Over the last two months, engagement has been a term frequently discussed among Minneapolis Public Schools community members and leaders. Superintendent community listening sessions, parent advisory council meetings, and the school board have all talked about how to engage.
And at last week’s special meeting of the Board of Education on Feb. 7, board members had a very emotional and sometimes tense discussion on their personal definitions of engagement and the Board’s responsibility to community engagement. Last month, the District Parent Advisory Council talked at length about the district engaging with parents.
Engagement is complicated because of the sheer size of the district and because of a system that is still trying to catch up with a new generation of parents and families.
“Parents change. Generations change. People are looking for different things. And so, to be doing things one way for 30 years, maybe that's still going to work, but maybe it’s not,” said Lily Sand, MPS Engagement Specialist.
Minneapolis Public Schools is home to over 35,000 students and an unknowable number of parents, guardians, caregivers, and family members who care about those students and the schools they attend.
For some parents, engagement has been an opportunity to use community organizing skills, for others it’s been a challenge whether it’s because of tension around priorities or access to engagement spaces. And there’s the question of who has access to engagement spaces and who has the capacity to advocate for their fellow parents.
Minneapolis Schools Voices conducted ten interviews for this story - four were with MPS staffers (with follow-up reporting planned) and six interviews were conducted with MPS parents. Additionally we attended MPS Board meetings and several PAC meetings.
“I had also gone to a couple PTA meetings and didn't really feel like there was a way to get engaged,” said Molly Carina Dengler, an MPS graduate and parent at Emerson. “A person was talking in front and everybody else was listening and it wasn't very engaging.”
Dengler joined her son’s PTA as a bilingual parent, raising a son who spoke Spanish as a first language. They chose Emerson for its dual language program though she says the placement team at the district insisted he could attend any MPS school and receive ELL support. As a native English speaker, Dengler was often called on by Latino members of the PTA to support them in understanding MPS paperwork and announcements. She says she even supported the chair who struggled to lead in her own right because of communication barriers.
“It was clear the [Minneapolis Public Schools PTA] system didn’t support Latino leadership,” said Dengler.
Dengler and other parents eventually dissolved the Emerson PTA and formed what they call a “WhatsApp ecosystem” aimed at supporting parents and their initiatives. They also mobilize around Emerson’s site council to make it more representative of families’ priorities, values, and practices. WhatsApp is a popular app used by non-English speaking communities in the states and globally, as it is more affordable than long-distance calling. Site councils are made up of parents, teachers, staff, students, and community members and their focus is more on the business end of things at each school.
“For the non-Spanish speaking, WhatsApp decenters that voice,” said Dengler. “We looked at all the things that we had assumed were status quo: how you meet and how you communicate and how all these systems are not able to be accessed by all and how they're really set up for the white parents that are not the majority of our school. Our school is 70% Latino and that wasn't represented in parent engagement and leadership.”
Dengler also said that after the WhatsApp ecosystem was in place, the Emerson site council went from four people, including her husband as well as the Emerson principal, to a classroom full of people. Dengler says that meetings are done primarily in Spanish with English interpretation available. Dinner is available after “because food is key,” Dengler said.
“We looked at the different motivations that people had for being engaged as parents and overwhelmingly people just wanted to have a voice in their students' education and to know what was happening in school and to have a say in more than fundraisers, more than learning how to be better parents,” Dengler said.“It was more, ‘I wanna have a voice.’”
MPS offers many opportunities for parents to engage with their children’s school. There are PTAs, site councils, and parent advisory councils. PTAs are typically responsible for school fundraising and events. Site councils are more engaged in school business decisions. Parent advisory councils are spaces for communities of like background to connect with each other, for relationship-building, resource-sharing, and question-answering. MPS has several parent advisory councils serving specific communities: a Hmong Parent Advisory Council, a Black Parent Advisory Council, a Latino Parent Advisory Council, and more.
Much of the district’s parent and family engagement is funneled through its Office of Family Engagement, though the Office’s director, Edgar Alfonzo, insists that engagement is a group effort.
“Our job is to try to build the possibility that you can be heard, that your problems, your concerns, get to the right ears and try to find the solutions for that,” said Alfonzo, who became the permanent director six months ago and previously served as the Interim Director.
Alfonzo also shared that family engagement is not just the work of the formal and official Office of Family Engagement.
“Family engagement is everybody’s job. If you are working with kids and families, you’re part of the family engagement team.”
Alfonzo also recognizes that the systems that make MPS (and all public education in this country) prioritize white families and white lives, and that can make it difficult to engage families of color, who can then be under-represented in parent/family engagement spaces.
“There are people that in the past have had more possibilities to succeed. And we are aware of that. And with that type of trauma, that type of disrespect that many of our families have suffered for years and years, it is hard to tell them, well, come to my school, we have a fun event for you, we are gonna be here to serve you,” said Alfonzo.
The Office of Family Engagement is currently working on projects that they hope make the parent advisory council and site council experience more accessible and engaging for parents.
Tikonwaun Blackamore, the African American engagement education outreach specialist for MPS, notes that the Black Parent Advisory Council is currently trying to update its own bylaws, and Sand, the MPS Engagement Specialist, is working to improve and make site councils more representative of their assigned school community. Both are efforts by the Office of Family Engagement to change MPS practices and make the pre-existing parent advisory councils and site councils more accessible to MPS community members.
Despite the sheer number of opportunities to engage with the district, many parents see those opportunities as being aimed at white parents.
“If you can read English, I feel like the district communicates on most things, and so it's easy,” said Cha Vang, co-chair of the Hmong Parent Advisory Committee. “You have access to their weekly emails, their monthly emails, the different website information that you can just log on and view and read.”
Vang has four kids in MPS school and has served on PTA and sites councils.
“If English is not your first language, then you have to have proper channels of reaching out to the different groups.” Vang said.
Engagement requires parents with the time and capacity to go to the meetings, to show up, to understand the intricacies of the MPS system. In many ways, this type of engagement is not built for today’s parents. For parents who speak English as their second or third language, those are working multiple jobs, families with dual bread-winners, and unhoused parents or highly-mobile families.
According to Alfonzo, the district knows that some parents are falling through the cracks. Alfonzo is also MPS’s Latino family engagement specialist and he hosts a radio show on La Raza, a popular Spanish-language station, where he shares news from MPS and hears from other MPS community members and parents.
“In the past the family engagement specialist would try to be present in the schools and to bring information back and forth,” Alfonzo said. “That was good, but it wasn’t enough, because we were missing a lot of families that either never had the opportunities to go to school building or they don’t want to go to the school building because of traumatic experiences.”
Still, for many parents, the work being done just isn’t enough. For some it’s a matter of equity, for others it’s a matter of academics. And for most the goal is for the district to take them and MPS students seriously.
“You might have some family liaison or teachers who are very supportive of parents' involvement, and then you might have the principal that's like, just, I just don't wanna deal with this. And then there’s some schools that are the reverse,” said Harley Meyer, a MPS parent and the former chair of the Black Parent Advisory Council. “In terms of engagement, there’s an inconsistency within the district.”
For Meyer, and parents like him, the concern is that engagement is happening to check a box. But for parents’ corners, specifically around their children’s math and literacy, they just aren’t being heard. Meyer is also concerned about MPS’ discipline policies and he had hoped to use the Black Parent Advisory Council to influence those policies.
Meyer says he previously worked as a substitute math teacher at MPS and he’s been talking about math and reading literacies since he began engaging as a parent several years ago.
“If you’re willing to commit 10 years to one thing, maybe you’ll make some progress,” said David Weingartner, an MPS parent. Weingartner began to engage with the district in 2009 during a district? boundary change conversation. Most recently, Weingartner served on the Justice Page Middle School site council and as a PTA treasurer. Weingartner, like others, is concerned that the district is not doing enough around academics.
Weingartner, as well as Sarah Spafford Freeman and Khulia Pringle are co-founders of the MPS Academic Advisory group on Facebook. The group has advocated for literacy-related investments for the last several years.
Parent engagement is about how parents have a say not just in their children’s learning experience but in the district. For many parents, their children will be in the district for 13 years. They engage in the hopes that they leave the district a little better academically and equitably than how they found it, despite the frustrations that come from feeling like the work doesn’t matter all that much.
“I think if the district did more listening and using forums that are already established as opposed to trying to reinvent the wheel and continuing to fail by using the same methods, we'd get a lot further faster,” said Dengler.