School system's vital Parent Academy needs sharper focus
By Michael Lewis
A new network of classrooms at more than 80 sites countywide is to open in August to teach 10,000 parents a year how to help their children do well in public school.
There's no better idea around. Education is the key to our future, yet a whole level of lower-income pupils is being left behind because parents hinder rather than help them succeed in school.
Recognizing the disconnect between parents of the backwatered pupils and the schools, Superintendent Rudy Crew suggested a solution: the Parent Academy. The school board approved the concept in May and last week approved hiring seven staff members.
But good as the idea is, a mammoth impediment could kill it: the time needed to launch a broadly focused effort far larger than anything in the nation.
To make the Parent Academy succeed - and remember, it opens in less than two months - organizers must first hire a staff that includes the top educator, find $3 million for the first year, line up 30 to 40 corporate partners for in-kind donations, hire hundreds of part-time teachers, develop an innovative trilingual curriculum, nail down 80 or more class sites, determine class hours for 130 or so courses to be offered countywide in three languages and figure out how to reach and lure into class 10,000 parents of at-risk kids.
In a bureaucracy like our school district, fourth-largest in the nation, you might expect scores of professionals to toil for years to get a plan like this going.
But the academy is a slimmed-down operation - far too slim.
So far, success rests on the developmental efforts of volunteer Adrienne Arsht, chairwoman of TotalBank who has contributed almost half of the academy's $106,025 funding to date and is titled chairman of the Parent Academy Team; and James Bender, who came aboard in March under contract to do development work and expects to become one of the academy's seven fulltime employees.
Much as we could applaud the skeleton effort as opposed to a big-spending leviathan, this appears to be far too little far too late.
Mr. Bender seems to have no doubts that all will fall into place under a new nonprofit group that is to be created under the school system umbrella to run the operation, raise the money and handle funding. He's got a vital supporter in Rod Petrey, president of the Collins Center for Public Policy, which has stepped in temporarily to watch the money and teach the academy how to raise funds for the future.
"It isn't yet organized for efficient fundraising from business or the private sector," Mr. Petrey said. "We plan to jumpstart their efforts to do it."
Mr. Bender expects lots of money for the Collins Center to watch. In order to keep the academy running, he's seeking a $15 million to $20 million endowment to give it staying power.
Because the Collins Center will watch the money, donors may feel more secure than if their aid were poured into the school district's mammoth pot. But Mr. Petrey sees the Collins Center exiting within a year. The academy will need a replacement with which donors can feel equally safe.
How big is this undertaking? While pilot projects have been tried elsewhere, Mr. Bender says, nobody has done anything like this.
"It's a groundbreaking program," said Daniella Levine, executive director of the Human Services Coalition. "It's not being done anywhere else in the country on this scale."
Since Mr. Crew floated the idea in November, this has gone too far too fast.
"It still needs to be fleshed out," Maria Alonso, Bank of America senior vice president and chairwoman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's education committee, told the committee Friday in Fort Lauderdale.
School board members express concerns about the academy.
"I'm afraid it's going to fail," said Chairman Frank Bolaños, who says the school board plans a workshop before it's too late. He says he's going to try to refocus the plan to mimic successful programs for parents in individual schools rather than reinvent the wheel. "I'm hoping I can redirect it somewhat."
Since the academy has little cash, he says, it should operate at just a few sites, perhaps one in each school board member's district - nine in all - to target specific schools and specific parents. "You start doing things like this as a pilot program."
Mr. Bender, on the other hand, sees rapid expansion. While the target is 80 sites on opening day, he wants more.
But while the aim is wonderful - teach parents about schools so they can help their children - the proposed curriculum is far too broad and much of it far off target.
The 130 courses - Mr. Bender says more can be added if parents ask - offer on-target academic support like homework tips, study skills for your child, how to challenge gifted children and how to set up a learning home environment. But just 13 courses deal with academic support like this.
Other classes seem off-base. There's one on tax preparation, another on music history and one that might get lots of enrollment, salsa and ballroom dancing. Parents can study yoga, aerobics and fitness walking. Nice, but how does all that fit into the academy's mission?
Mr. Bender's package notes that the Miami Herald will help with classes on saving money with newspaper coupons and using the Five Minute Herald - classes more self-serving than what this groundbreaking effort deserves.
The whole Parent Academy structure makes the school system sound like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the old movie, two teens who get together and say on the spur of the moment "Let's put on a play!" This is a few organizers suddenly saying, "Let's put on an adult school system!"
As Mr. Petrey of the Collins Center and others note, Miami isn't an educational vacuum. It has an array of organizations whose work could link to the academy, including PTAs and nonprofit groups like the Education Fund. Work with them, Mr. Petrey suggests, and exchange information.
In the rush to start something new, tried-and-true efforts are bypassed - not to mention the 50,000 people already in the school system's adult programs in a long-established, well-funded effort.
Focus on the specific goal of educating parents to help their children through school would avoid massive duplication. That way, all efforts would be on target.
The breadth of the academy's efforts and the haste to get it up and running alarm supporters.
Looking Friday at the academic calendar he was carrying with a class start date of Aug. 8, school board member Augustin Barrera said of the academy's schedule, "It's scary."
While he believes the academy can succeed, "it's going to take a couple of years," a good public-relations job and getting businesses involved financially.
"We still have to win back business-community credibility," he says of a school system that long has been branded as poorly managed. That, unfortunately, won't be easy with a program that seems to be all over the place and overly ambitious in timing and scale.
Starting this massive effort with just outside funds and nothing from the district is unrealistic, Mr. Barrera says, so the school board must provide seed money.
Before the academy steps forward, however, Mr. Barrera expects Superintendent Crew to come before the school board with a firm list of class sites, a firm curriculum and a firm schedule of costs.
Even given the massive challenges, Mr. Barrera says Mr. Crew could actually make this vital program succeed. "If anyone can do it, he can do it."
Realism in timing and scale and a far sharper focus would make that easier.