Prodigal Parents

May 01, 1992 8 min read

Thirty or more times every week, Pam Lott, like the Avon lady, knocks on doors throughout Grandview, Mo., and makes her pitch. Only she’s not selling bubble bath or lipstick. She’s selling parents on school.

As a home-school counselor for Consolidated School District No. 4, it’s Lott’s job to get parents more involved in the education of their children. She is perhaps the best known emissary of Parents as Educational Partners, a 5-yearold program that has produced significant increases in school attendance and grades in three elementary schools in this bluecollar suburb of Kansas City. She is also one of a growing number of educators throughout the country who are refusing to sit back and wait for parents to come to them.

In the first year of the program alone, Lott logged a grand total of 650 home visits, dropping in on the parents of most children in the participating grades three times during the school year, and as many as eight times in special circumstances. A number of the parents Lott visits are fairly welloff, middle-class people. Others have recently been laid off or fear they soon will be. More than a few live in or near poverty.

She usually gets a receptive audience. “When I come to the house, I’m disarming them of any negative attitudes they may have had about school,’' says Lott, a slight, blonde woman who taught at Conn West Elementary, one of the participating schools, for years before becoming the homeschool coordinator. “I’m not a know-it-all; I come in as an equal partner with them.’'

In her quest to persuade parents to become active participants in school, Lott goes the extra mile. In this, there may be a lesson: In all but a few remarkable instances, the responsibility for encouraging parental involvement rests, by default, with the schools. Teachers who want parents as educational partners must build a framework for that participation. The average parent takes at least some interest in their children’s education. Most, for example, ask their children about their day at school, and roughly three out of four responding to a PTA survey say they help their kids with homework. But it is also apparent that many are unwilling to cross the line between home and school. According to a recent survey of the nation’s elementary school principals, only 17 percent of parents communicate with teachers regularly.

This lack of parental involvement often leaves teachers feeling overwhelmed. As Louise Sundin, president of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, told Newsweek: “What we used to call ‘teaching’ is now morning-tonight service to families. Some days it looks like no one else is helping.’'

What makes this apparent apathy particularly frustrating is that parental participation is one clear, relatively inexpensive way to improve schools. More than 30 years of research, conducted by such experts as Yale child psychiatrist James Comer and others, strongly suggests that where parents are involved, children learn and retain more. Yet, the widespread perception is that parents simply don’t give a damn.

Although that’s the perception, it may not be the reality, says University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman. Families have changed. What many view as parental indifference instead may be the product of new familial roles.

One in four kids now lives in a single-parent household, 85 percent of which are headed by women. And 75 percent of mothers with kids in school work outside of the home. “Children are released from parental supervision far earlier than they once were,’' says Coleman. “There’s been a change in the structure of authority in many American families, so parents don’t exercise the same authority over children’s activities, in school or out, as was once the case.’'

But in a historical sense, Coleman adds, there’s really nothing new about the schools’ seeming inability or unwillingness to bring parents into the picture. “Schools have been organized in such a way as to exclude parents,’' he says. “That doesn’t mean that teachers are explicitly interested in excluding parents, but in the short run, schools can get their job done best if parents leave them alone.’'

There are other reasons why parents may be reluctant to become too involved, says former Education Secretary Terrel Bell. In the news, they hear a lot about parental participation on school committees, like the ones helping to govern the Chicago public schools, and they may believe the same level of involvement is expected of them. “A lot of people think of parent involvement as having to come to school,’' he says, “but that’s not where the real difference is made.’' The difference, he says, lies in making the home a climate hospitable to learning.

Many parents would like to do just that but lack basic skills themselves. This is not, generally, a problem that affects middle-class parents but rather those who live in poor neighborhoods. Parents who are illiterate are not likely to become active in their children’s education. Many simply don’t know how to do it.

Bell and others say it is up to the schools to fill in the gaps in parental understanding. “A lot of schools advocate parent involvement,’' Bell says, “but they don’t have a specific program to get it done.’' In Grandview, that is why Parents as Educational Partners was created.

PEP began in 1986, inspired by assistant superintendent Jerry Thornsberry, who saw the program as a way to provide a solid foundation for math and reading achievement in grades 1-3 at Conn West, Belvidere, and Butcher Green elementary schools. Though the home-school coordinator is the central component of the program, teachers also play a role. They are expected to visit the home of each 1st and 2nd grader, and some lead parent-instruction sessions during the school year. The program also lends Apple computers and software to children in the first two grades.

It’s a lot of extra work for school staff, but parents are expected to commit more time and energy, as well. In fact, they sign a contract at the beginning of the school year pledging that they will set aside at least 20 minutes a night to help their kids with school work and will keep a log of the time they actually put in. Parents must also attend five evening instructional sessions, which are designed to familiarize them with the schools’ math and reading programs.

These little things have made a big difference, as former Conn West principal Carole Kennedy, now at New Haven Elementary School in Columbia, Mo., remembers: “Our school, a Chapter 1 school with an attendance level of 92 or 93 percent, jumped up to 99 percent. Our kids in 2nd grade had the highest score on the Missouri Mastery and Achievement Test of any 2nd graders in the district. In the first year of the program, our 1st graders raised their scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills more than 13 points. We had an increased number of people joining PTA. And parentteacher conference attendance went up to about 100 percent.’'

Notes Leona Jimenez, a 2nd grade teacher at Conn West Elementary: “We’re just not letting [parents] off the hook. We provide too many ways for them to be involved. We’re nice about it, but persistent.’'

Although local educators tout PEP’s success, they are quick to note that its existence is no guarantee that all parents will rise up as one and do what needs to be done. In fact, all parents do not attend the parent instructional sessions. Sometimes, even now, attendance is pretty low, and that can be discouraging. “You think they ought to be doing more than they are,’' says Kennedy. “But we try not to set our goals too high. We look at the five or 10 parents who were there, and think about the progress we’re making with their children. We try to celebrate the little victories.’'

Despite programs like Grandview’s and all the evidence supporting parental involvement, many schools are handicapped in their efforts to get parents involved. For one thing, parental involvement programs usually involve increased time and responsibility of already overburdened teachers. “It is one more task for teachers, and teachers certainly have more than enough to do already,’' says Gene Maeroff, senior research fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

In addition, many teachers are just as much in the dark as parents are about how to establish communication.

“There is little in the training of teachers that tells them how to communicate with parents,’' says parent Cathy Balter, chairwoman of the Education Commission of the National PTA. “But the more diverse the population, the more important it is for schools to take the initial step. When parents are involved, they are the most supportive. When they aren’t, they’re critical.’'

Another formidable drawback to parent-involvement efforts is that they cost money, generally very little, but something. For example, in Grandview, teachers earn $14 an hour for running the evening classes for parents and $8 an hour for home visits. Much of the money necessary to fund the program came from grants, an initial two-year $40,000 grant from the Missouri Department of Education, followed by $94,000 in grants from three area foundations. With a little enterprise, Thornsberry says, other schools ought to be able to do the same thing.

In any event, adds Kennedy, schools must recognize that, if they want parental involvement, it will be their responsibility to bring parents into the equation. “I believe all parents want to help their kids, but they just need help,’' she says. “Sometimes school is so intimidating to them, they won’t come and ask for help. So we have to make it happen.’'

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Prodigal Parents