Tjuna Eggson has worked in Milwaukee Public Schools for more than 20 years. Twelve of those years, she’s had the title of ‘parent coordinator.’ "One of the things that I found out is the position is really underrated," Eggson says.
Parent coordinators are classified as paraprofessionals, but their work doesn’t happen in the classroom. Their number one job is parent communication, and they are often the first point of contact for families when they have questions or concerns. They organize parent advisory groups, plan family events at the school, and have a range of other responsibilities depending on the day.
It’s a job that’s gotten more focus and funding in the school district since 2014. But Eggson thinks many people don’t understand, or even know about, parent coordinators. She sent WUWM a Beats Me prompt, saying we should spotlight what it means to be on the frontlines of family engagement in MPS.
WUWM asked MPS if we could shadow Eggson for a day at Westside Academy, where she has worked for four years. Instead, the district gave WUWM Education Reporter Emily Files one hour with her, saying school leaders want to keep their staff focused on the school day.
Eggson starts each morning standing inside the school entrance, greeting students.
"We’re welcoming the kids in, getting them ready to go to their rooms for breakfast," Eggson explains.
Westside Academy is a K3 through fifth grade school in the Walnut Hill neighborhood. Most of the about 200 students arrive by bus, but some are dropped off by family members.
Eggson says her presence each morning is one way to make families feel welcome.
"A lot of times parents are intimated by schools," Eggson says. "They’re intimidated by administrators and principals because they don’t feel like they’re on their side when something happens with their kids. So I try to make them feel comfortable. When you come through the door, if you have a question or concern, you’re upset about something, come in and let’s talk about what’s going on."
Eggson is there to help resolve problems between parents and school employees when they come up.
Greeting students at the front entrance each morning also helps her track the kids with attendance issues.
"One of our issues is tardiness," Eggson says. "Because a lot of those kids that are not on the bus or parents don’t put them on the bus, they end up bringing them but they bring them late."
Eggson calls families to tell them that if kids get to school late, they’re missing an important reading block first thing in the morning. MPS is in an ongoing districtwide campaign to boost attendance, and parent coordinators say they are a key part of the effort.
Another important part of the job, parent coordinators say, is connecting families with resources to help them with things like employment and housing. More than 80% of MPS students come from low-income households. Helping families become more stable helps children do better in the classroom.
"Parents come in and things are messed up in their lives," Eggson says. "So we have to kind of step in to help with that. We give them clothing, coats, hats in the wintertime. It's not just us coming to the building and occupying a space. We actually have to build relationships with parents."
Charlotte Johnson, the parent coordinator at Lloyd Barbee Montessori School, says she tries to let families know right away that she is there to help them.
"If you need anything, I have employment references, resume help, I have a computer in my parent center with a printer if you need to come in and print something," Johnson tells parents. "Anything they may need, if I don’t have an answer, I want them to know I’m gonna work with them to find an answer."
MPS Director of Strategic Partnerships and Customer Service Kellie Sigh says the district recognizes the importance of building good relationships between schools and families. Sigh’s office oversees family engagement, including parent coordinators.
"Research bears out that the more involved a parent is, the better the student outcomes are," Sigh says. "Clearly, as district, we’re concerned about student outcomes."
Sigh says that’s why, in 2014, MPS officials decided to bolster family engagement staff — placing at minimum, one 30-hour-a-week parent coordinator at every school. The positions are funded by federal Title 1 grants, which support high-poverty schools.
"Family engagement certainly has grown to be a much more concentrated focus," Sigh says. "Thus the development of a position (parent coordinators) that is considered to be the family engagement strategy for the district."
Tjuna Eggson says the district has taken some meaningful steps to emphasize family engagement. But she says if the district really wants parent coordinators to be successful, every position should be 40 hours a week, and the starting pay should be more than $16 an hour.
Eggson points out that MPS has incentives for paraprofessionals to become certified teachers, but no similar incentives to stay in the parent coordinator role.
MPS Board Member Sequanna Taylor proposed an amendment to the 2019-2020 budget that would boost every parent coordinator position to 40 hours. But that amendment did not make it through the budget process.
Board Member Paula Phillips, who serves as liaison to the parent-led District Advisory Council, says professionalizing the parent coordinator position by increasing hours and pay could foster more consistent family outreach. She says right now, parent involvement is thriving in some schools but not others.
"We see bright spots, but how to do it with 75,000 students and all of their parents and families … that has yet to realized," Phillips says.
Tuesday, we’ll hear from parents at a school going to extra mile to connect with families. And we’ll talk to outside experts who are working with MPS to improve family engagement districtwide.
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