As the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) begins to adopt the new education standards known as Common Core, it is being tested on how well it overcomes barriers to informing and involving parents in the effort to help students adapt and achieve.
Like all school districts in the 45 states adopting the new standards, LBUSD is trying to help parents understand Common Core, which revamps the way schools teach English language arts and math by placing greater emphasis on critical thinking, problem solving and real-world applications. That is a daunting assignment in Long Beach because 28% of the residents are foreign-born and many are English learners.
“We have to do all the work we can to get parents involved,” said LBUSD School Board President John McGinnis. “We try to reach out to all the communities. There’s no one size fits all…It’s always a challenge.”
McGinnis said the district is hosting evening meetings at schools with parents to explain Common Core and has met with local community organizations to discuss the new standards. For example, McGinnis, who serves on the board of the Long Beach-based United Cambodian Community, a Long Beach-based social services organization, has been conducting outreach to the local Khmer population, the largest outside of Cambodia.
Like most parents interviewed for this report, the executive director of the Long Beach-based Khmer Parents Association, Chan Hopson, supports LBUSD’s transition to Common Core but said the school district should host more workshops for parents on the new standards.
“It needs to be a little aggressive in outreaching to the parent because – nowadays – parents face a lot of socio-economic problems,” she said.
Language is a problem for some parents who would like to help their children adapt to the new standards.
“My English not very good,” said Puthy Davison, an immigrant local from Cambodia who has a son in Kindergarten at Signal Hill Elementary. “I think it’ll be hard for me, but every parent will try [their] best.”
In some families, bilingual children are assuming the role as liaison between teachers and parents. It is a burden for some.
For example, 20-year-old Sinara Sagn, originally from Cambodia’s Kampong Cham province, makes time to meet with the teachers of her brother, a high school student, and her little sister, a kindergartener. She juggles that role between her studies at Long Beach Community College and jobs that keep her busy nearly 50 hours a week.
“My mom’s working all day and my dad doesn’t speak English,” she said. “I’m the oldest sister so I feel like I have a lot of responsibility.”
Some parents are giving the district mixed grades on its outreach. Susana Suarez said Jackie Robinson Academy, the school her children attend, did a good job by providing parents a complete written package on Common Core at a Back-to-School-Night event. However, part of that package directed her to obtain updates on the school’s webpage, which is difficult for non-English speakers to navigate, she said.
Some Long Beach parents say the district needs to publish more flyers in Spanish to explain Common Core. Some of them say that many in Latino communities in Long Beach have not been informed about educator meetings to inform parents of Common Core.
“Our main challenges are going to be our parents – having to teach them the Common Core,” said Jessica Alvarez, mother of a Cabrillo High School student and president of the parent-teacher organization at Garfield Elementary School. The district has produced enough information on Common Core but has not effectively disseminated it to the communities most in need, said Alvarez.
She called on the district to hire local parents to help with the outreach and other school-related jobs.
“Let’s create jobs,” she said. “Use these parents and make them feel empowered. Give them some awareness and encouragement.”
On the school level, some are happy with their efforts to inform parents about Common Core, which is designed to raise academic expectations. For example, Principal Claire Alvarez of James Garfield Elementary said her school has been successful.
“At Garfield’s workshops, parents are really receptive to raising the expectations,” she said.
However, even if parents understand the goals of Common Core, some of them will not be qualified to help their children with homework, said Petra Cruz, who has a son at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. A native of Mexico, Cruz obtained her G.E.D. in the United States.
“For those of us who came with no career, it’s harder because we are not academically ready to help (our children) at the high school level,” she said.
Another parent, Maria Loeza, said assisting her children with literature and writing is a “challenge.” She has felt more comfortable helping them with math. However, under the new standards, students will be expected to demonstrate an understanding of the underlying concepts of math problems through verbal and written expression.
“They only used to say, two plus three is five, and it’s done,” Loeza said “Now, they have to explain why they arrived to that answer and what different ways can you get the same result. It’s challenging.”
Technology is another challenge, said Loeza, who is concerned about the potential “overuse” of digital aids. The state gave LBUSD $16 million for Common Core, which is to be divided between new instruction materials, professional development and technology. New computers and software will be available in schools but many students face a digital divide when they return home, some say.
“Many homes do not have the technology because you have to choose to either buy a computer or eat,” Loeza said.
Eva Ramirez, project coordinator for Long Beach Latinos in Action, expressed similar concerns.
“And what are we going to do with the parents who are not accustomed to using a computer … [or] don’t even know how to turn on a computer?” she said.
The district is providing computers and Internet connection services to local community organizations such as Centro Community Hispanic Association (Centro CHA) and the United Cambodian Community to help address the problem, said LBUSD School Board President John McGinnis.
McGinnis advised parents wanting more information to meet with their local principals and teachers. He also offered to personally talk to parents wanting more information.
“If they feel they are falling through the cracks…If I hear from them, I will deal with that issue,” he said. But the job of parents, he added, is to inform the district itself of communication problems.
“We want every single parent to be informed of the child’s progress,” he said.
More information on Common Core from the LBUSD website (also in Spanish and Khmer): http://www.lbschools.net/Main_Offices/Curriculum/Common_Core/resources.cfm
This story was produced as part of New America Media’s 2014 Ethnic Media Education Reporting Fellowship, with support from the California Education Policy Fund.