Group urges city parents to take power in children's education

D.C. nonprofit encourages seeking transfers, tutoring

D.C. group urges parents to take power role in children's education

August 24, 2004|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

On billboards going up around Baltimore, a child jumps for joy and an accompanying message encourages parents to "be the power" behind their children's education.

The curious message -- along with a toll-free number for information -- comes from a Washington-based education nonprofit that is trying to encourage inner-city parents with children in failing schools to ask for free tutoring or a transfer to a better school.

The nonprofit, StandardsWork Inc., hopes to encourage parents to take advantage of provisions in the complex federal law called No Child Left Behind that gives parents those alternatives.

But in many cases, parents of students in low-performing schools have not applied for transfers or tutors.

For example, Baltimore had 25,000 children in 61 schools last year who were eligible for those options, but only a few hundred parents chose to apply to have their children transferred to a different school, and about 3,000 asked for tutoring.

StandardsWork has been pushing for more accountability in schools for a decade, said President Barbara Davidson. The current campaign, dubbed Parent Power Works, is a natural outgrowth of the move for more testing and standards, she said.

Parent Power Works, under way in Washington and planned for Montgomery and Prince George's counties, is financed by a $1.25 million federal grant.

The information drive also is getting a boost from billboard owner Clear Channel Outdoor -- part of radio giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. -- which has donated space for a month on 25 billboards in neighborhoods with failing schools.

The new law, a Bush administration initiative, has been an issue because some of its provisions are considered exceedingly onerous and, in some cases, require remedies that could be budget-busters for financially strapped school systems.

Financial situation

For instance, last year, the Baltimore system -- which ended the past fiscal year with a $58 million deficit -- would have been forced to spend $30 million for free tutoring if it provided the extra help to every student who had qualified. And children who elected to transfer to better-performing schools far from their homes would be entitled to free transportation.

The school system has been criticized for not providing enough places for students, but this year schools sent out letters in June to all children who were eligible informing parents of what the choices are.

The system has gotten 300 applications from parents for a transfer, but it is unlikely to have enough classroom space in better schools to meet the need.

On Sept. 11 and 18, the system will hold fairs so parents can compare services provided from state-approved tutoring companies. Parents can then pick a tutor for their child. And parents can continue to apply for services during the year, said a school system spokeswoman.

Partnerships

StandardsWork has developed partnerships with grass-roots education groups, which they believe will be better at delivering the information to parents over the long run.

"What we thought was important was to build some capacity in community organizations that interact with parents," Davidson said.

Parents who call the toll-free number on the billboards will receive some help over the telephone but they also will be referred to the local education groups -- such as Baltimore Education Network, Head Start and the Parent and Community Advisory Board -- for more detailed information.

LaTanya Bailey Jones, program director for Baltimore Education Network, said her organization initially was cautious about working with StandardsWork because No Child Left Behind has become politicized.

But the network already had been conducting workshops to explain the complexities of the new law when it was approached by StandardsWork, Bailey Jones said. It seemed redundant, she said, for several groups in the city to hold similar information sessions.

"BEN made a commitment that no matter what the political agenda or the controversy around [the federal law], we believe it is a tool to work with the schools, state and school district to get a better education for children," Bailey Jones said.

She said the next step would be to train parents to spread the word to more parents and distribute information in easy-to-understand language.

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