Parents & Schools: Break Down the Barriers

How urban schools can increase parental involvement.
By Cleaster Jackson
Principal, March/April 2019. Volume 98, Number 4.

The benefits of parental involvement are well-documented. Research shows a high correlation between parent involvement and student achievement. Other benefits include improved attendance, improved classroom behavior, more confidence among parents in the education their children are receiving, and higher scores on satisfaction surveys.

But all too often, we are willing to accept the premise that urban parents have a disconnect with their child’s education or don’t care about it. A lack of engagement in the child’s school is often seen as a problem of the parent and home, not typically the fault of the school. But there are personal and institutional barriers that can discourage involvement.

Personal Barriers

Lack of confidence. Parents often lack confidence in their ability to advocate for their child’s educational needs, thinking that with their own limited education, they lack the skills to help decide what kind of education their child should receive. Schools might exacerbate this lack of confidence by failing to communicate effectively with parents, using insider acronyms such as IEP (individualized educational plan), SST (student support team), RIT (response to intervention), MAP (measure of academic progress), and so on.

Lack of role models. Many of today’s parents lacked good models of home/school involvement in their own homes growing up. These parents might have come from generations that had negative experiences with schools and became disengaged. Some report that they receive a phone call from the school only if a child is sick, injured, or in trouble.

Institutional Barriers

Making assumptions. There is an assumption on the part of some educators that urban parents don’t see their child’s education as important. “When we believe that parents of poor students care less than parents of the affluent, we do our students and society a monolithic disservice,” Leslie Ferguson writes in a Fast ForWord blog post. “Actually, studies show that parents of lower socio­economic status
‘want to be involved in their students’ education just as much as parents with higher incomes and more education.’”

Lack of effort. Schools might be unwilling to make parents feel their presence is needed, wanted, and valued. Parents have told me that they can’t just come to their child’s school and sit in on a class; administrators say it will interrupt learning. I know for a fact that this is not true. If your children are accustomed to seeing parents and visitors in classrooms, it becomes the norm, and students will continue to work without distraction. Principals must teach parents how to observe and the importance of not disturbing the educational environment.

Getting Started

If you see the benefits of having strong parent connections in your school, not only will your students and their families benefit, but you will also increase your volunteer base. Successful parent involvement often delivers additional resources to your school that enhance opportunities for your students.

To encourage stronger connections, take the following steps:

1. Conduct a staff/parent survey. The survey should be short and simple, while communicating that parents’ responses are valued. Use multiple-choice and short-answer questions; ask what is working and not working at your school. Make an effort to collect surveys from a majority of parents at all grade levels.

2. Analyze the data. Plan a meeting with your staff and parent group. Be careful to not take the feedback personally, and most importantly, do not defend actions or debate issues. Right or wrong, you want to hear everyone’s perceptions. After the meeting, send a short personal note to the parents who attended, thanking them for their participation.

3 .Assess your parent organization. Does your Title I office offer parent training in leadership? Do you have a parent leadership team or need to establish one? Assuming you have one, look for ways to strengthen it.

4. Increase participation. Assign a team of teachers who have good relationships with parents the task of increasing parent participation. This team should work to build stronger home connections with the parent group and report to the staff on at least a monthly basis.

Be transparent as you seek more parent attention and input. Look at your own beliefs about parents’ value in your school; if your beliefs don’t support strong, positive parent involvement, you must be willing to change your thinking to put new practices into place. Good luck as you work to make your parents an integral part of your school team.

Cleaster Jackson, Ed.D., is an educational consultant with Jackson Educational Consultants and director of Student Support at Victory World Christian School in Norcross, Georgia.

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