As the landmark legislation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), takes root in America’s schools, parents are going to have a new bill of communication rights—from choice provisions and school report cards, to the availability of teacher credentials and supplemental services.

Beginning this school year, districts must issue report cards on school safety and student performance by grade, subject, ethnicity and race, economic status, and other factors. The goal is to give parents the information they need to compare school results.

While this sounds good in theory, once again the devil is in the details, or rather in how your state is going to define such potentially explosive terms as “proficient,” “adequate yearly progress,” “scientifically based,” “highly qualified,” and “persistently dangerous.”

On the other hand, parents can’t take advantage of the new choices they have if they don’t know they have them. As educators, it’s our job to help parents navigate these new and uncertain waters, even if it means their children might transfer out of our school or that the district will be paying additional fees for tutoring.

Since few, if any, school leaders are going to receive more money to fund these programs and services (let alone communicate them to the parents and the public), leveraging existing resources is going to be paramount.

Now’s the time to craft an action plan that addresses the communication challenges and opportunities posed by NCLB. Here are five strategies to help you meet these challenges head-on.

1. Form a small team to review the NCLB web site and other online resources to identify what’s required (and when) in terms of parental involvement, training, information, communication, and choice.

2. Link to high-quality sources of information for parents and staff from your school or district web site, while providing any additional context you think is important. (See GreatSchools.net for an excellent example of a parent-friendly site that helps demystify teaching and learning for parents.)

For example, if you believe that standardized tests shouldn’t be the only or primary measure of school success, help parents understand what other issues they should investigate—from class size to academic rigor and cultural diversity—when choosing a school for their children.

3. Create a web-enabled school report card template or use a program like Xerox Docushare to ensure district-wide equity and consistency in your reporting of vital school information. If you don’t want to create your own template, check out the user-friendly formats developed by GreatSchools.net.

If you really want to empower parents’ decision making, back your report cards with powerful databases and keyword search functions that allow them to find the schools that match their families’ needs (as indicated in the search criteria). Databases and search functions also make it easier for parents to compare and contrast more than one school at a time.

4. Plan proactively for any communication challenges or crises that NCLB might create within your school, district, or community.

Make sure you reach the people who matter the most quickly, directly, and accurately. For example, what are you going to say and what channels of communication are you going to use if your school is now considered “persistently dangerous” or “low performing” according to the federal government?

If you want to beat the media and public-school bashers to the punch, an eMail news blast is probably going to be your best bet, but you need to get your contact database set up in advance.

5. Start educating parents now about their rights and responsibilities under NCLB. Get them involved in developing parental involvement policies and communication strategies, whether or not your school receives Title 1 funds.

Create and post fact sheets, Q&A documents, timelines, calendars, and other NCLB-related information on your web site. Parent Leadership Associates, a Virginia-based consulting firm, has published a 30-page guide called “No Child Left Behind: What’s in It for Parents?” (See the firm’s web site for more information.)

Host an online workshop or webcast for parents on NCLB, and start focusing on NCLB-related issues on your school or district cable television programs. Use desktop video editing software, or even a simple PowerPoint presentation, to develop NCLB communication tools parents can tap into online or while visiting the school during open house, parent-teacher conferences, or family fun night.

The stakes for educators have never been higher. The impact of NCLB on public schooling in America is going to be significant and long-lasting.

By being proactive, we can help parents join with us to strengthen our schools for all children and help realize the vision outlined in NCLB. If we sit back and wait until the impact becomes clear, we will give those looking for alternatives to public education the ammunition they need. The choice is ours.

See these related links:

No Child Left Behind
http://www.nclb.gov

GreatSchools.net
http://www.greatschools.net

Parent Leadership Associates
http://www.plassociates.org