If school leaders delivered State of the Union addresses, just as presidents do, this would be it.
At the start of every school year, San Benito Superintendent Joe D. Gonzalez and other administration officials give a presentation to parents in which they layout their academic expectations for students for the coming year. The school officials speak in Spanish, so that their message is understood by the many non-English-speaking parents in this impoverished district near the southernmost tip of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, where almost 97 percent of the students are of Hispanic origin.
In addition to outlining the tougher standards that this year’s 1st and 8th graders will face in the spring of 2003, officials this year congratulated the parents for helping the 8,000-student district garner a “recognized” ranking under the state assessment system for the fifth consecutive year. The administrators told them that the district’s goal this year was to achieve “exemplary” status for the first time.
That so-called ''leadership seminar” is just one part of a year-round system of parental engagement that San Benito has put in place to make parents partner in the district’s efforts to meet or exceed the academic standards laid out by the district and the state.
“I told them that I won’t accept anything less than exemplary, and that I need their help,” says Gonzalez. “You’ve got to be proactive and get parents to buy in, in order to make a difference in student learning.”
Getting parents to buy in to a district’s academic goals can be difficult anywhere, but it’s particularly challenging in a place like San Benito, where 87 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and many mothers and fathers are not fluent in English.
A recent survey on education standards put out by Belden Russonello & Stewart and Research/Strategy/Management, two Washington-based research firms, found that one-third of parents with children in public school said they were not aware of the existence of academic standards where they live.
In San Benito, school leaders communicate academic expectations and information about the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills through a number of venues. The district has its own office of parental involvement that runs workshops for parents every Friday. Though workshop topics may cover anything from children’s literature to diabetes prevention, the district always devotes several springtime sessions to giving parents strategies for helping their children prepare for the math, science, and writing sections of the TAAS. The district provides parents with transportation to all the workshops and often offers food, such a Mexican sweet bread, a regional cuisine.
In addition, every school has a parent center that serves as a base for parent volunteers, as well as a place where parents can work on improving their English skills. Gonzalez has lunch with representatives from the parent center every month, and he often talks to them about academic expectations. The representatives are expected to spread the word to other parents.
Through this regular instruction and two-way communication, district leaders have “sought to help parents understand what their children are going to be expected to learn, and then build the parents’ capacity to support that learning,” says Joseph F. John on, the program director for research and evaluation at the Charles A. Dana Education Policy Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “They haven’t allowed the traditional barriers of lack of parent education, income, or language proficiency inhibit their efforts to reach out to parents.”
San Benito’s parent-involvement program has been in place since 1995, when Gonzalez took over the helm, and the district’s scores on the Texas assessment have improved steadily since then. Over the course of five years, the district has increased the percentage of students who meet minimum standards on the TAAS from 45.7 percent in 1994 to 79.2 percent in 1999.
Texas has also encouraged efforts to increase parents’ engagement statewide. It maintains a parental-involvement and -empowerment unit within the Texas Education Agency that hosts an annual parental-involvement conference and provides other supports. Gonzalez says he initiated San Benito’s involvement program to fix what he considered to be a primary obstacle to the district’s other improvement efforts. Parents were not invested in the work the district was doing on behalf of their children--a situation he attributes in part to the fact that “the parents can’t necessarily speak English, and they feel inferior to a person who does, and it created this barrier and fear of coming in.”
But for a district to communicate academic expectations to parents effectively, those expectations first have to be clear to teachers. To that end, the district has set up a timeline that details when standards should be taught, and it tests or “benchmarks” children every six weeks. Principals are given statistics dating back six years on every student’s performance on district and state exams.
At Dr. Cash Elementary School, parents can review the school’s academic goals, or “performance objectives,” as well as its TAAS results from the past two years, on fliers passed out at meetings. When changes are made to the school or district benchmarks or the state standards, principals and teachers communicate those to parents through regular parent-teacher conferences.
During one recent meeting, “we sat down with teachers and four parents to how them the types of tests their kids will need to be prepared for,” says Mary Alice Martinez, the principal of Dr. Cash Elementary. “One of the parents said, ‘Oh my gosh, I did not realize it was this much. This wasn’t what I learned in 4th grade.’ The parents are very much aware of these benchmarks.”
Veronica Molina says the district’s efforts have changed the way she sees her role in her children’s education. “My kids are all doing well,” says Molina, who has two children in the district. “As a parent, sometimes you expect your kids to be on their own [academically]. But they teach us skills we can use at home to help us help our kids.”