This interview was originally published in Urban Matters by our colleagues at The Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

Last month, Natasha Quiroga, formerly director of the Parental Education and Readiness Program (PREP) and senior counsel for the Education Opportunities Project at the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, became director of education policy and InsideSchools at the Center for New York City Affairs.

Urban Matters: How did parental empowerment in education become the focus of your professional life? What perspective does your background as a civil rights lawyer give you on this work?

Natasha Quiroga: I come from a family of educators and I’m a teacher’s kid. That influence and my own desire to help students avoid the challenges that I faced led me to law school. My goal was to be an advocate for children, especially those from marginalized communities, like me. While in law school, I created a leadership and college prep program for Latinx high school students. Their parents were eager to learn more about the U.S. education system and it was through this program that I realized how critical it was to empower both students and parents.

Getting a good education should not be as difficult as it is. Our country’s educational system is complex, with confusing policies and rules, even more so if you have a disability or don’t speak English. I have spent my legal career empowering parents and students through making education laws and policies more accessible. You shouldn’t need a law degree to figure out how to work our education system. The information is often online, but incredibly difficult to find and full of jargon and legalese. That’s why I’m so excited to join InsideSchools in helping parents find answers and pathways to education equity for all children.

UM: InsideSchools has always been about democratizing information for parents about their kids’ schools. That was central to your mission directing PREP, too. What did you learn and accomplish there that can further those goals here?

Quiroga: My goal has always been to provide parents with the tools and information they need to be their child’s best advocate. While directing PREP, I learned that you have to meet parents where they are and it has inspired me to center student and parent voices in my work. Ensuring parents are well-equipped to support their child’s individual needs can result in sustained engagement and increased access to a quality education for all children. I also learned that students are eager to learn more about their rights and take action themselves.

I am excited to continue this work at InsideSchools by expanding outreach to the most marginalized families and providing parents with answers to every question they have about their child’s education. We plan to enhance InsideSchools to help families navigate the education system, including building out resources tailored for students and engaging more partners in our work. To make sure we can address families’ most pressing educational concerns, we need feedback from the community and I look forward to talking to as many parents, students, educators, and anyone interested in education as possible.

UM: National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math scores for New York State fourth-graders fell dramatically last year compared to 2019. Reading scores dipped, and are below national levels. Is this evidence of pandemic-era learning loss? Are schools taking the right approach to turning things around?

Quiroga: The pandemic completely disrupted education, especially for children from communities disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. Students of color from low-income families likely were already facing inequities at school.

The NAEP scores show New York City students are behind as a group, but it’s harder to tell how individual students are doing. In the city, 90 percent of parents think their kids are at grade level in math, but only 26 percent of students actually are. Despite this disparity, 83 percent of parents report their kids get mostly A’s or B’s. So how are parents supposed to know how their kids are doing?

That’s why InsideSchools is partnering with Learning Heroes on the national Go Beyond Grades campaign, to encourage parents to find out more about their child’s academic progress and sign up for summer learning opportunities.

With the City providing funds for programs like Summer Rising, we’re hopefully on the right track to begin addressing these inequities. Beyond academics, we also need to focus on meeting students’ social/emotional needs and ensuring they are provided with the mental health supports they need.

UM: During the pandemic many special education services slowed down or even stopped completely. InsideSchools has developed a partnership with INCLUDEnyc, an organization representing families of kids with disabilities. What direction should that take now?

Quiroga: This is a huge question! The majority of trainings I led while at PREP focused on special education. I trained not just parents, but also teachers and school administrators, because special education is incredibly complicated.

Unfortunately, many New York City students with disabilities are not receiving their mandated special education services, including 37 percent of preschoolers (9,800 children) and 64 percent of bilingual special education students (3,100 students). And that’s just students who have been identified as needing special education.

More funding is needed to ensure students receive the special educations services they are entitled to. This will help address staffing shortages for those providing services and transportation, including more certified bilingual special education teachers and evaluators for those schools without bilingual special education classes.

Parents need to know what rights their children have and what to do if they are not receiving the special education services they need. That’s why our partnership with INCLUDEnyc is so important. Together, we can ensure that parents get their questions answered and that their children’s need are met.

UM: In the past year, more than 7,200 children seeking asylum in the U.S. have become students in New York City schools. In some ways, their experience is unique. In other ways – involving homelessness, poverty, trauma, and dual-language learning needs – it’s shared by a lot of their classmates. You’ve had a lot of experience with such students and their families. How will that inform your work at CNYCA?

Quiroga: Because of my own immigrant roots (my father is from Bolivia and my mother is Chinese – first in her family born in the U.S.), I have always been interested in supporting and welcoming immigrant families. In the last several years, I led monitoring visits to children’s detention facilities, worked with separated parents in detention on the border, and supported asylum-seekers bused to New York.

People often don’t realize immigration enforcement negatively impacts a child’s ability to learn and succeed in school. I created trainings on the legal journey facing immigrant children so educators and advocates can learn about the conditions facing children while detained and the laws and policies impacting their education and legal journeys.

The immigration legal system is incredibly complex and constantly changing. Family engagement for asylum-seekers and English learners has always been a challenge for schools. With so much misinformation, and so many challenges in adequately supporting immigrant students, I hope to bring my experiences and commitment to advocating for immigrant students and families to CNYCA.