Milwaukee School To Pay Parents for Attending Workshops

By Deborah L. Cohen — October 31, 1990 4 min read

Foiled in their repeated attempts to draw parents to school, the principal and staff of Milwaukee’s Benjamin Franklin Elementary School are trying a new enticement: paying parents to attend school workshops.

On Nov. 6, the school will launch a series of workshops designed to help bolster parents’ self-confidence while coaching them on how to teach, discipline, and nurture their children.

Each of the 75 parents participating will receive $100 after completing the program. They must attend all six weekly two-hour sessions to receive the payment.

Parents selected for the program either had been previously uninvolved in school activities or have children experiencing academic or social problems or poor school attendance, according to James T. Henry, the school’s principal.

“If we can work with these parents in the area of self-esteem and help them to feel good about themselves,” he said, “the offshoot of that is just phenomenal.”

In recent years, programs awarding cash, merchandise, or other incentives to help motivate student achievement have gained popularity as well as notoriety. (See Education Week, March 2, 1988.)

While Benjamin Franklin staff members and parents slated to attend the workshops are enthusiastic about applying the concept to parents, critics are skeptical.

A recent editorial in The Milwaukee Journal, for example, argues that the stipend is “too much like a bribe.”

“The smart parent knows not to pay kids for doing what they are supposed to do,” The Journal says. “So why aren’t officials of Milwaukee Public Schools smart enough to know they shouldn’t pay parents for doing what parents are supposed to do?”

‘Part of Our Team’ (

But, Mr. Henry maintained, such incentives are needed to break the ice for school-shy parents, who, he argued, are more likely to become active in their children’s schooling after an initial positive contact with the school.

While parents may be receptive to school staff members who call them or be willing to accompany children on field trips, Mr. Henry said, enlisting their support at school is more difficult--especially among those who had bad experiences as students.

The program, he said, is designed to “bring them in and make them part of our team.”

. Henry said he had success with the concept at a previous school, which drew a record number of parents to a Chapter 1 meeting after it was announced that a prize would be awarded.

Mr. Henry and his staff devised the plan after learning that the district’s department of guidance and career education had grant money available for innovative projects. The $9,000 grant will cover the incentive payments as well as speaker stipends, child care during the work shops, supplies, and refreshments.

Besides self-esteem and discipline, workshop sessions will cover such topics as multicultural awareness and educational opportunities for parents.

“We are providing them with tools they can use to better themselves and their children,” said Lisa Gold en, the school’s parent-involvement coordinator.

Barbara J. Reed, president of the school’s parent-teacher association and one of the parents who will at tend the workshops, said that ''if the money was not there, I would still be attending the program.” But for some, she added, the payment could be the primary enticement.

“That’s O.K., too, because we’re still getting them involved,” she said. The benefits for parents--and ultimately for children--outweigh the disadvantages, she and others argue.

“If you learn something, you’re going to try and teach your child the same thing,” said Cheryl McDuffie, another parent slated to participate in the program. She says she also would do so without the $100.

Heather B. Weiss, director of the Harvard University Family Research Project, said her research on school- based family-support programs shows involving parents in schools is one of the biggest challenges for those launching efforts to better serve the families of at-risk children.

“I understand the desperation” to try new solutions, she said.

But she said she worries that the payments may “undermine” parents’ motivation to help their children and “send a message that this isn’t something you do to help your child, but something you do for pay.”

Targeting the program at uninvolved parents or those with low- achieving children could also rein force such behaviors, she added. While incentives are valuable in winning over hard-to-reach parents, Ms. Weiss said, hosting a social event or offering children’s toys, books, or games that parents can use to work with their children may be more consistent with “what you hope the pro gram is trying to do.”

But, Mr. Henry argued, if, as a result of the paid workshops, “we can get two, three, or four parents to be steady contributors to our school and monitoring their kids’ education, I think it is worthwhile.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 1990 edition of Education Week as Milwaukee School To Pay Parents for Attending Workshops