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Parents in the Picture

Building partnerships that last beyond ‘Back to School Night’

By Cindy Long

Often the lone volunteer in her sons’ classrooms, Amy Anderson used to make assumptions about the other, missing parents—that they didn’t care, or that their priorities were somehow out of whack. That was before she met Lorelei.

Anderson and Lorelei were neighbors on a military base in Wichita Falls, Texas, whose boys were friendly in school. Once, as their sons played together, Lorelei commented that she admired Anderson for volunteering at the school and wished she could, too. Only she didn’t think she belonged there.

A small town girl from rural Alabama with a syrupy southern drawl, Lorelei never finished school. To supplement her enlisted husband’s salary, she went to work nights at a local strip club just off base. She was afraid she’d be unwelcome at the school and would embarrass her children. It was just as well—as a high school dropout, she didn’t think she’d contribute much anyway.

“I convinced her to come in with me while I was volunteering so she could see that there are no academic skills necessary for handing out juice boxes,” says Anderson. “You should have seen her son’s face when she walked into the classroom. It just lit up.”

As a fellow parent and neighbor, Anderson was able to accomplish what no “Back to School Night” flyer or invitation to the PTA meeting could have. She brought a parent who had been hiding in the shadows through the school doors. Since that first day with Anderson, Lorelei volunteers regularly. And rather than embarrassing them, her presence at school is helping her children succeed. Research over the past two decades consistently confirms the link between parent involvement and student achievement.

Anderson’s actions exemplify what Eileen Kugler, author of Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools Are Good For All Kids , says schools need to know about getting more parents  and guardians involved—nothing beats being invited by a peer. Schools that leverage parents’ relationships with each other, she says, can build networks of active parents.

“By increasing opportunities for parents to be involved, they not only help those families, but they build links among all families in the community, strengthening the school culture,” Kugler writes.

As Amy Anderson discovered, sometimes all it takes is a friendly invitation from one parent to another. In the right hands, that invitation can even break long-standing cultural, language, and socioeconomic barriers.

Involving Immigrant Parents

Jeaneth Lazima, like most immigrant parents, wanted to be more involved but didn't know how to start.

Several years ago, Jeaneth Lazima went to a PTA meeting at her oldest daughter’s elementary school in Virginia. She stood along the back wall alone. “I didn’t feel welcome,” she says. “Everyone was in groups. Nobody talked to me.” She decided not to go back.

Lazima is from Guatemala, her husband is from El Salvador, and the family speaks Spanish at home. Like so many immigrant families, the couple moved to America so their children could have a better education and more opportunity. So Lazima was dismayed when her daughter was placed in classes she knew weren’t advanced enough. “She knew a lot of English,” says Lazima. “Still, they put her back, and she got behind in reading and writing.” The experience frustrated her, but Lazima didn’t feel confident about her English or know enough about the system to intervene.

“Immigrant parents are eager to become more involved in school, but many don’t understand the expectations of the American system and don’t feel 100 percent welcome,” says Kugler, whose children graduated from Annandale High School, the same school Lazima’s daughter now attends.

Annandale’s students come from 85 countries and speak 40 languages. In an effort to engage as many of these parents as possible, in 2005 Kugler established the Immigrant Parent Leadership Initiative, a series of classes and workshops to introduce parents to other parents, to teachers, and to helping their kids navigate the high school system.

Drawing the parents in took time—and many, many phone calls. One call Kugler made was to invite Jeaneth Lazima back to the school. “I started going, and learned so much so fast,” she says. At the workshops, held in both Spanish and English, Lazima met parents from all over the world—Bolivia, Ethiopia, Algeria, Pakistan, and Vietnam. They discussed differences between their home countries’ educational systems and methods for motivating their children and helping with homework. They learned how to talk to teachers and how to help their kids plan for the future. They toured the school library and the career center and heard guest speakers, including college admissions officers. In the end, Lazima learned how to advocate for her children.

“I don’t get as upset if there’s a problem, because I know how to talk to their teachers and counselors,” she says. When a report card arrived with a few C’s, Lazima was able to discuss her daughter’s academic strengths and weaknesses with the teachers so that, together, they could help the girl do better. Lazima also learned why her kids should take a variety of classes and participate in extracurricular activities. “Now I know my daughter is on the path to college,” she says.

To engage more parents like Lazima, Kugler recommends finding at least one bilingual parent from each immigrant group who’s willing to help. They can translate flyers, act as interpreters at parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings, or simply sit down with parents new to the school system to act as mentors. They can also go out into the community, along with teachers and other school leaders, to cultural festivals, houses of worship, parades, soccer matches—any community event that draws families—to help introduce parents to the school and welcome their involvement.

Meet Working Parents Halfway

Anna Marie Weselak, immediate past president of the National PTA, applauds new efforts to engage parents, guardians, and family members. But on a practical level, how do you reach those who can’t take time off during the day, who work nights and feel overwhelmed and overburdened? You have to meet them halfway, she says.

“When I was in school, my parents were both in the PTA,” says Weselak. “Parents automatically joined, no questions asked. Today, we’re going to parents instead of waiting for them to come to us.”

Now you’ll see the PTA at high school sporting events talking to parents who have come to see their kids play. You’ll see parent volunteers offering rides to parents without transportation. You’ll see the PTA provide childcare so that parents with very young children can attend meetings. Weselak also recommends creating more opportunities for parents to come into school. Most working parents have a lunch hour—set up meetings at that time, or allow parents to eat with their children, she says.

A Tale of Two Parents

The Partner Parent
Meet Kim Wilson.

The Helicopter Parent
Meet Shani Weber.

Offering family members school access during mealtimes, and even providing parents with free or reduced-price meals, helps bring in low-income and time-strapped working parents. Weselak once observed a father eating lunch with his daughter in a Montana elementary school. “The dad comes in the two days a week that he doesn’t work nights. His little girl said if she didn’t see him on those days at lunch, she wouldn’t see him at all.” Another school holds a “Donuts for Dads” program that encourages working fathers to come to school early, before their shifts start, to eat breakfast with their kids. There’s even legislation currently in Congress that would, among other things, grant parents time off from work to attend parent-teacher conferences and other school events. Introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), “The Balancing Act” is supported by NEA.

But there’s another group of parents that still avoids getting involved. They are the silent, alienated parents. This hardest-to-reach group had bad experiences when they were in school, feels uncomfortable with teachers, and is intimidated by the system. Maybe these parents blame themselves if their child isn’t doing well; maybe they don’t trust educators. Some grew up under the shadow of segregation and were mistreated or discriminated against in school. Others, like Lorelei from Wichita Falls, are simply afraid of being judged.

This is where creative community building comes most into play. In Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships , authors Anne Henderson, Karen Mapp, Vivian Johnson, and Don Davies write about Bruce-Monroe Elementary School, which sits between the Columbia Heights and Shaw neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.—home to mostly Black, Hispanic, and Vietnamese families but whose teachers are predominantly White. To help build relationships between the school and the community, the PTA organized a neighborhood walk, led by the school custodian, a longtime area resident. Teachers, education support professionals, and parent volunteers visited community-owned businesses, like an African culture bookstore, where the owner agreed to share his knowledge with classes. They met families and heard about residents’ plans for their neighborhood. And residents saw interested, concerned school staff making an effort to get to know them. They began to build trust.

Parents Helping at Home

Another approach is to involve parents in their children’s schoolwork. We need to recognize it as involvement, says Henderson, when parents talk to their kids about school, encourage them, and get involved with homework. “Sometimes, they might not know the best way to help,” she says, “but educators can show them the way.”

Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins University tested and developed the Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS) program, in which teachers design homework that requires children to talk to someone at home about the assignment. In a 1997 study of 700 Black middle schoolers, she found that TIPS improved student writing skills, grades, and test scores, and that parent involvement increased.

Cecily Myart-Cruz, who teaches English at Ralph Waldo Emerson Middle School in Los Angeles, didn’t need a study to prove TIPS works. Every morning when her students come into the classroom, they have a five-minute “quick write” about a daily quote Myart-Cruz writes on the board. Just in time for the 30th anniversary of Star Wars, she asked her students to write their thoughts about the quote: “May the Force be with you.”

“They like pop culture quotes best,” she says. “It trips them out.”

 Every night, the students take home their quick write and share it with their parents, who also respond to the quote. She’s had 100 percent participation from parents across the entire race and class spectrum.

“In middle school, students tend to not want to talk to their parents. It’s uncool. But parental involvement is important at every level…especially after they get older,” says Myart-Cruz. “My parents were working-class people, but at dinner time, they talked to me about things they saw in the news, or current events, and asked me how I felt about it. I wanted my students to share that with their parents.”

By broadening the definition of parent involvement, educators acknowledge the value of parental guidance and participation in student learning—that the parent has something meaningful and important to add, which, in turn, fosters more engagement.

“The bottom line is that we all want the same thing,” says Myart-Cruz. “Every single parent wants their child to succeed, to go to college. I tell them I’m living my dream every day that I walk into this classroom because I’m molding minds and shaping the future. But I need their help. This is where it starts.”

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