Educating the Schools

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With a new web site scheduled to launch this fall, the organization Advocates for Children hopes to help parents of children in public schools teach the Board of Education some urgent lessons.

The site, www.insideschoolsnyc.org, will provide the first online forum for public feedback to school superintendents, principals and other administrators, on everything from gangs in schools to loose asbestos, school curriculum to school buses. Parents will be led through the process of filing a complaint, choosing from among 20 main topics. They will then be informed about any laws relating to the topic and given a text area to fill n their concerns.

Next, they have the option of emailing or faxing the letter to the appropriate school officials, including principals, superintendents and Board of Ed staff. An automated email to parents follows up with each complaint two weeks later, inquiring whether the issue has been satisfactorily resolved.

But Advocates for Children does not have the staff to follow up in person. That’s where the project’s other feature comes in: the power to amass and track complaint data all over the city. If there are numerous reports about a problem at a particular school, or certain problems that are widespread throughout a district or school system, project staff will know it.

It remains to be seen what Advocates for Children will do with the data. At the east, they will post it on their website and use it to write internal reports and hold press conferences. “We want to make sure that individuals get satisfaction, but we’re equally excited that we’re able to track issues in the aggregate,” says Jill Chaifetz, the organization’s executive director. “We can’t do individual advocacy, but for systemic things, we can.”

Noreen Connell, executive director of the reform group Educational Priorities Panel, says that she anticipates the site will bring much-needed clarity to communication between parents and schools. Parents, she says, need to learn how to use legal information to get results, instead of relying on emotional pleas. It’s also rare for parents to document their exchanges with school administrators.

Advocates for Children is hoping the digital divide won’t get in the way. Although the web site is currently only in English, the group plans to offer a bilingual edition. It is also training staff at public libraries, community centers and community-based organizations about the site.

This August, with their kids still on break, a group of parents was scheduled to go to work in Advocates’ office, banging around the system for bugs.