Getting Parents on Board
A timely refresher on parent involvement
In Kimberly Oliver’s kindergarten class, there are just 15 students, but they represent nearly every continent on the globe. Her school, Broad Acres Elementary in Silver Spring, Maryland, is largely low-income, with 90 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price meals. Nearly 80 percent of the children do not speak English at home.
Helping her students’ parents, many of them immigrants, stay involved and engaged in their children’s education presented a challenge for Oliver, the 2006 National Teacher of the Year. She overcame the hurdle by sponsoring “Books and Supper Night,” an event held four times a year that allows families to visit the school and check out books from the library. They read together, receive free books to continue family reading time at home, and enjoy a communal dinner where they interact with and get to know their neighbors.
With a little creativity, Oliver was able to take the burden off of parents struggling with language barriers or illiteracy. Yet hard-to-reach parents do not fall into any race or class—it is simply a matter of circumstances. It may be the professional parents who work long hours or the family without a phone. It may be a single mom unable to find childcare so she can visit the school, or parents too embarrassed by their speech, dress, or English skills to walk through the school doors.
As educators, we often struggle when it comes to involving some parents in their child’s education. There is no official manual on engaging parents and community members, but there are effective strategies that can serve as a prescription for success in getting parents, especially harried parents with little time and few resources, to participate in school.
Ideas include meeting parents on their turf through home visits; parent meetings in neighborhood centers, restaurants, and other locations that are close and comfortable for community members; and family resource centers in schools with flexible hours so parents can attend informal gatherings or workshops during the day, at night, or on weekends.
Wishing for more parent involvement won’t make it happen. Sometimes we need to go the extra mile to connect with parents so they can see that we, like them, are dedicated to their children succeeding. We can also help improve public education because parents who get involved in their child’s school are more likely to become advocates for schools in their neighborhoods and communities.
As partners, parents and educators have forced politicians to address the class size issue. And it has been parents and educators who have fought for up-to-date textbooks and materials, and fought against harmful policies that divert scarce resources from public schools.
Providing every child, regardless of race, income, or ethnicity, with a quality education is a basic right that our public schools must deliver. But we can’t do this job alone. By the age of 18, children have typically spent only 13 percent of their waking lives at school. Our best efforts to close the achievement gaps and raise student achievement are going nowhere unless we have major help from outside the school.
Team NEA, as we start a new school year, the message we must send to parents is that we can’t replace you, we can’t do it for you, but together, we can make a huge difference for your child. Have a wonderful year, and thank you for working hard to create great public schools for every student!
NEA President Reg Weaver
Photo: David R. Barnes/NEA