by Donna Fletcher, NNPA Contributor

As a parent, I recognize that I am my children’s biggest advocate and I work hard to make sure that they have the best learning opportunities inside and outside of the classroom.

When I relocated from Washington, D.C. to Florida, I struggled to find schools that were rigorous in their instruction, included strong community and parental involvement, provided a diverse selection of extra-curricular activities, and offered the support services my children needed. Eventually, I found a school that met the majority of my expectations, but that school was located in a different county. As a result, I relocated to an address within that area. With a background in education and familiarity with the District of Columbia Public Schools system (DCPS) through my older children, I constantly found myself comparing the materials being taught at my children’s elementary school to the lessons that were taught in DCPS over 15 years earlier. To my chagrin, my younger children were lagging far behind, academically.

Therefore, my search to find a more rigorous academic program led me to placing my younger children in a private, Christian-based school. However, I have found that while private schools promote a superior academic experience, in actuality, they lack more than they deliver. Academic rigor, community and parental involvement, extracurricular activities, and the passion needed to encourage the love of learning were all missing from the private school my children attended. Thus, my search continues.

The new national education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), gives more power back to states to determine their own academic standards, but provides several grant opportunities to ensure school districts are implementing evidenced-based interventions to improve academic achievement. Student Support and Enrichment Grants combine several programs from No Child Left Behind to improve academic achievement by providing all students with funding for improved school conditions, well-rounded learning, and efficient use of technology. Title IV, Part B of ESSA also provides opportunities for communities to expand or establish community learning centers, which provide a broad array of resources; including meaningful parent engagement.

Florida has updated its academic standards in an attempt to align them with college-and-career-ready expectations twice, since 2011; the most recent update occurred in 2015. However, Florida’s ESSA plan does not explain the process through which updates have occurred. Florida does attempt to emphasize a well-rounded education by including progress in science and social studies as an indicator of school success. However, Florida fails to include progress in English Language Proficiency (ELP) as an indicator of school success and will only provide assessment instructions in English; despite a diverse student population. Furthermore, Florida does not incorporate student subgroup (race/ethnicity) data in its school grading system. Student subgroup data will only be reported on school report cards. This process does not guarantee struggling subgroups will be identified and supported. Florida proposes to use a simple A-F grading system to identify underperforming schools. For schools that do not earn a “C” grade after two years, the plan calls for the schools to close or turn over operations to a charter or an external operator. While schools are held accountable for continued failure, as a parent, I am concerned about the impact on students who are enrolled during the two-year improvement period. Lastly, Florida does not explain how it will use the set-aside Title I dollars for school improvement or how the state will encourage the equitable distribution of funds.

Overall, while the plan clearly articulates its intentions, it provides little explanation for how the stated goals will be achieved. How can I, as a parent, get more involved and engaged to help advocate for my children? For my children, who are in the middle of the pack, how can they receive resources to accelerate their abilities to the next level? How does Florida’s ESSA Plan empower parents to choose higher-performing schools with very few available spots for students zoned to under performing schools?

Florida’s ESSA plan is not an all-encompassing document; specifically as it relates to the lack of information regarding explanations for funding, school accountability, and amended academic standards. The consolidated state plan should be viewed as one additional resource in the search to find answers and be empowered to impact our children’s education. As a parent, I recognize, I am my child’s biggest advocate.

The ESSA resource website created by the National Newspaper Publishers Association is a great tool for parents looking to increase their engagement within the school system. Visiting the site frequently has provided me with information, research, and the inspiration to keep pursuing my children’s best academic interest.

Donna Fletcher, a mother to eight children, is the Conference Coordinator for the National Science Teachers Association, and a fierce parent advocate. She has a B.A. in psychology from the University of the District of Columbia and a master’s degree in human development from George Washington University.

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