Bringing parents on board

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Ask a teacher what she thinks is the biggest obstacle to improved student achievement, and she’ll likely say unsupportive parents.

That was the result five years ago when CATALYST surveyed Chicago Teachers Union delegates and chairs of schools’ professional personnel advisory committees—64 percent of both groups cited “apathetic or irresponsible” parents as a major impediment to school improvement, putting it in first place. Lack of parent support also was the big complaint four years ago when the U.S. Department of Education surveyed teachers nationwide and two years ago when the Phi Delta Kappan educational journal surveyed teachers.

“Teachers want parents to do things like read to their children, check homework and check bookbags for notes, because that’s one way teachers and the school communicate with parents,” says Laura Tapia, a Reading Recovery teacher at Saucedo Scholastic Academy in South Lawndale.

These are just some of the ways that parents can help not only teachers but also their children. Numerous studies have shown that children do better academically when parents are involved in their education; a wide variety of involvement—ranging from limiting TV time to helping guide the school—counts.

Research also shows that schools themselves can have an impact on parent support. Essentially, schools that give, get. First, they must make parents feel welcome; then they must engage parents in activities that promote student learning.

Saucedo is a prime example. The school is not simply open to parents; it goes out of its way to pull them in. The local school council chair, for example, greets and gets to know parents as they drop off and pick up their children. Then she invites them to check out the many activities Saucedo offers to help both children and adults learn. Principal Karen Morris even holds formal sessions where parents can register concerns or complaints about their children’s education. And she follows up with the children’s teachers.

“Parents are an important resource,” explains Morris.

She credits the school’s parent initiatives, which draw hundreds, in part for an increase in student attendance and a decrease in mobility. (See story on page 9.)

Barbara Buell, executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, says schools sometimes think they’re welcoming parents when they’re not. “You can say you are reaching out to parents and send out notices forever, but the key has to be personal contact,” she says. “You can’t say we have this program, come to us. Schools have to go to parents.”

The Panel has made parent involvement one of its top priorities, conducting workshops, creating a clearinghouse of resources and petitioning the School Reform Board for increased attention to parent involvement.

Charles Payne, chair of the African-American Studies Department at Northwestern University, stresses that in going to parents, schools must show respect.

“Parents can be extraordinarily sensitive to anything that suggests they are being ‘dissed’—the tone of voice which people use to speak to them, the amount of information they are given about school affairs and how people react to their suggestions,” he says.

Connee Fitch-Blanks, an assistant director at the Quest Center of the Chicago Teachers Union, agrees. Sometimes teachers are unknowingly disrespectful, she says. “They do it when they speak ‘Eduspeak,’ which amounts to talking above a parent’s head. Or parents read negative body language or pick up other signals, like when they meet with a teacher but are not invited to sit down.”

Norwood Park Elementary School is a case in point. Principal William Meuer says that when he interviewed for principal in 1994, the local school council told him that parents did not feel welcome there, that teachers looked down on them. He says the LSC made clear that teacher-parent relationships would have to be a top priority for the school’s next principal.

Meuer says the first thing he did upon being hired was to raise the issue with his staff.

“They were really surprised. I don’t think they were aware they were coming across that way,” says Meuer. “This school has a very strong, experienced, well-educated staff; some of them are working on doctorates and I think parents were intimidated. Once this was brought to their attention, they were more mindful of how they interacted with parents.”

In addition, Meuer instituted an open-door policy for his office, encouraged parents to get involved in the school and their children’s education and encouraged staff to follow his lead.

As a result, he says, parents feel more comfortable at the school and are pitching in more. For example, when an asbestos removal project left the school dirty and in disarray weeks before classes were to resume, parents showed up one weekend to help staff clean up.

Again, research confirms that cultural, racial, economic and educational differences between parents and teachers can lead each group to misconstrue each other, with teachers assuming parents don’t care and parents assuming teachers don’t want their input.

Tapia notes, for example, that parents from Mexico view teachers as second parents; when teachers don’t “mother” their children, they don’t understand.

For the past five years, the Quest Center has offered courses that teach teachers and parents how to work with each other.

“When parents and teachers take the course together, there’s a lot of role playing,” says Fitch-Blanks. “Parents get to be the teachers and visa versa so they see what it’s like in the other one’s shoes.”

Teachers also learn from their principals. “When people come through the doors, if they feel intimidated, it’s because of poor administration,” insists Etta Davis, a parent at Reed Elementary School. “When the atmosphere is negative and people are nonchalant and ask you, ‘What do you want?’ it’s the school’s administrator’s fault.”

Another Reed parent concurs, saying the school previously was inhospitable to parents; at the time, it had a principal who was “standoffish” and rarely visible. Davis rallied parents and local school council members to voice their concerns; soon after, the principal retired.

Saucedo’s Morris, winner of a 1997 School Leadership Award for Outstanding Principals, is one of the city’s premier parent-involvement “teachers.” “I can’t just buy into this philosophy,” she says. “The teachers, the clerks, the janitors, support staff, everyone has to buy into it. And I think once they find out how valuable parents can be, they do.”

David Peterson, assistant to the president at the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, agrees that principals set the tone.

“You have to like kids and people to be in this business,” he says. “And while the pressure is on bringing up test scores, relationships are part of the bigger picture, and that can’t be put on the back burner.”

Peterson says that next year, the Chicago Academy for School Leadership, the association’s staff development arm, will offer classes on relationships between staff and parents.

Joyce Epstein, director of the Center of School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, says that school boards have a role to play, too. They can set a tone, she says, by offering schools incentives or strongly encouraging them to develop solid parent-involvement programs. Currently, Epstein is working through the National Network of Partnerships-2000 Schools to develop school-family-community partnerships in Baltimore and Los Angeles.

Still, Epstein acknowledges that respect for parents can’t be mandated. “Sometimes you have to develop behaviors first, and then attitudes change,” she says.

Says Buell, “I don’t think a nudge from the board would hurt in those schools where leadership needs a boost.”

Last July, the Reform Board approved a new principal evaluation form to be used by regional education officers and local school councils; parent and community involvement is one of the areas of evaluation.

In September, the board passed a parent-involvement resolution, written by the national PTA, that encourages every school to develop, implement and regularly evaluate a parent involvement policy and program.

Now, a task force initiated by the Chicago Panel is pushing for follow-up. Called the Parent Connection Task Force, the group of principals, business organizations and reform groups has sent recommendations to both Reform Board President Gery Chico and Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas. Specifically, it wants:

The board’s resolution to be presented and explained at the next systemwide principals’ meeting.

All administrators, teachers and staff to complete a class or workshop on parent involvement by September 1999.

Parent involvement training to be required for all local school councils, beginning in September 1999.

Central office staffers in charge of the parent-involvement component of various programs to meet this school year to coordinate their efforts and, by the year 2000, create a department of parent involvement services in central office.

Every Chicago school to have a parent center in place by the year 2002.

“Involving parents cannot be an agenda item,” says Buell. “It has to be ongoing.”

At Catalyst press time, no one from the board had responded to the Panel. However, Buell wasn’t concerned. “I already know central office departments have moved to coordinate their efforts, so I’m not disheartened that I haven’t heard anything. Sometimes you don’t need a formal response if you see action being taken.”