Parent engagement can make all the difference

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This story was originally published by EdSource.

As upcoming national elections loom, there is a concerning overshadowing of local political engagement.

City councils, school boards and local commissions significantly shape our daily lives, particularly affecting our children’s future. Local elections are crucial as they directly impact essential services like water, sewer, garbage collection and infrastructure maintenance such as roadways, park systems, bike trails, and sidewalks. On top of that, local governments regulate zoning, permits and land use, profoundly molding our communities’ development and quality of life.

My journey advocating for my daughter’s safety at school propelled me into local advocacy through school site councils and, eventually, as a mayoral appointee to my city’s Commission United for Racial Equity. You’re not alone if “site council” doesn’t ring a bell for you. Four years ago, I found myself in the same position. Site councils are the mechanism districts use to engage parents, caregivers and the broader community in pursuing an equitable educational experience for students.

When my daughter started first grade, a visceral moment fortified my intention to engage in local politics. I’d given our then 6-year-old daughter a phone watch for safety and comfort. I soon learned that electronic devices are not allowed on a student’s person during the school day and must remain inside their backpacks. I felt the policy defeated the device’s purpose. I had a series of terse but kind conversations with the school about the importance of my child always wearing the watch. The school did not budge.

In a burst of frustration, I stormed into the living room, tossing freshly printed pages at my husband. “What’s wrong?” he asked, noticing my anger.

“You’re going to the school office today and using that white privilege,” I demanded. As a multiracial couple in a predominantly white district, I felt my identity as a Black woman might hinder progress, so I urged my husband to take action. “I’ve already prepared everything you need to say,” I added sharply. Standing over me, he embraced me as I broke into tears, then took on the task as requested.

My husband reiterated to the school, ad nauseam, my concerns about the rampant threat of school shootings in the U.S. and the imperative for constant communication with my child, emphasizing our proactive measures such as relocating closer to her school; it’s a 5-minute journey from our front door to the front steps of her school; I could run there in an emergency. The phone watch served as another layer of safety, compelling me to adamantly push for a revision of the policy on electronic devices. As parents, we are our children’s foremost advocates, necessitating relentless advocacy, always.

In California, site councils play a crucial role in schools by conducting assessments recommending equitable uses of federal funds to meet the educational needs of our students, reviewing school safety plans, and partnering in the development of schools’ plans for student achievement.

Parents must understand the importance of participating in these spaces to support effective decision-making and their children’s safety and academic and personal growth. I just finished year three as a site council member and have learned a great deal about the policies and practices that govern our children’s educational experience. Many site council members proceed to serve on school boards or in city leadership, as I have with my city’s Commission United for Racial Equity, where we shape the long-term policies and practices that impact our community.

In my home of Benicia, community engagement with the site council process continues to yield tangible outcomes. This has led to integrating professional development opportunities, encompassing restorative practices, implicit bias training, and social justice at both district and site levels. Additionally, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging have been integrated into the district’s accountability plan, alongside construction efforts undertaken to enhance the safety and accessibility of the physical environment. Finally, revisions to the classroom curriculum and the school library have been made to ensure a comprehensive representation of history’s diversity.

You have the power to engage as a parent, caregiver or concerned community member. Start by contacting your principal for the site council’s meeting schedule. These meetings are open to the public, and agendas are provided in advance, allowing you time to prepare thoughtful questions or comments on topics that directly impact your child’s educational journey.

And if you are wondering, yes, my daughter’s school site changed the electronic device policy, and she has worn her phone watch to school every day for the last five years: Parental engagement and advocacy works.

Amira K.S. Barger is an adjunct professor at California State University, East Bay and works on diversity, equity and inclusion and communications at a consulting firm.

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