A North Carolina school district that has been using federal money to provide expense payments for parental involvement is experiencing a valuable return on its investment, the program’s director says.
The Guilford County School District began offering parents financial incentives to act as liaisons between their schools and the district during the 2013–14 school year. Twenty-four parents participated in the first year, representing district middle schools while earning $150 to help defray costs related to their volunteerism, such as gas for travel. The following school year, 65 liaisons took part in the program to represent the district’s elementary, middle, and high schools.
Guilford County Schools used federal Race to the Top grant money to pay the first 24 individuals and federal Title 1 money to fund the second batch of 65 volunteers. School principals choose the parent volunteers, who attend monthly meetings on behalf of their schools.
‘A Solid Investment’
Lindsay Whitely, director of the Guilford Parent Academy, which runs the program, says the idea came from another district that used incentives “to help with parental outreach.”
“They were able to support parents and not pay them per se, but just provide additional considerations in the form of something that could help with gas money or materials that they might need in their roles as parent volunteers,” Whitely said. “For me, it has been a solid investment that has brought much larger dividends in terms of we’re paying those 24 parents. We’re giving them small rewards for doing different things. However, what they are doing is they are going out into the community and they are reaching a lot more parents than ordinarily we would be able to reach on our own.”
Whitely says the district conducts monthly meetings with the parent leaders to share best practices and educational tips for parents.
Some parents have even developed classes to reach specific school populations.
“We’ve had some of the parent leaders who have created English as a Second Language classes to reach their ESL populations at their schools,” Whitely said.
Not everyone sees programs such as the one in Guilford as having a positive return on investment in the classroom.
Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, says these programs don’t have much data proving they actually increase parental engagement.
“I don’t see a lot of empirical evidence that paying parents to participate in school activities does much to raise student achievement,” Stoops said. “I don’t believe these plans amount to much in the way of involvement. For one, with limited funds you are only able to capture a limited number of parents and get them involved. But more importantly, there is no guarantee that the activities that parents will engage in will enhance the education of students, of whatever school they attend, in a meaningful way.”
Stoops also questions the long-term sustainability of the program.
“Programs like this are not sustainable, financially,” Stoops said. “Usually, when these kind of pay-incentive programs arise, they are very short-lived, because the expense to maintain them usually exceeds the benefits that schools receive from them.”
Stoops says there are better ways funding could be used.
“Given the limited resources that schools already have, this is money that would be better much spent on other aspects of instruction,” Stoops said. “Whether it be instructional materials or personnel, … any number of things would be a better way to invest taxpayer money than to pay parents for what they already should be doing.
“Even some programs that start as good ideas—and I don’t count this as one—that have seed money from the federal government are usually very difficult to sustain at the local level,” Stoops said.
Preference for Experimentation
Stoops says Guilford County has a penchant for experimental programs.
“As far as experimentation, Guilford County is the one district in North Carolina that does more of it than any other district,” Stoops said. “They have used their student body as guinea pigs on more than one occasion, and in this case, they have brought in parents as well.”
Andrea Dillon ([email protected]) writes from Holly Springs, North Carolina.