For the last two years, New Schools for Chicago has been helping thousands of families on the South and West Sides of Chicago to find their ideal public school. Parents want the ability to choose, but often they find the “choice” system isn’t working.
How do I know this? Because we actually ask parents and families what they want in the education of their children. Parents know the answers. We just have to listen to them.
They tell us, “I want a safe school that I can get to and that I know is going to give my kid an opportunity to be successful.”
Safety, accessibility and quality. Pretty simple.
Parents Put Aside Politics
One parent, Michelle, was looking for a new school for her daughter. She looked at everything, including military schools, charter schools and traditional neighborhood schools.
“I care that my child is enrolled in a high-quality school, but I do not care what type of school it is,” Michelle told us. Working full time, she made it clear that she doesn’t have the time to sort through a complicated system on her own—and the often politically charged narratives around school type only make the process more overwhelming for far too many families like hers.
When you dig a little deeper with parents, you hear a consistent theme around fairness. Parents want a public system that fairly funds their kids’ schools wherever they choose to go, fairly provides them and their children with access to quality schools and is fair in how schools are measured, making that information accessible and easy to understand.
But most of these families are simply trying to live their lives—raising their kids, earning a living and engaging in their communities. They often don’t have the luxury of time to spend navigating the many policy debates about schools. Frankly, many of them are tired of the arguments and polarization.
Because of this, far too many families in our communities aren’t included in the education policy debates—and often, it’s not because they want to be left out.
We should hold ourselves accountable for ensuring these critical voices are included in the conversation.
Putting parent voices at the center of our work has become a manifesto for how our organization approaches education policy. We now flip every policy conversation on its head and allow parents and families—not the wonks and politicians—to drive the conversation.
Think about it: Most parent and family engagement revolves around a preconceived agenda. Policymakers and bureaucrats first decide what direction they think is best, and then work to gather “buy in” from less well-informed constituents.
But when we take that approach, we aren’t listening. Instead, we are directing—or worse, manipulating. Far too often, “outreach” is a shallow, top-down exercise that fails to prioritize what families say they want or need for their children.
A bottom-up approach, one that centers on the voices of those most affected, leads to decisions that are responsive, relevant and respected by communities and families. They see themselves in the process and therefore are vested in the outcomes.
This takes work and intention. We must commit to playing a supportive role for parents by being responsive to the concerns they articulate. We should use our resources and expertise to provide them the facts they need, along with potential solutions. Further, we should give them opportunities to develop their own skills to navigate the policy terrain.
With this approach, we let them lead. We let them tell us what to do.
Meaningful engagement also means not just providing a platform for the most vocal parents. We must be deliberate about engaging all parents—especially those who may not be as involved. Those parents have skin in the game, and deserve to have their voices amplified along with other families.
If school districts and organizations across the education sector design systems that work for families—especially those that have the least amount of time to engage, but for whom the stakes are highest—then by default those systems will better serve every citizen.
Give parents and families complete information and let them decide. They have the most at stake and shouldn’t be casualties of competing ideologies. They should be empowered to show us the way.