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Family Ties

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Years ago, Groucho Marx had a schoolteacher participating as a contestant on his popular TV show. In the course of conversation, Marx asked her about the parent-teacher association at her school.

"Well,'' she said innocently, "I'd have to say that about 80 percent of our parents are women.''

Flicking the ashes off his cigar, Marx commented dryly, "Things certainly have changed since I was a boy.''

Marx's words have a certain resonance today, when the implications of his sardonic comment are very different. Teachers are aware that the word "parents'' no longer automatically signifies Ward and June Cleaver clones and that the stereotypical stay-at-home "PTA mom'' is virtually extinct.

Single parents, dual-income parents, step- parents, foster parents, relatives in parental roles, parents sharing custody, noncustodial parents, parents who work at night, undocumented parents, homeless parents, parents with limited-English proficiency--these are just a few of the people that the definition of "parents'' has expanded to include.

The fabric of American society has undergone rapid and dramatic changes in the last 30 years, and so has the American classroom. Yet with all these demographic, economic, and cultural shifts, parental involvement in education remains an essential element in children's academic success. A substantial body of educational research has consistently shown that when parents value education and are actively involved in children's learning, the children do better in school, become more self-confident, and display more positive attitudes toward school. These results hold true across racial, socioeconomic, and cultural lines.

However, traditional methods of home-school communication can no longer be considered effective in reaching out to parents of diverse populations. To successfully involve parents in their children's education, educators today must consider nontraditional approaches to bridging homes and schools.

Here are some practical suggestions that educators may want to consider in developing parental-involvement strategies that accommodate changing family structures and dynamics:

  • Recognize that 50 percent of the nation's marriages end in divorce and that single-parent families compose approximately 25 percent of all families. Address all correspondence to "Dear Parent/Guardian'' rather than "Dear Parents.'' Be sensitive about Mother's Day and Father's Day activities. Check last names before contacting a parent by phone or by note; the student's last name may be different from the parent's.
  • A majority of mothers are in the work force. Most working parents don't have time during the day to participate in parent-teacher conferences or to volunteer in the classroom. However, they can still be involved in children's education. Try to schedule events and conferences in the evening to accommodate parents' schedules; some principals will work out release time for teachers to make up for evening meetings. Let parents know how they can support classwork at home. Remember that parents can make valuable contributions to children's learning without ever setting foot in the classroom--but they must be given some guidance.
  • Be aware that almost all parents want to help their children achieve academic and life success. Parents from low socioeconomic levels may have a poor assessment of themselves and their abilities to contribute to their children's schooling, but they want to be involved. Try holding informal gatherings with groups of parents where communication can take place in a nonthreatening setting. In Kenosha, Wis., one principal meets with parents on Saturday mornings in a local laundermat; they do their laundry while they talk. Be creative and open in your approaches to hard-toreach parents.
  • Some parents are uninvolved in school activities because they do not have access to transportation or they can't find anyone to care for their younger children. Many schools organize car pools and child care during parent-teacher conferences, open houses, and other events.
  • Language is often a barrier in our diverse cities, but some schools have decided to accept language differences as a challenge rather than a barrier. Leaders of ethnic communities will help schools find volunteer translators for parentteacher conferences or written materials for parents with limited-English proficiency.
  • Some parents' cultures may preclude a high level of involvement in the schools. In some cultures, it is totally inappropriate for parents to interact with children's teachers. Schools must make sure that parents know their input is welcome and appreciated.

Strong, positive partnerships between homes and schools are key to the establishment of a nurturing and supportive learning environment for children. Yale scholar James Comer has pointed out that when the experiences, attitudes, and behaviors accepted by the family and the school are the same, children are able to bond with teachers as well as parents, and their social and academic skills blossom. On the other hand, distance between the home and the school can result in dissonance, frustration, and difficulty for the child.

When schools and parents cooperate and collaborate, every aspect of the child's life is enhanced. Educators must learn to adapt to the changing needs of families and to understand their structures and dynamics if they are going to establish healthy and productive relationships with the parents of today's schoolchildren. --Meenakshi Gigi Durham

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