As an immigrant to the United States, I had no clue how school systems operated. When I noticed a problem in my son’s district, I wrote to the City Council and state legislators. I didn’t realize that a separate governing body existed — a school board — and that I should turn to it for help.

This is one reason now, as a teacher in Minneapolis and a school board member in Richfield, I have a commitment to engaging parents on a practical level. This spring, I established a parent academy at my elementary school that offered dinner, child care and bilingual training sessions on how to advocate for schoolchildren.

In my role as an elected official, I ask my district to use low-tech communication techniques such as bulletin boards, take-home packets and personal outreach to supplement Web pages and social media sites. Many parents and guardians are new to the U.S., or living paycheck to paycheck, which means internet access and computer literacy may be barriers to involvement.

In the coming months, the Minnesota Department of Education has the opportunity to take parental engagement to a larger and more influential scale. Like all states, Minnesota must redesign the accountability system for publicly funded schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The feds rightly directed states to convene local stakeholders for input on how to gauge school performance and what to do when schools miss the mark.

Under ESSA, states are required to weigh how many students are achieving at grade level; the academic growth (or an equivalent measure) that elementary and middle schoolers make each year; whether enough high schoolers are graduating on time; and the progress made by English-language learners. And for the first time, each state must add at least one nonacademic component to create a fuller picture of a school’s quality.

Many states already have other quality measures in their accountability systems — ranging from student absentee rates to accessibility of advanced placement, arts or physical education courses. Minnesota’s accountability system, however, fails to include any additional factors. Right now the feds have provided an opportunity for us to move beyond test scores, but too few people know their opinions can influence what should count.

If you are like me, you were unaware that the state education department held hearings on ESSA at its headquarters in Roseville this spring. While I appreciate that the meetings were open to the public, thousands of parents, students and educators who have a vested interest in school accountability were not even aware that the meetings were taking place.

This lack of authentic engagement is especially troubling at schools such as those I represent in Richfield — where five in 10 students speak a language other than English at home — and where I teach in Minneapolis — where nearly all my students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. We serve the historically underserved students the law is designed to protect. These communities deserve real opportunities to engage with policymakers, ask questions, receive answers and give feedback on how their schools are doing and what would make them better.

As the state moves ahead, it should hold discussions in the neighborhoods that are most affected, and genuinely involve those who have the most to lose or to gain. In fact, parent engagement could be among the factors by which schools are judged going forward. The state could model engagement by conducting authentic outreach and tabulating parents’ comments; simply sending an e-mail to the regular roster of school advocates about a meeting in the suburbs just doesn’t cut it.

Not long ago, Tim Pollis, Richfield baseball coach and a fellow board member, made that kind of extra effort to reach parents. He visited the Latino Parent Association to inquire why so few Latino students were trying out for baseball or taking advantage of its scholarships. The parents — who were otherwise involved in their children’s education — said that they had not heard about the opportunities. As it turned out, the information had only been available on the internet.

If a coach can find the time to make personal contact with the parents of prospective baseball players, then the state can find a way to engage parents on the law that will dictate school accountability for the next generation of kids.


Paula Cole is a Spanish immersion teacher in Minneapolis and a member of the Richfield school board.