Dear Mr. Martinez, CPS needs a better U/X for parents

Dear CEO Martinez,

I’m the kind of parent you worked hard to attract as CEO of San Antonio schools. I’m new to CPS. After years of sending my children to Catholic school, followed by pandemic homeschooling, my children (now in 5th and 6th grades) are enrolled for the first time at Kozminski Community Academy, our neighborhood elementary school. 

While our children’s experience so far has largely been positive, my and my husband’s experience as parents has been annoying, confusing, frustrating and discouraging. As you begin your work at CPS, we implore you to improve the parent user experience—in tech parlance, U/X—focusing on making systems clear, transparent, and user-friendly.

Is all this enrollment paperwork really necessary?

Since school attendance is compulsory and neighborhood schools are connected to one’s address, I assumed enrollment would be relatively simple. But for us, it wasn’t. 

When I spoke with the school clerk to begin the process, she gave me a list of necessary documentation: proof of address, original birth certificates, immunization records and a state-issued ID that reflected our current address. 

The problem was that, although my husband and I each had a non-expired driver’s license, our current address was not reflected on either of our IDs, as we have recently moved. And, as I have since learned, the Illinois Secretary of State will not provide a new ID for a simple change of address; a person must go to a Secretary of State location in person to be issued an updated ID. 

My husband, who has a more flexible work schedule than I do, spent an entire day driving to the office downtown and waiting in line to get a new ID. We have a mortgage, multiple utility bills, homeowner’s insurance and voter registration connected to our current address. Are those forms of documentation not sufficient?

As I’m sure you know, Mr. Martinez, today’s irregular hours and demanding jobs make it very hard to deal with red tape. If it was hard for us, how hard is it for parents on shift work or on-demand schedules who have even less time to deal with the Secretary of State? Obviously, it’s important to document who children are, where they live and who is responsible for them, but there must be a way to do this that is less time-consuming and confusing for parents.

When It Comes to Communication, Simplify

Once our kids were successfully enrolled, I started the deep-dive of where and how to receive information. Aspen! Remind! Emails! Google Classroom! School website! Each of these tools was presented as an important source of information but without clarity of where to go for what. Navigating these systems is often unclear, and I frequently feel like I’m missing something. I may not be. But I don’t know.

I haven’t even mentioned information related to COVID mitigation and communication. But of course, it too is part of the picture this year. The promise of weekly screening testing was a significant part of our decision to send our kids back to school in person this year. And yet, my children were in school an entire month before being tested once. I frequently receive updates about testing from the news—but not from CPS or my neighborhood school. 

During the last week of September, the school hosted a virtual open house. But when the day came around, several of the drop-in links shared with us were broken, and neither my husband nor I had the opportunity to speak with some of the teachers we had been looking forward to meeting.

It was a small thing – something that has happened to every person in this virtual world imposed by the pandemic. But it was the thing that made me feel the impossibility of navigating this system.

It took one whole month of my kids being in our CPS neighborhood school for me to wonder if we had made the wrong decision.

It took one whole month of my kids being in our CPS neighborhood school for me to wonder if we had made the wrong decision. We’re staying. But I never felt this particular brand of frustration when my kids were at the Catholic school.

Individual Schools Cannot Solve This Alone

I do not blame my children’s school for these communication breakdowns. In a place where every staff person is doing a third more than what they should be, it is not anyone’s job to hold the Nice White Parents’ hands while they learn the ropes. But the more difficult it is for parents to access the information we need, the more frequently we reach out to the school’s overworked staff members. What is CPS doing to support them so that they can best support students?

It’s also an equity issue. Inequitable resource distribution among schools shows up in whose websites are easier to navigate. Just at a glance, you can see the disparity between the  Ray School Website and the Kozminski Website. These schools are six blocks apart. Ray is the preferred CPS school for white parents in the neighborhood. It’s hard not to ask why a school with larger numbers of white parents has a more user-friendly website than a school where most families are Black.

Again, my children’s experience with their new school has been mostly positive. They have friends. They enjoy their teachers. They are doing well academically. It is my own experience as a new parent trying to be involved in and informed about their education that has made me want to pull my hair out.

Please Start By Listening to Parents

Please, Mr. Martinez, as you hit the ground, take the time to listen to parents. Creating a smoother experience and points of entry for parents is part of earning their trust. Clarity and transparency are not easy. Both require focus and intentionality. If CPS is going to create a smoother user experience for parents, it must be a larger strategic priority that is supported across the entire organization.

In your welcome letter to parents on September 30, you referenced experiencing CPS as a parent. I implore you to spend time mapping parents’ experiences from their children’s first enrollment to graduation. Do not utter the words “low parent involvement” until you have spent time spiraling into a frenzy trying to figure out what person you need to talk to in order to access the information you need so that you can help your child succeed in school.

After all, the hard truth is that parents who have a choice – those who can afford private schools for their children, for example, or those parents with reliable transportation who can snag a seat for their child at a better-resourced magnet school – will choose a place with a smoother parent U/X, leading to the enrollment death spiral and leaving families without the privilege of choice trapped in a frustrating cycle of constantly dwindling school resources.

That’s the cycle you worked hard to break in San Antonio. You can start to break that cycle here just by creating clear, equitable systems and cutting the red tape and communication breakdowns that bedevil parents all over the city.

Ultimately, improving the parent U/X in CPS will benefit those at the center of our work: our children, your students.

Ultimately, improving the parent U/X in CPS will benefit those at the center of our work: our children, your students. There are bodies of research connecting parent and family involvement in schools with student success. In light of the trauma and disruption that so many students are experiencing this year, I hope CPS will embrace every avenue that can foster student success. 

So, Mr. Martinez, if you want to promote success for CPS students, please work to lower the barriers to parent partnership, and you can begin by making the systems that parents use easier to enter and navigate.

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Kira Dault

Kira Dault is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago with her family. She can be found on Twitter @kiradault.