Boston Parents Work Across Sectors to Examine School Climate

By Elise Swinford, December 18, 2017

After getting home from her full-time job running the The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department Family Matters program, a program that supports returning citizens and their families impacted by incarceration, Karla Walker turns her attention to another cause: facilitating focus groups of Boston families who are eager to have a voice in their children’s school experience.  

Karla is one of 12 parents from across Boston’s district, charter, and Catholic schools to participate in this groundbreaking joint project of the Boston Compact and the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network (CPLAN). CPLAN members are reaching out to families in their communities to gather information about what matters most to families about the climate and culture of their children’s schools. For years, the Boston Public Schools have administered a district-wide survey to families, and now that the Catholic Schools Office of the Archdiocese and Boston Charter Alliance also are using their own surveys, the sectors are working together to develop a shared set of questions based on focus group feedback, hopefully providing a broader picture of school climate in Boston. So far, family members’ suggestions for the shared set of questions have ranged from themes of school safety (both physical and social/emotional), to cultural competency, to discipline.

“What you’ll find across sectors is that people are all facing the same issues,” Karla says of why she’s dedicating her time to this cross-sector work. “We’re all concerned about safety and the climate of schools. The context might be different, but the issues are the same.”

Julia Mejia, a BPS and charter parent as well as Founder and Executive Director of CPLAN, sees this work as an opportunity for families to become part of the process to inform what kind of information schools are collecting from families, a value echoed by Elsa Flores, a BPS parent who has run focus groups in Spanish. “We want to be part of the solution,” she says. “When I speak out, it’s important for the school system to listen to me.”

These focus groups also are an opportunity to hear from parents who make up a significant proportion of Boston families but often go unheard. CPLAN parents are targeting immigrant communities, non-English speaking parents, and families of the incarcerated, among others.  Tayla Andre, whose children have attended schools in all three sectors, is determined to give a voice to families of children with unique abilities. “I’ve never seen a survey that asked about children’s IEPs,” says Tayla.

CPLAN parents have collected over 200 surveys so far. Next, CPLAN will participate in analyzing data from the focus groups along with Compact School Climate Committee Members (individuals who work in district, charter and Catholic schools) to develop and vet a shared set of questions. Once a set of shared questions is adopted and administered, these family advocates and educators will jointly analyze responses in order to make recommendations. Julia hopes the data will reveal areas of potential collaboration, improvement, and celebration across the sectors. Other CPLAN parents hope this data will allow families, administrators, and educators to address issues “head on” with “real action.” Perhaps most important, Karla notes, is keeping families informed on how their feedback is being used and showing them that their voices are heard and have an impact.

Doing this work together with parents across the sectors and in collaboration with sector administration “gives us an opportunity to speak in one voice” and speak a common language when it comes to schools, says Julia.  Together, says Karla, we can start to make real change, “once we learn that we don’t have to work in silos, and start working in community-connected practice.”