12/12/2011 11:42 am ET | Updated Feb 11, 2012

What Does Parental Involvement In A Big City School District Really Look Like?

So you think you have your mind made up about what parent involvement looks like in a big city school district? Have you convinced yourself that it's the lack of parental engagement that will inhibit even the most courageous educational reform platforms?

Think again.

It's mid-morning on the first really cold Saturday in downtown Detroit and more than 550 parents along with 400 students have just finished a full breakfast and are engaged in questioning a panel of educational leaders who run some of the most innovative educational alternatives in the city -- Dr. John Covington from the new Education Achievement System and the leaders of Cornerstone Schools, Excellent Schools Detroit, New Paradigm and, yes, DPS.

(With five newly authorized charters, a brand new Office of Innovation and the unique opportunity to work closely with EAS on both which schools are transferred into this new district and sharing new systems and platforms, DPS is at the heart of creating new schools and supporting its high achieving ones.) See @detroitk12 on Twitter for some of what the various leaders said on Dec. 10.

Detroit Parent Network organizes this annual meeting, but that's very far from all it does to organize Detroit's parents.

I'd hold a decision I had something to do with two years ago to engage DPN to engage DPS parents through a competitively bid performance-based contract as the best move I've made as an education executive.

Together we started down a path to move the focus of parent involvement in DPS from the Board of Education chambers to the neighborhoods, and to dwell less on political involvement than on answering the very basic question, "How can we help Parents to be better Parents?"

We soon opened eight (HuffPost Detroit exclusive -- soon to be nine) regional Parent Resource Centers, brought on board a dozen and a half energetic souls to go out and organize parents within individual schools, scheduled a hundred-plus workshops on some very basic parenting topics and also teaming with partners on serving related needs for education on finance, employment, and time management.

Parents were trained in Leadership. Parent participation rose 37% the first year and continues to grow. 33 new Local School Community Organizations were started. 17,000 parents walked through the doors. Organizers knocked on 15,000 doors including those of parents affected by school building consolidations. We even went into homes to "Makeover" Homework areas to make them more conducive to home learning.

Surveyed parents reported by an 82-18 margin that they are more involved in school than the year before. The first steps on a long and continuous road.

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