On a Tuesday evening in October, more than 75 parents and guardians of Cleveland Metropolitan School District students huddled around tables with teachers and school officials to discuss some of the most real-life issues affecting their children’s education.

The list was long: Social-emotional education for middle and high schoolers; internet safety; bullying; digital literacy; teacher burnout.

One parent raised a need for life-skills courses to teach high school students “how to adult.” 

This scene unfolded at a district-wide Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) meeting, held in a classroom at CMSD’s East Professional Center. This session was the first of the year, an orientation to acquaint parents with how future meetings will run.

The PAC is not new. School officials have consistently met with parents to communicate district policy updates four times a year for the past 15 years in compliance with the district’s family-engagement policy. 

But this year, district leaders decided to ditch the traditional approach to the meeting for a new model resembling CEO Eric Gordon’s quarterly Student Advisory Committee meetings, where students talk through problems and pitch solutions to Gordon and other administrators.

CMSD parents sit in a group to brainstorm agenda topics at the Parent Advisory Committee orientation
CMSD parents brainstorm agenda topics last month at the Parent Advisory Committee orientation. Credit: Cleveland Metropolitan School District

The revamp of the PAC is the latest development in a wider effort to increase parent engagement and accessibility to school-related information.

Cissy Watkins, the parent ambassador for Tremont Montessori School who was at the orientation, told Signal Cleveland the change gives parents greater access to the CEO and other decision makers.

“Before, they would just read a prepared presentation then ask for feedback,” Watkins said. The revamp shows the district’s desire to know what parents and children are going through. They’re now asking “how [we can] problem-solve to come to a better place,” Watkins said.

Watkins said the orientation set the table for conversation.

“I can’t remember everything because there were so many different groups, but so much was discussed, so passionately,” she said. “We got great feedback, and it really was nice to see that a lot of the parents who normally don’t come to those meetings were there and felt like they were really listened to.”

We got great feedback, and it really was nice to see that a lot of the parents who normally don’t come to those meetings were there and felt like they were really listened to.

Cissy Watkins, the parent ambassador for Tremont Montessori School

The district invited Watkins to help lead some of the subcommittees that will explore specific topics prior to the next full PAC meeting. Subcommittees include health and wellness, support for children and families with special needs, and support for students with dyslexia. 

Tracy Hill, executive director of family and community engagement at CMSD, said in an interview PAC members are selected by their school’s principals and  represent those schools at the district-wide committee. Members may invite other parents from their schools to participate. 

Hill said future PAC meetings will have an assigned notetaker to record feedback and discussion highlights and that these notes will be made publicly available.

The next meeting will be held Dec. 7, at the district’s East Professional Center.

The state of parent engagement in Cleveland schools

As the search for a new CEO begins, family engagement has become a top priority in almost every discussion of the district’s future. This isn’t the district’s first effort to improve communications with parents.

In the 2021-2022 school year, CMSD launched its Parent Ambassador Program, which pays engaged parents to act as liaisons between students, their families, and school district leadership.

The refreshed Cleveland Plan requires engagement as a key pillar for quality education. 

Last month, Mayor Justin Bibb’s office released a report titled Cleveland’s Youth Can’t Wait. It’s based on a citywide listening tour that solicited feedback from parents and educators and lists “elevating parent voices to drive progress” as one of the administration’s top priorities for education.

One of the things that we know we need to strengthen is school communication, two-way communication between schools and families.

Tracy Hill, Executive Director of Family and Community Engagement at CMSD

Hill believes the district has built a high level of trust with parents in the past decade. Citing a survey taken last spring, she said, “over 90 percent of our parents indicated that they felt the students were being well-served and they had a high level of trust for our educators.”

Hill said that feedback from parents shows a high level of satisfaction. 

Ninety-five percent of Cleveland schools received the highest rating on parent engagement, Hill said, citing federal data.

CMSD is one of only a few districts with a parent engagement dashboard tracking engagement program success.

The district still needs improvement

“One of the things that we know we need to strengthen is school communication, two-way communication between schools and families,” Hill said. 

Mayor Bibb’s community listening tour report concluded the same thing. Parents said they “do not always feel that they are contacted enough about significant school safety incidents or their child’s academic progress.”

The report said there is a need for more accessible information and resources that meet parents where they are.

Hill said the network of parents at CMSD can play a key part in strengthening the communication between schools and families.

“School parent organizations or parent advisory committees have membership of a broad base of students’ families,” she said. 

Watkins, who became a parent ambassador for her child’s school this year, said she has noticed a trend of parents wanting to get more involved in their children’s education by volunteering at a school or by becoming a member of a parent advisory committee. 

“I would like to see more conversations happening so that more parents feel like they’re part of the process of their children’s education,” Watkins said. “I’m really hoping that the Parent Advisory Committee will someday need to be in an auditorium.”

K-12 Education Reporter (he/him)
Paul, a former City Year Cleveland AmeriCorps member based in a charter school, covered K-12 education for Signal Cleveland until August, 2023. Paul joined us from Cleveland Documenters, where he focused on creating infographics and civic tech to make public information more accessible. Paul is also a musician, photographer and graphic designer.