Teaching parents to teach kids

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Pickard Elementary

John Booz

Pickard Elementary

At Pickard Elementary on a recent Friday, Maria Ramirez and her daughter Diana, a 2nd-grader, go through their morning ritual before class: hugs, kisses and a firm but gentle reminder to Diana to “be good.”

But afterwards, instead of returning home, Ramirez heads to Room 101 to attend class herself.

She and several other mothers will become scientists during a two-hour parent workshop, completing hands-on, interactive projects using household items like string, rubber bands and coins. The group will learn scientific terms, make predictions and craft a hypothesis using scientific principles, and practice what they learn with each other.

At home, Ramirez will practice the projects with Diana to reinforce and supplement what her daughter has learned in school. So far, the workshops are paying off: Diana’s grades have risen from B’s to A’s.

“Before, when my daughter needed help with homework, I couldn’t do it because I didn’t know how,” Ramirez says. “But now I can explain things to her. And now she has a lot more confidence.”

One of education’s bedrock tenets is that parent involvement is critical to a child’s success in school. But getting parents involved in schools and their children’s education can be a struggle in large urban districts like Chicago. Many parent programs fall short because they are social, rather than educational, or involve only occasional workshops, say experts.

Scaling Up Best Practice, the structured series of workshops at Pickard and seven other elementary schools in Pilsen and Little Village, aims to bypass those pitfalls by teaching parents specific skills and techniques to use when helping their children.

Designed by the nonprofit Strategic Learning Initiatives, the program also provides professional development for teachers and support to principals.

Research will track test scores

Most programs do not pose the question, “How can I support my child in the education setting?” says Karen Morris, a co-director of Scaling Up and a retired principal of Saucedo Scholastic Academy. “And workshops tend to be one-shot things.”

Anecdotally, parents and principals praise the program. Victoria Cadavid, the principal of Pickard, says that parents now “know what steps need to be taken” to help their children.

“The topics support what the kids are doing in school,” says Sylvia Stamatoglou, principal of Perez. “And you can just see it in [parents’] faces—they are learning too.”

Research is underway to gather hard evidence of academic improvement, by tracking the test scores of students whose parents attend workshops. Preliminary data is expected in six months.

“We asked teachers if they noticed any major changes in their kids and they listed those kids for us and they were usually kids whose parents attended these workshops,” says John Simmons, president of Strategic Learning Initiatives.

In 2002, Pickard, Perez and Orozco elementary schools formed the Pilsen Education Network and partnered with Strategic Learning Initiatives to bring Scaling Up to their schools. Another network of five schools in Little Village—called Communities Dedicated to Kids, Schools and Success—was formed a year later. Last fall, from September through December, 234 parents attended workshops in the Pilsen schools; another 267 parents attended workshops in the Little Village network.

“Before we became part of the network, we brought in speakers to talk about things like immigration and domestic violence,” says Cadavid. “We also had craft activities. But it was not highly organized and it did not focus on what kids were doing in school.”

Scaling Up requires schools to commit to offering the workshops twice a month for at least four years. Workshops typically cover topics such as math, science, reading and literacy, homework help and how to help children succeed in school and build self-esteem.

Operating on the premise that parents are more comfortable with someone who has a connection to the school, workshops are taught by trained volunteer parent facilitators.

“In other schools, outsiders talk to parents,” says Cris Whitehead, Strategic Learning Initiatives’ director of parent engagement and former local school council chair of Saucedo. “Parents are comfortable with people they know.”

To become facilitators, parents attend 10 sessions covering public speaking, leadership, goal-setting and communication. Parents also learn how to design workshops and train other parents, so the school can carry on the program beyond the initial four-year commitment.

Five-point model

Scaling Up is based on a school improvement model created under former Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Argie Johnson, called Pathways to Achievement. (See Catalyst November 1995). The model covers five areas that research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research has found to be critical to school improvement: good leadership, a student-centered learning environment, parent and community partnerships, professional development and collaboration and high-quality instruction.

The five-point model “is a powerful tool, but it was not being adequately used,” in large part because doing so requires a concerted, long-term effort, says Simmons. “People are hesitant to take that on.”

Scaling Up’s parent component relies on research conducted by Joyce Epstein, the director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University.

“If family involvement activities are linked to school improvement goals like helping children in math, reading or attending school regularly, then those students will do better on tests, have better behavior, and all the other positive indicators of success in school,” Epstein says. (See Catalyst, “What Matters Most” series, March 1998)

Schools pay $45,000 each year for the four years of the program; the remainder of the cost, another $45,000, is picked up by private funders. (Costs include substitute teachers and training.)

Schools in the Pilsen network are already looking toward next year, which will be the last year under Strategic Learning Initiatives’ guidance.

One potential problem may be a lack of parent facilitators. “It is a huge commitment,” says Whitehead. “Also, sometimes parents’ confidence level raises so much that they go on to school or get jobs and leave.”

In March, Orozco had three facilitators, and Perez and Pickard each had one. The program calls for two at each school.

Still, Simmons says the problem is not insurmountable. Parent facilitators can conduct workshops at other schools, he says, and principals can step in to recruit parents if needed.

“When they are asked, there are many parents who will step forward to participate,” he says.

Next year, Strategic Learning Initiatives is looking to recruit a network of African American schools on the West Side.

“We’ve heard that these ideas may not work in these schools and we know that’s not true,” says Simmons. “There may be cultural differences among different communities, but the differences do not affect the basic way adults and children learn.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.