Philadelphia Gets Parents Involved in Kids’ Education

Published April 1, 2006

Philadelphia school administrators’ efforts to get parents more involved in the city’s public schools got a shot in the arm this winter. On January 18, the Philadelphia school district announced its Parent Volunteer Program had received a $1.7 million grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Parent Involvement Program.

Initiated in 2003, Philadelphia’s volunteer program oversees parent information desks in schools, runs parent patrols in and around schools during arrival and dismissal times, and lets parents assist on crisis intervention and counseling teams.

The district will use the grant money to augment recruiting and training for about 1,500 parent volunteers and to pay for state-mandated background checks on all volunteers. Funds also will be used to provide stipends of between $250 and $350 to parents who volunteer a minimum of 70 hours over a 10-week period. The largest stipend for a year will be $600.

Parents Matter

In addition to the Philadelphia School District, six organizations received allotments through the grant to coordinate and manage program services. Recipients included the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) and Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, each of which will receive up to $120,000.

State Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia), who was instrumental in getting the grant for the city, expressed optimism that it will produce positive change.

“Getting parents involved helps us set a better tone in our neighborhoods and schools,” Evans told the Philadelphia Daily News on January 19. “Parents are extremely essential to the educational reform movement underway in Philadelphia.”

Efforts Backfire

Despite Evans’ optimism, in other parts of the country efforts to increase parental involvement have sometimes created parental frustration rather than a sense of inclusion.

In New York City, for example, the chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council (PAC), composed of representatives from each of the city’s 32 local districts, voted in February to boycott the district’s annual “lobby day” in Albany, to protest being left out of major district decisions. Parents conducted their own lobby day two weeks before the one sponsored by the city’s Department of Education.

“Parents are very angry … they are trying to make a point,” said Tim Johnson, chairman of the PAC, according to a February 10 New York Daily News article.

The problem with programs like those in New York City and Philadelphia, says Charlene Haar, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Education Policy Institute and author of The Politics of the PTA (Transaction Publishers, 2002), is that while parents might be more involved in the schools, they get no greater influence over how the schools are run. Programs in which parents are allowed only to “staff greeting desks” or undertake other tasks that “do not disturb the status quo,” said Haar, “do not qualify as meaningful parental involvement.”

Approaches Differ

Increasing parental involvement in the schools along the lines Haar thinks are meaningful, such as having parents monitor teachers or examine test scores, are not objectives of the Parent Volunteer Program in Philadelphia. Haar would prefer to see parents have more control over deciding what their children will actually learn in the classroom and how they are taught.

“The Parent Welcome Desks and Parent Patrols are a part of the scaffolding we are building to encourage parents/caregivers to become more involved in their children’s education,” said Mary Yee, director of Philadelphia’s Office of Family Engagement and Language Equity Services. When it comes to parents “controlling their children’s education,” she said, “parent-led efforts must be in the forefront.”

Increasing parental involvement in education as described by Haar wasn’t Evans’ main goal in pursuing the state grant. It is actually the first part of the representative’s “Blueprint for a Safer Philadelphia,” said Evans’ Communications Director Tim Spreitzer, which is a “10-year commitment to combat youth violence.”

Seen as First Step

Despite his boss’s focus on combating violence, Spreitzer did see the parent volunteer effort as a good start toward increasing parents’ role in the schools.

“I think that getting parents engaged is a good first step,” Spreitzer said.

Keisha Jordan, president and CEO of the Philadelphia BAEO, echoed that sentiment, saying the program could be “very empowering” for parents and in the long run could “help to improve relationships between parents, teachers, and administrators.”

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

For more information …

For more information on parent volunteer programs, see

“$1.7M aims to boost parent role,” by Mensah M. Dean,, January 19, 2006,

Office of Parent and Community Relations on Parent Assistance Desks,

“Riled parents boycott big ed meeting,” New York Daily News, February 10, 2006,

BAEO Philadelphia,

“Parents Seek Greater Voice in Schools from Chancellor,” David M. Herszenhorn, The New York Times, December 12, 2005,