Since I joined EdNavigator as the organization’s very first Navigator, almost four years ago, our team has worked with nearly 500 New Orleans families across our city to support them in their pursuit of the best possible educational experiences for their children and themselves. That support might mean addressing their academic worries, making sure high-flying students get the challenge they need, finding summer programs, applying to college, and much more.
But sometimes, it’s not nearly that complex. Sometimes, it’s about a calendar.
Let me explain. In the course of our work, my teammates and I noticed an important pattern: Many of our families didn’t have ready and easy access to basic information about their kids’ schooling—things like dates of the school year or fees they’ll owe for any “extras” (like graduation caps and gowns or field trips). We also saw family after family struggle to get their children’s academic records in a timely fashion, keeping them from getting the support they needed.
Last year, Act 547, the Louisiana Parents’ Bill of Rights, set out to change that. When the Bill of Rights passed last August, it promised parents the right to clear and consistent lines of communication with school, and it clarified several types of information that parents must legally have ready access to. Specifically, Act 547 determined that schools are now required to display their annual calendar, uniform requirements, and any school fees (including an explanation for where that money was going), all on their school’s website. Importantly, Act 547 also requires schools to turn around students’ academic records within 10 business days.
It’s been almost a year since Act 547 passed in Louisiana, and we wanted to know how Orleans Parish schools were doing. Are schools holding up their end of the bargain and following through with the commitments required by the Parents’ Bill of Rights? Most important, are schools meeting the spirit of law, by making communication with parents easier and more transparent?
To find out, we put ourselves in the shoes of a parent: If we needed to find this information, could we find it? This wasn’t a scientific analysis, to be clear. But we scoured the websites of every school overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board, looking for the key information required by the new law. It turns out that while there have been some positive changes since the implementation of the Bill of Rights, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Overall, we found that about 60 percent of all schools are out of compliance on at least one of the three key requirements of Act 547. (We looked primarily at calendars, lists of fees, and uniform requirements, since it’s almost impossible to tell how many schools are complying with the academic records requirement using publicly available information alone.)
On calendars and uniform requirements, most schools are doing all right. About 86 percent of OPSB schools have calendars posted on their websites, and about 85 percent have clear uniform requirements posted. But less than half (45 percent) identify fees on their websites.
Even where schools are technically meeting the requirements, it isn’t always easy to actually access the information—violating what we believe is the spirit of the law. We often found ourselves scrolling through lengthy student handbooks to find uniform information, for example, or in some cases staring at two calendars with conflicting dates. The goal here is not to have fine print buried in a long document, where parents could find it if they had the time and energy to dig around. And it isn’t to make parents guess at what information is accurate versus what might be out of date. The goal of the Parents’ Bill of Rights is to give parents easy access to basic, important information from their children’s schools. It should make parents’ lives easier, save them time, and help them plan ahead to support their kids—whether that’s academically, by saving up for that special end-of-year field trip, or by ensuring that they don’t miss class time because they’re not meeting the dress code.
Sure, having information available in some form is better than nothing. But with a few simple improvements to school websites, parents could have much clearer, more transparent information. Why not use tabs to make it easy for families to jump to what they’re looking for, or highlight key information on the home page? Schools might look to Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary as an example. Their website features an entire section for “Families,” with each piece of information clearly labeled. Under “Expectations of Parents,” uniform requirements and school fees are easily accessible, and the homepage offers an expandable calendar. With a little more attention paid to details like these, schools could not only meet the letter of the law, but also allow parents to get back to the much more important business of supporting their children.