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Parenting 101

National | Chicago public schools have started grading parents, and some don't like the curve

Issue: "Casualty of 'peace'," March 24, 2001

Valencia Rias's recent eighth-grade report card showed that she excelled in most subjects. Odd thing is, she's the mom. Ms. Rias's twin sons' teacher at Harold Washington Elementary School sent her a "parent report card" as part of the Parent Checklist program launched in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) this academic year. Under the plan, teachers rate parents in 23 categories-from dressing their kids properly to making sure they get enough sleep. If parents and children don't improve, school officials sometimes follow up with a home visit. The checklist program has kicked up fresh controversy over how far into students' lives schools should venture. In inner-city Chicago, CPS Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas felt schools weren't venturing far enough. When he announced the checklist program last May, he cited the high number of at-risk children-85 percent live in poverty, according to statistics published by the school district-and young, single parents. The checklists would serve "not only as an instructive instrument, but also as a reminder ... of what [parents] should be doing," Mr. Vallas said. "The school system has got to get into the business of educating parents." His heart may be in the right place. Mr. Vallas's district has in the past issued boots and eyeglasses to children who didn't have any. And when more than three feet of snow blanketed Chicago this winter, he ordered CPS schools kept open so that working parents could still work, and kids would have a warm place to go. Some folks believe the checklist program is another example of the district's concern for children. "I felt [the program] was handled in a positive way," Maryalice Smith, a grandmother who is guardian of her two grandchildren, told the Chicago Tribune in November. "I realized I need to be more involved." Sandra Lewis, principal of Chicago's Harold Washington Elementary (a kindergarten through 8th-grade school), said she uses the checklists to "open up dialogue with the parents. I believe parents should be accountable." But more than half of CPS administrators didn't agree, and opted out of the checklist program. Some felt it was unnecessary since other methods of parent-teacher communication-including school newsletters and notes sent home-already exist. Others felt that "parent report cards" might damage already fragile parent-teacher relationships. The opinions of parents like Dion Miller-Perez, father of a Chicago sixth-grader, swayed some administrators' decisions on the program. When Mr. Miller-Perez and other parents from his school council met with administrators to voice their worries (including what Mr. Miller-Perez called the tendency of such programs to generate bureaucratic "meddling"), school officials rejected the checklists. Some teachers also objected to grading parents. Burnside Academy principal Rayna Murphy, whose staff also bounced the checklists, said teachers "were afraid it would set up a confrontational atmosphere." It's easy to see why. The 23-category parent evaluation includes not only objectively measurable areas like student promptness and homework completion, but also requires teachers to grade parents in highly subjective areas: "Parent/guardian praises the child often ... follows through on suggested plan for the child's success ... spends quality time with the child." Valencia Rias, whose twins attend Harold Washington Elementary, doesn't care much what school officials think about those areas. She's too busy raising four nieces and nephews in addition to her own five kids. She also works nights and takes nursing classes during the day. But Ms. Rias is concerned about officials from government schools visiting the homes of nonconformist parents. "The home is totally private, and not subject to their standards. All we need to look out for is the abused child and there are already policies in place to report that." Michael Meyerhoff, director of Epicenter, an education consulting agency in Lindenhurst, Ill., thinks the concept underlying the checklist program is problematic: "The assumption is that the educators are right and the parents are wrong, but it could be the other way around. Public agencies have not proven themselves as the best qualified to do this. Their assessments and ideas do not bear much relationship to the real world." He said the checklist program "could hurt parents who are doing the best they can, but are misinterpreted or unappreciated." Brenda Williams is one of the Chicago moms who received low marks: She purportedly had not been sending her son to school "well-prepared" and she had not volunteered enough time at the school. "I had never met the teacher," she told WORLD. "I'm a working mom and it was difficult to schedule a meeting with her. If there's a problem, why wait until the end of the marking period to tell the parents? Why not just call home?" Checklist program director Elizabeth Elizondo insists the checklists are not intended to indict parents. "If you can't get the parent into the school, what else can you do?" she said. "You have to go to an extreme." Which is exactly what has some parents worried.

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