of the CICS Irving Park campus’s existence—the new campus director invited parents to planning meetings, soliciting their opinions on how best to involve them in their children’s education. They settled on a framework, drafted a mission statement, held elections, and chose a name: the Family Involvement Group (FIG). “She made parent relationships a priority, and it shows,” Purvis says of Torres. The six parents on the FIG’s executive committee meet at least once a month to help organize an average of 20 regularly participating FIG members and another 20 parents who often volunteer at the school. They recruit new students, volunteer for lunch duty, and serve as parent room representatives to assist teachers in the classroom. They’ve helped organize a harvest festival, an after-school basketball program, a scholastic book club, and a spring fundraiser, says Illa Doss, mother of two CICS Irving Park students and the FIG’s treasurer. Beyond their practical and tactical assistance, FIG members “think critically about the needs of the school and long-term sustainability,” Ms. Torres says. “The FIG reports parent issues, concerns, questions, and ideas back to me for implementation.” She hosts a “parent café” on the first Tuesday of each month. “It is their chance to share what is working and what is not,” Ms. Torres says. “The only way to make the school a great place is to have candid feedback from parents.” All this, and the school has yet to complete its first year. “For a campus that’s six months old, they’ve done an incredible job,” Dr. Purvis says. The FIG is off to a great start, but like other schools, the CICS Irving Park campus faces hurdles in encouraging and maintaining parental involvement. “We are no different from traditional public schools in that we see a waning of parent participation as kids get older,” she says. CICS Irving Park opened as a K-4 campus, but will add a grade a year until it is a K-8 in the 2011–12 school year. Parents of younger children tend to be more involved, Purvis says. But as their children grow, they step back into the wings, whether to return to full-time work or to alleviate their children’s embarrassment at having Mom or Dad around. Neither Dr. Purvis nor Ms. Torres wants that to happen. CICS relies heavily on parental involvement, and its students reap the benefits. They excel under the watchful eyes of their parents and educators, regularly surpassing their Chicago Public School peers on the ISATs, the ACT, and other standardized tests. Dr. Purvis and Ms. Torres
Illa M. Doss, mother of Joseph Doss (4th grade) and Jordan Doss (3rd grade) in the classroom with Kiani Robinson (3rd grade).
CICS Irving Park As the newest campus in the Chicago International network of 11 neighborhood campuses, CICS Irving Park has many distinguishing attributes: •
Opened the doors with 220 students in grades kindergarten through 4th. An additional grade will be added each year as the campus grows to a K–8 school.
One of the most diverse campuses in the network: 56% Latino 26% African American 12% White 3% Multi-racial 2% Asian/Pacific Islander 1% Native American
• At least six languages are spoken on the campus by students, staff, and school families. • Approximately $800,000 of renovations took place during the summer of 2007 in preparation for the campus’s opening in August. • The building is completely ADA accessible.
All students take “specials”: Piano Music Art Spanish Physical Education
In order to engage and partner with the community and new parents more effectively, Chicago International created a launch committee for CICS Irving Park—the first in the organization’s history. As this story attests, the committee was a boon to the campus start-up and created a perfect transition to the Family Involvement Group. This model will be adopted on every new Chicago International campus moving forward.
hope parents at the CICS Irving Park campus understand their role in the school community and continue to contribute. “I am hoping that the FIG will be the vehicle for keeping them motivated and involved,” Ms. Torres says. Some FIG members say their ranks still need padding. “There are 220 students and we’re probably getting 20 volunteers on a regular basis, which is less than 10 percent,” says FIG member Jennifer Landini, who has two boys on campus. The FIG needs fresh opinions, she says, and CICS Irving Park parents should understand that volunteering in even the smallest capacity can help the new campus succeed. “It’s going to take a big effort on the FIG’s part and the school’s part to really communicate to everyone why it’s important for parents to be involved.” Communication itself can pose challenges for the FIG, as it represents a racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse campus. “There is a communication gap between socioeconomic backgrounds that occurs,” Ms. Torres says, but though parents’ proposed strategies may
differ, their goals are the same. Ms. Doss agrees. “We come to a consensus,” she says. “We know that the common goal is our kids’ education.” Since the campus opened last fall, CICS Irving Park’s parents have played an essential role in getting the school up and running, and in creating an atmosphere for their children that’s congenial to both education and community. And Ms. Torres says her door is always open for feedback. “The key,” she says, “is to address parents’ underlying interests, which are to have a safe, nurturing school environment…an open environment for parents to participate when they can, and a shared vision for their child’s future.” For a new campus community, Ms. Torres has established the right way to invite, engage, and encourage parent participation. Every new school should heed this example.
“The only way to make the school a great place is to have candid feedback from parents.” —Amy Torres FocalPoint