A majority of parents responding to a recent survey said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the level of communication they receive from the Cedar Rapids Community School District, but at least one Board of Education member said there’s “room to improve.”
“I think what’s happened over time is the district became disconnected, if you will,” said Director Allen Witt. “I think it’s a matter of, we want to tell all the good news stories, but we don’t have the vehicle. We don’t use every vehicle at our disposal … What does the void get filled with? Rumors and accusations. There’s all these beliefs people have that aren’t based on any fact.”
Both the Cedar Rapids district and its Iowa City counterpart have faced fallout recently from controversial decisions, such as school closures and facilities spending, with parents accusing education officials of not taking community concerns into account.
This year, both districts have launched new initiatives to engage parents.
Parent involvement is something administrators do naturally, said Cedar Rapids Associate Superintendent Mary Ellen Maske.
“If you foster that relationship between home and school … there’s quite a bit of research that students’ academic success, or success in school, is much higher,” she said.
Witt suggested an idea, of subject-specific sessions where district employees could guide parents on issues facing their students, to Shellie Pike, president of Cedar Rapids Council PTA. That organization now co-hosts Parent University, which debuted in October.
Jami Walker, a mother with two students in the district, attended Parent University and said she liked it but called the session “a little slow-paced.” She already has taken an active role to build bonds with adults at her sixth-grade son’s school.
“My purpose in forming connections with those staff is so they can tell me what they see with my son,” she said. “There’s really no excuse to not be involved with your child’s teacher.”
Walker would like to see more programming directed at families who are seeking answers.
“Quite frankly, I think some of these seminars can be quite obvious to well-connected parents,” she said, “but to parents who don’t have as many school connections … I think these are geared toward them.”
While attendance was low for the first four Parent University gatherings, which focused on “Advocating for your Student’s Success,” Witt is optimistic.
“Word-of-mouth will catch on,” he said. “Pretty soon you’ll have half the community involved in Parent University.”
For Witt, the program — which will include future sessions on homework success and the transitions from middle to high school and elementary to middle school — is a step in repairing some of the communication breakdowns between parents and the district.
Whether through Parent University or other avenues, Witt is committed to patching those holes.
“What can we do better? Keep asking ourselves that question,” Witt said.
Engage Iowa City Schools
The Iowa City Community School District has the Engage Iowa City Schools website, a social network forum which allows parents to sound off on building issues and rewards them with prizes as they earn points for participating.
Kate Moreland, the district’ community relations coordinator, said the site is just another step administrators have taken to strengthen ties and transparency, issues of special import to Superintendent Stephen Murley since he joined the district.
Since the site launched in September, 287 users have left 79 ideas on seven topics. The site’s reach has been short, given that the district educates more than 12,000 students, but Moreland is pleased with the response.
Coralville parent Bobbie Nelson, who has five children in Iowa City schools, has earned 496 points and is the site’s third-highest user. Nelson was unsure what to think when the site debuted, but the topics quickly pulled her into the conversation.
Nelson has never felt the need to contact a district-level administrator or school board member.
“I just don’t recall getting anything from them,” she said of district communication. “I feel like as long as our issues are being addressed with the school and the school is doing a good job, I guess I don’t need to talk with anyone higher up.”