PARENTS as Partners

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The David A. Ellis School in Boston is testing a hypothesis advanced by some experts on student achievement: A "parent friendly" school setting is as important to learning as the classroom environment itself.

Since 1988, the inner-city elementary school has included a parent center, with an overstuffed couch and a coffee machine, so that parents have a place in the school to call their own. A support group for adults earning their high-school-equivalency diplomas, classes in English as a second language, and parenting workshops draw families into the school on a regular basis.

Breakfasts organized by grade level are held in the parent center to enable mothers and fathers to discuss curriculum and other classroom concerns with teachers and administrators. Parents at the school have established a clothing exchange and a school store. And a specially trained cadre of parents visits other families in their homes to involve them in their children's education.

The efforts are part of a research project, coordinated by the Institute for Responsive Education, that seeks to make families equal partners in their children's schooling.

"We want to demonstrate that family involvement is crucial to the success of children," says Owen Heleen, manager of the ire project, known as Schools Reaching Out. "The goal is to make a connection [between families and schools], to have face-to-face contact."

Although the ire project is more ambitious and comprehensive than most, it represents a growing attempt by educators to reach out to the parents of school-age youngsters.

After more than a decade of reform that has virtually ignored the role of parents in schools, educators and policymakers are beginning to realize that families are crucial for children's success.

Their growing interest in school-home collaboration is driven, in part, by research that has found a positive relationship between parent participation in education and improved student achievement. (See Education Week, April 4, 1990.)

"A school will never be truly excellent unless it involves parents,'' argues Anne T. Henderson, an associate with the National Committee for Citizens in Education. "Educators can do it all by themselves to the extent that they meet minimum requirements, but they're never going to get beyond that unless they get the community involved."

Today, all schools provide for some level of parent participation, ranging from sending home student report cards to asking parents to attend graduation ceremonies.

But experts say that, in most schools, parent participation remains limited in scope. Generally, it is confined to fund raising and other volunteer activities, participation in parent-teacher conferences, and attendance at school plays or sporting events.

"In most schools, parents are not seen as essential partners at all," says Vahac Mardirosian, president of the Parent Institute, a community-education agency in San Diego. "Schools just don't see it as their role to court parents or to cultivate a friendship in any way for any real benefit."

In a few places, however, educators who are alarmed at what they see as a growing gap between home and school have begun to reach out to families through more assertive measures. These include sponsoring parenting workshops, creating parent centers, visiting students' homes, developing contracts that detail the obligations of parents and teachers, and enhancing communication between home and school.

In the most extreme instances, states and localities have threatened to impose fines or jail sentences on parents who fail to take responsibility for their children's behavior problems. (See related story, page 30.)

"Schools must do more to position families to help their children in school," states a recent report by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"Though some may feel this adds to an already overburdened set of responsibilities for schools," the report adds, "the situation is such that the potential for the school to address basic family needs must be used."

Sending a Message:'Parents Matter Here'

Joyce L. Epstein, director of the Effective Middle Schools Program at Johns Hopkins University, has identified five types of parent involvement in education. These include:

  • The basic obligations of parents, such as providing for their children's health and safety and creating a home environment that supports learning;
  • The basic obligations of schools, such as communicating with parents about school programs and their children's progress;
  • Parent involvement at the school site, through attendance at student performances and sporting events, or through work as volunteers;
  • Parent involvement in learning activities at home, such as monitoring or assisting their children with homework; and
  • Parent involvement in school governance and advocacy, by serving on advisory councils that make important decisions about school programs and policies, or by participating in external watchdog groups.

At all grade levels, Ms. Epstein maintains, parents need clear information about course requirements and objectives, standards for promotion and graduation, grading practices and test results, and school budget and policy decisions.

But schools vary in how they choose to communicate such information to families and whether they attempt to create more meaningful forms of collaboration.

'Dignifying' the Parents' Role

At the most basic level, some schools are trying to clarify the obligations that parents and teachers have toward children through the creation of written "contracts" or agreements.

School-parent contracts are an important aspect of the Quality Education Project, or qep, launched in 1982 by Nancy Honig, the wife of California's superintendent of public instruction.

The program, currently used in schools throughout that state and Mississippi, is designed to improve the coordination between home and school by training school officials, teachers, and parents to work together to improve student learning.

The performance contracts provide a visible symbol of that teamwork, Ms. Honig notes.

As part of their "pledge," parents sign a document promising that they will: provide a quiet place for their children to study, encourage them to complete their homework, get them to bed by 9 P.M., send them to school on time, spend at least 15 minutes a day reading with or to them, and attend back-to-school nights, parent-teacher conferences, open houses, and other school events.

In exchange, principals and teachers sign contracts in which they promise to provide a safe place for children to learn, teach all the concepts necessary for academic achievement, strive to be aware of children's individual needs, and communicate with parents about their children's progress.

Contracts are also an important component of the "Accelerated Schools" program begun several years ago by Henry M. Levin, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University.

As part of the program, which aims to bring the achievement of disadvantaged youngsters up to grade level by the end of 6th grade, all parents or guardians are expected to sign a written agreement that clarifies the obligations of the school and the family to promote learning. Parental obligations include ensuring that children go to bed at a reasonable hour and attend school regularly and punctually. School obligations include keeping parents informed about students' performance.

"The purpose," says Mr. Levin, "is to emphasize the importance of the parental role through the dignity of a written agreement that is affirmed by all parties."

Enhanced Communication

In addition to clarifying such basic obligations, educators are attempting to strengthen the regular communication between home and school.

Experts assert that the lack of information flowing between home and school may lie at the root of the dissonance between teachers and parents.

Doris Wilson, a parent at the David Ellis school, says that before the school's parent-involvement program began, it was difficult to approach teachers to discuss her child's schoolwork.

"It seemed like a lot of the teachers were on an ego trip," the Boston parent recalls. "Unless you had a teaching license, they'd look down on you."

Typically, teachers have communicated with parents in writing, by sending messages home through the mail or with the student themselves. Often, these communications are ignored or are unintelligible to poorly educated or non-English-speaking parents.

Parent-teacher conferences allow for more interaction, but are infrequent and difficult to schedule. As a result, many parents see educators only when their children are having disciplinary or academic problems.

Mr. Mardirosian of the Parent Institute notes that such limited interactions tend to remind low-income and minority parents of their own negative experiences in school.

"We have to actually teach poor parents what middle-class parents already know from their own experience--that school can be a positive, supportive place," he suggests.

To address such concerns, some schools and districts are trying to find ways to keep parents and teachers in touch on a regular basis.

The q.e.p. program, for example, provides students with a special folder in which they can carry home schoolwork and notes from the teacher at the end of each week.

And in Connecticut, 10 schools have been using the telephone as a constant link between schools and families. As part of a pilot program offered by the Southern New England Telecommunications Corporation, several classrooms in each school have been equipped with a phone-message service that can send recorded voice messages of any length simultaneously to the parents of all students, or to any parent individually.

Parents can also leave phone messages to which the teacher responds.

Madeline A. Mongillo, a kindergarten teacher at Bradley Elementary School in Derby, Conn., uses the system to send messages to parents about each day's activities and assignments.

The system, she says, "replaces the old paper messages that would more often end up lost in the black hole of the student's book bag."

At the Park Elementary School in Dolton, Ill., two teachers have gone one step further, by creating a means for parents to view their children at work.

A special-education teacher, Diana L. Brown, and a speech pathologist, Mary Jo Roche, won a state mini-grant last year that enabled them to rent a video camera and film their students in the classroom.

The videotapes, sent home regularly, help parents develop a clearer understanding of their children's classroom activities and behaviors.

Although the program's goal was parent education, Ms. Brown observes, parent involvement in the school increased "tremendously" during the project. "After seeing the tapes, the parents were much less threatened by the school setting," she says.

Desiree Sanchez, a New York City teacher who has been involved in the Institute for Responsive Education project, says she has found that the more contact she has with parents, the easier her job becomes.

"If I have quick access to a parent," she explains, "I have quick access to the solution to a problem."

In other places, educators are trying to increase families' participation at the site by making schools appear less intimidating and more open to parents.

Last year, for example, state education officials in Florida instituted a "Red Carpet Schools" program to encourage educators to make parents feel welcome. Under the program, special certificates--as well as a genuine red carpet--are awarded to schools that are deemed "parent friendly" by committees of outside observers.

To qualify for the awards, schools are encouraged to make their physical facilities available to families, to set up a "warm and friendly'' reception area, to provide opportunities for parent education and family involvement, to establish a parent-community advisory group, and to communicate with parents in a variety of ways.

More than 200 of the state's 2,100 schools have now earned the distinction, according to a state spokesman.

A Room of Their Own

But the ire suggests that if schools really want to make parents feel welcome, they should set up a room for parents to call their own.

At the David Ellis School, for example, the parent center is a comfortable room with places for parents to sit and a play area filled with toys for the preschool chilho accompany them on their visits.

A telephone is provided for parents who do not have phones at home and for teachers to call their students' families.

In addition to the adult-education classes and workshops held weekly at the center, parents are drawn in by various social events, such as a multicultural potluck dinner and a fathers-only breakfast.

The room is staffed by Annie White, the mother of 10 children, who is paid by the ire as a parent coordinator to bridge the gap between families and the school.

Her first order of business as coordinator, she notes, was to help a homeless family find an apartment. Since then, her role has often included helping to meet the basic needs of families through referrals to other social-service agencies.

"People see me as sort of a mother figure," she says. "I know what they've been through--I've had problems with the school myself. But if I can help the parents, both the parents and the students benefit."

Vivian Johnson, the ire's project coordinator, estimates that about 30 percent of the school's parents use the center.

"Before we came in, there was a sign on the outside of the school saying, 'Parents: Wait outside for your children,"' she re6calls. "The fact that this center exists sends a message to parents."

An Education for Parents

Schools like David Ellis are also offering workshops and classes for parents, in an effort to bring them into the school building.

As part of the qep effort in Mississippi, seven school districts have developed monthly seminars for parents on topics of the parents' choosing. The seminars, which are held in the evenings and on weekends to meet working parents' schedules, cover such subjects as parenting skills, drug and alcohol abuse, and basic school procedures.

The goal of the seminars is to assist parents who often feel "powerless" when it comes to helping their children learn, says Ivy H. Lovelady, coordinator of the statewide pilot program. "Schools need to 'empower' parents," she says, "to teach them how to discipline their children, or to turn off the TV to help them study."

Other efforts focus on teaching parents and children together. For example, the Family Math Program, which is used by schools nationwide, teaches parents and their children problem-solving skills based on the use of hands-on materials.

In San Diego, community agencies have also joined with schools to take on the task of parent education. Mr. Mardirosian of the Parent Institute there has operated six-week courses for parents in about 25 schools over the past two years. The courses are developed by parents and taught at the schools by local college professors.

In other instances, educators have helped launch parent-education classes that take place outside the school. (See story, page 26.)

In Indianapolis, the district has an agreement with 15 local businesses to provide parent-education seminars at their workplaces during lunch hours. And this spring, the United Federation of Teachers and two other New York City unions announced an agreement to provide parent seminars in several languages at work sites throughout the city.

Such classes often target the parents of children in specific age groups and provide them with the skills they need to work with their youngsters on schoolwork at home or to become better parents in general.

David L. Williams Jr., director of the school-improvement resources group of the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, warns that schools should not intrude on the "right and ability of parents to rear children."

But he argues that without training on how to support their children's learning, parents will never become the resources that schools so desperately need.

The 'Accountability Factor'

Once parents are drawn into a school by classes geared to their needs, educators hope they will become more involved in schooling on a regular basis, with benefits to themselves and their youngsters.

For example, research has found that parents' visits to observe their children in class can engender trust and shared expectations between parents and teachers.

"If parents are in the school building at all times," says Ms. Henderson of the National Committee for Citizens in Education, "and are listened to by school officials, the kids say, 'Gee, our parents matter here,' and the school's whole climate will change."

In addition, she observes, the parents' presence introduces an "accountability factor" into the teacher-student relationship."If parents are around, teachers will treat kids better and give them more attention," she says. "And children who get caring, loving attention do better in school."

Not Always Welcome

But parents' visits to schools on occasions other than pre-scheduled appointments often result in conflict. And teachers frequently are unwilling to comply with the full open-door policy sought by parents.

Mary Filardo, a mother of three schoolchildren in Washington, cites one example of the often halfhearted welcome offered to parents. For years, she says, her daughter's elementary school had a policy inviting parents to visit the school at any time. But no visitors were allowed on the second floor of the building, where all of the classrooms were located.

"There has always been the question of who controls the child's life in school," acknowledges Sandra Feldman, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City. "Teachers are always concerned that parents will interfere."

In other cases, educators say they have tried to involve parents, but to no avail.

Tom Hollister, executive director of Associated Pomona Teachers in Pomona, Calif., says, "I think teachers are convinced that parents just don't have the time to get involved."

"Teachers try to lay out a plan for parents," he asserts, "they try to meet with them to get them more involved, but then no one shows up."

A Newsweek poll released this spring, for example, found that more than half of all parents surveyed had not attended a single back-to-school night since the school year began, while 54 percent had not gone to a single parent organization meeting. Parents most often blamed their low participation on lack of time and conflicting work schedules.

'From the School to the Home'

In response to such findings, some experts contend that schools should devote more effort to helping parents reinforce their children's learning at home, and less time to in-school activities.

"To involve more parents more often and more productively" argues Ms. Epstein, "requires changing the major location of parent involvement from the school to the home, changing the major emphasis from general policies to specific skills, and changing the major target from the general population of students or school staff to the individual child at home."

She is one of several experts nationwide who have developed models to help parents work with their children at home on school-related skills. Her program, "Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork," offers training for teachers to involve elementary- and middle-school parents in their children's homework assignments.

The program targets mathematics and science instruction in the elementary grades and social-studies instruction at the middle-school level. The goal is to help6teachers guide parents through structured homework assignments that must be completed by the parent and child together.

Dorothy Rich, founder of the Home and School Institute Inc., has also been pressing for increased parent involvement at home for more than 20 years.

Drawing on ideas in her book Megaskills: How Families Can Help Children Succeed in School and Beyond, Ms. Rich has created the Megaskills Education Center, which offers parent-training workshops across the country.

The program teaches parents to provide their children with the motivation, basic skills, and attitudes needed to succeed in school, rather than reinforcing specific in-school lessons. Students whose parents have participated in the program have shown improvement in reading, reasoning, and visual-aural skills, according to Ms. Rich.

Some programs are even sending teachers directly into students' homes to work with families. In El Paso, Tex., for example, "Project Care" provides substitutes for teachers who would like to visit parents at home during the school day.

Gloria Barragan, the project's director, says teachers were impressed by how eager even the most hard-to-reach parents were to work with their children, once they were shown how they could provide educational activities at home.

Parents as Decisionmakers

Others argue that, especially for poor and minority parents who have been disenfranchised by the educational system, attempts to foster stronger school-home ties must include giving parents a greater say in school decisionmaking.

That concept is a basic premise of the school-improvement model developed by the psychiatrist James P. Comer at Yale University's Child Study Center.

Dr. Comer contends that involvings on governance councils that have direct input into school operations can help lessen parents' distrust of educators.

The model, which is being replicated across the country through a $15-million Rockefeller Foundation grant, focuses on children's academic, social, and emotional development through the use of teams composed of teachers, parents, and child-development specialists.

As part of the "Accelerated Schools" model developed by Mr. Levin at Stanford University, parents and teachers also collaborate in making important school decisions.

"Unless we can create schools in which ... there are decisions that parents can make that have meaning for their children," Mr. Levin maintains, "parental involvement must necessarily be limited."

Involving parents in decisionmaking, however, has often proven problematic because of the potential for turf conflicts between educators and parents.

Ms. Honig of California says she designed the qep program to avoid the school-governance issue for just that reason. "School boards would be too threatened" by a governance role for parents, she asserts.

'Words Are Meaningless'Without Support

Experts generally agree that the most effective parent-involvement programs employ a combination of approaches. Individual strategies, they say, are less important than that the efforts be comprehensive and sustained.

In contrast, existing programs still tend to be fragmented and limited in scope--in part, because of inadequate funding.

"Even when assistance is made available, there are often strings attached," notes Ms. Barragan of Project Care.

Many programs are struggling to survive on private funds, unable to convince cost-conscious school boards or state legislatures of the importance of their work.

The phone-message service created in Connecticut, for example, was scheduled to end this June, after the pilot project was completed. So far, district officials have not made a commitment to continue it.

The videotape project in Illinois ended earlier this year because the school lacked the money to buy a video camera after the initial mini-grant ran out.

And Boston's David Ellis school is in danger of losing its parent center because of overcrowding. District officials consider the room an empty classroom that should hold another group of kindergartners.

In addition, experts note that training for teachers and parents to improve home-school collaboration is sorely lacking.

"Teachers are never taught to work with adults," says Jean Krasnow, a senior researcher with the ire "There's never any discussion of the tension that exists there."

Those tracking such initiatives also say that a dearth of visible role models and weak state and district leadership have thwarted parent-involvement efforts.

Seven 'Essential Elements'

Mr. Williams of the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory has identified seven "essential elements" that he says can help parent-involvement programs succeed. These include:

  • Written policies at the district and school levels that establish the legitimacy of parent-involvement activities.
  • Three types of support from school administrators: funding designated in the main budget; materials, equipment, and meeting space; and designation of people to carry out program efforts.
  • Training for school staff members and parents to help them develop partnership skills.
  • Joint planning, goal-setting, and assessment by teachers, parents, and administrators.
  • Frequent, two-way communication between home and school. Parents should feel comfortable coming to school, and staff members should welcome their involvement.
  • Connections with other programs, information systems, and resources that serve families, such as social-service agencies.
  • Regular evaluations and revisions, where necessary.

"Words about the importance of parent involvement are meaningless without financial and technical support," says Ms. Epstein of Johns Hopkins University.

"State education agencies have offered mainly symbolic, verbal support for the importance of parent involvement," she maintains, "but little financial support for staff and programs needed to improve parent understanding, teacher practices, and family and school connections.''

'A Long Way To Go'

A 50-state survey released this spring--"Assessing State Parental Involvement Legislation and Regulations: Is the Cup Half Empty or Half Full?"--supports Ms. Epstein's criticisms.

Of the 47 states responding to the survey, 20 had enacted some type of legislation to promote school-home collaboration. But most of those simply encouraged districts to reach out to parents as part of a broader school initiative, such as Head Start, Chapter 1, or the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.

Only four states had mandated that districts involve parents in the education of their children, and in each case there were limits on the type of participation required.

For example, two of the states, Missouri and Oregon, required districts to work with parents before their children reached school age, but not after.

The other two states, South Carolina and Massachusetts, focused only on involving parents on advisory councils that monitor school improvement.

"It can be seen that, while making inroads, parent involvement as an integral element in the educational process still has a long way to go," the report concluded.

Another report, released last July, found that state education agencies "offer only lip service to advancing improved home-school connections."

The report analyzed the number of staff members in each state responsible for coordinating school-home programs. It found that state education agencies had allocated only one full-time employee for every 500,000 public-school students nationwide.

"Even those states that might claim to provide leadership in parent-involvement practices," it concluded, "are providing insufficient monetary and human resources to ensure healthy and continued collaboration on the district and local level between the school and home."

State and District Action

A few states and districts are trying to promote more aggressive efforts.

Dade County, Fla., and San Diego adopted far-reaching parent-involvement policies this year. Neither district mandates such programs, but both offer financial incentives and technical assistance to help schools develop parent-participation programs.

The Dade County policy, adopted in April, was forged by a task force of school officials, teachers, parents, and community members, who often clashed over components of the plan.

The policy they finally agreed on offers parents a "bill of rights,'' according to Betsy Kaplan, the school-board member who initiated the concept. Parents are guaranteed an equal role on school-governance committees at every school, and they have a say in the selection of principals and teachers.

The district has established an office of parent involvement, with a full-time coordinator. In addition to general parent-education workshops, training is offered to school staff members and parents to help them learn to collaborate.

The district is also lobbying local businesses to offer employees leave time to become involved in their children's schools. And district officials are pushing for local teacher-education programs to include training on the role of parents in education.

Ms. Kaplan emphasizes that the Dade County plan will attempt to include "all kinds of parents," not just a limited few.

"There are parents out there who aren't doing the best job, and there are teachers and principals who aren't doing the best job. But if we keep parents out of the education process, none of them will be able to do the best job for their children," she argues.

The San Diego policy also offers parents a role in school decisionmaking. In addition, the new office of parent involvement has developed a series of guidebooks and other literature to promote school-home collaboration.

The policy, which will take three years to carry out, establishes an action plan for schools that includes strategies to improve communication, involve parents at the school site, and make better use of community resources.

Janet Chrispeels, coordinator of the district policy, notes that the San Diego program was developed as part of a broader reform plan.

"People are running to parent involvement as a Band-Aid to fix things, but frankly it won't work unless it is part of an overall school-improvement plan," she contends.

Although San Diego officials developed their plan locally, its success is related to a state policy promoting parent involvement that was adopted last year.

California was the first state to adopt a comprehensive policy calling for increased parent involvement in education.

Since then, officials in several other states have indicated interest in the concept. For example:

  • In Minnesota, legislators passed a bill last October that calls for the creation of a comprehensive parent-involvement plan. A state conference--including a wide range of parent advocates, educators, community leaders, social-service workers, and state officials--was held in April to begin drafting a model policy.

A key component of the plan will be financial incentives to promote innovative school-home partnerships, according to state Representative Ken G. Nelson, a sponsor of the bill.

  • Joseph Shilling, state superintendent of education in Maryland, in May included increased parent involvement as one of 10 goals for the school system. Plans for a statewide policy have not yet been released, but the superintendent is calling for nontraditional, collaborative relationships between homes, schools, and communities.
  • Mississippi lawmakers this spring approved a reform package, called Better Education for Success Tomorrow, or best, that includes both carrots and sticks to promote increased parental involvement in education. The package, as yet unfunded, includes a plan to help lower the dropout rate by coordinating community services for parents through the workplace, churches, schools, and other institutions.

In addition, the law requires parents to attend disciplinary conferences for their children or face a misdemeanor charge or a fine of up to $2,000.

'Waiting for the Revolution'

But Don Davies, executive director of the Institute for Responsive Education, says he has grown impatient waiting for "the revolution" to come from state and district initiatives.

In an effort to promote successful programs, and help schools share ideas on how to involve parents, the ire has established a League of Schools Reaching Out in 19 urban districts across the country.

The 37 league schools were chosen for having taken "the first step toward forging new partnerships to support students both in and out of the classroom," Mr. Davies says.

Through the network, the schools will share ideas for promoting parent involvement with each other and with other interested groups.

Mr. Davies says he also plans to develop a model for collaboration based on findings from the ire's efforts at the David Ellis school and a sister laboratory school in New York City.

In an upcoming report on his work with the Ellis school, Mr. Davies concludes that "the educational revolution is likely to occur in small stages, gradually and painfully, with many starts and stops."

"It is better to begin with some ideas that work and that can be achieved by ordinary people with reasonable effort," he argues.

Although the research project at the David Ellis school is over and the ire officials do not expect to continue working as closely with parents and teachers there, the school-home partnership is expected to continue.

"Some people say that, when we leave, the teachers will all go back into their classrooms and shut the door, and the parents will go back home," says Ms. Krasnow of the ire "But I think the teachers here are ready to go on to another level. They started the change, and I think it won't be stopped."

This special series on parental involvement in education is being underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Indianapolis Project Keeps Parents'In Touch' With Children's Schools

Education Week
Volume 9, Issue 40, August 1, 1990, p 25

Copyright 1990, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Indianapolis Project Keeps Parents'In Touch' With Children's Schools

Indianapolis--When teachers at the Edgar Evans Elementary School here spot Resly Moses in the hallways, they often beg for her help.

But Ms. Moses is not a teacher or a staff member: She is an electrician and the mother of two students at the school.

An active parent volunteer, Ms. Moses tries to spend a few hours at the school each day, running errands for teachers and designing hallway bulletin boards.

She says she enjoys the work because the teachers make her feel so welcome.

"The previous school my kids went to was really different--people there had such a bad attitude," she says. "If I went by the school, they'd stop me at the door and ask, 'What do you want?"'

In contrast, teachers at Edgar Evans have been helping Ms. Moses learn new skills.

Recently, she learned how to use the school's computer to make signs for the "parent involvement" bulletin board, which lists the names and contributions of particularly active parents.

"It makes me feel so good when people admire what I've done," she beams.

According to Mamie R. Thompson, principal of Edgar Evans, Ms. Moses is one of hundreds of parents attracted by the school's efforts to develop closer ties with neighborhood families.

The elementary school is a success story in a districtwide initiative to promote stronger school-home partnerships that began long before the current wave of interest in such efforts.

Known as "Parents in Touch," the project started in 1979 with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. It was based on the premise that a three-way communication between parents, teachers, and children would improve student learning.

Experts say the Indianapolis initiative was one of the first comprehensive parent-involvement efforts in the nation and one of the most sustained.

Districtwide Assistance

Now funded by the district, the project encourages individual schools to design their own plans for reaching out to the community.

But it offers several resources to enhance these efforts. They include:

  • Model school-home contracts at all grade levels that establish the commitment of parents and teachers to help students learn.
  • Individual folders for youngsters to carry home their schoolwork each week to share with their parents.
  • A "Dial-a-Teacher" phone line, operated by two teachers Monday through Friday evenings, to help students with homework.
  • A "Homework Hotline" television call-in program, produced locally, to help students with mathematics assignments.
  • A round-the-clock recorded-message service--the "Parent Line/Communicator"--that parents can call at any time to hear messages on such topics as drug abuse and school policies.
  • Parent seminars on a variety of topics available at local schools, community agencies, and workplaces during staff lunch hours.

The district has also trained teachers in several models for working with parents. These include the "Family Math" program, which encourages students and parents to learn mathematics together, and "Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork," or tips, which helps parents support student learning at home.

'Go Out and Get Them'

But while Parents in Touch has engendered a rich array of activities throughout the district, many schools still do not attempt to reach out to parents, according to Izona Warner, director of the program.

One problem, she says, is that the district does not provide funding for programs at individual schools, forcing them to rely on their own, limited resources.

The Edgar Evans School has been able to build a strong parent-participation program, in part, because its status as a Chapter 1 school allows it to use federal remedial-education funds for whole-school efforts. Seventy-eight percent of families in the Edgar Evans neighborhood live below the poverty line; 75 percent of students walk to the school from nearby housing projects.

Two years ago, when Ms. Thompson arrived at the school, parent participation was minimal, she recalls, and the barriers between staff members and the community ran deep.

After conducting a needs assessment, the principal concluded that the school desperately needed to reach out to families.

"We knew that we couldn't do our jobs without them," she says. "But that meant we had to go out and get them."

The school launched a multifaceted program to attract parents, based, in part, on Chapter 1 requirements for parental participation.

Today, it has a parent center that includes resources for families on parenting skills and adult education. School textbooks, available in the center, enable parents to follow their children's assignments.

The school also offers monthly workshops in the evenings and on weekends on such topics as "discipline with love" and "preparing children for tests."

Luncheons and social events are designed to make parents feel more comfortable at the school. Signs welcoming parents line the hallways, and Ms. Thompson says she will take over the classroom of any teacher who wishes to meet with parents during the day.

Most teachers keep a chart in their classrooms with gold stars to denote how often individual parents have visited the school. Ms. Thompson sends a "certificate of appreciation" to frequent visitors to encourage them to return.

"It's the little things that count," she maintains.

In addition, the school has hired a local parent as a community liaison to visit families at home and encourage them to become involved in their children's learning.

Joyce L. Moore, who serves in that role and as president of Edgar Evans's parent-teacher organization, says she acts as a "buffer" to help dispel bad feelings between parents and teachers.

"Parents can vent their anger and frustration to me in a way that isn't detrimental to the school," she says.

'Teachers Are Happy'

While the school still has a long way to go to strengthen school-home ties, Ms. Moore says, the efforts to date demonstrate that low-income parents want to be involved in their children's education.

"If you ask them to come, they'll come," she asserts.

Sandra Y. Anderson, a teacher who has worked at Edgar Evans for 17 years, says teachers at the school are still learning what a contribution parents can make.

"Before, a lot of teachers would say they wanted help from parents, but they would try to limit how much," she recalls. "Now, teachers are really happy to have the parents around."

Although no formal evaluation has been conducted, Ms. Anderson says student achievement has improved since the program began.

Two years ago, 66 percent of students were reading below grade level. This year, that figure has dropped to 51 percent.

In addition, attendance rates topped 96 percent this year, up from 80 percent last year. "It's because parents know more about what we expect," Ms. Thompson, the principal, says.

'More of a Voice'

But Ms. Warner, the director of the Parents in Touch program, admits that it is the individual commitment of principals like Ms. Thompson that makes parent partnerships work--not district-level support.

Despite the existence of the program, she notes, the district does not have a policy that requires educators to make parents equal partners in their children's learning.

A number of parents contend that the lack of a written policy reflects attempts by some school administrators to limit the role of parents.

Although the district has a Parent Advisory Council that meets with the superintendent twice a month, "they only have to listen to us if they feel like it," says Marie Lawlor, co-president of the council.

"As parents, we feel we should have more of a voice," agrees Myrteen C. Levingston, the other co-president. "Even the parent-involvement activities are planned by district officials," she adds. "Where are the parents in that process?"

Like other districts nationwide, Indianapolis is moving toward a system of site-based management that would provide more flexibility for schools. But parents on the advisory council say they have been locked out of those discussions.

District officials say that while James A. Adams, the superintendent of schools, supports the idea of giving parents a role in site-based decisionmaking, the teachers' union has opposed that notion.

But union officials claim that school administrators are the ones opposed to giving parents a role in school governance.

"Each one wants to point to the other as the obstacle for getting parents involved," Ms. Lawlor says, "and each side wants to be seen as in alliance with parents. It seems they have to work out their own differences before they can get parents in on the process."

Meanwhile, the advisory council is trying to develop a written policy on parent involvement to propose to the school board this fall.

According to Ms. Lawlor, the policy would give parents a clearer role in decisionmaking and more district support for local school initatives.

"We want something in writing that says, 'Schools shall be held accountable to parents,"' says Janis M. Wittenbring, a member of the advisory council. "The district attitude has been, 'As long as you do something to involve parents and don't bother us, it's okay."'

Superintendent Adams says he would like to see the board "adopt a philosophical commitment to parent involvement." But he adds: "I would also like to see parent groups, in return, doing more to tie parents directly to the school base."

"We can't just represent a limited number of parents," he adds. "We've got to get them all involved."

'Not a Frill'

Ms. Warner, who is also preparing recommendations for the district, says a written commitment to parent involvement would make a tremendous difference.

Ideally, she suggests, the district would provide more training for school officials to work with parents, funding incentives for innovative ideas, a parent liaison official in each school, and an evaluation of such efforts systemwide.

She would also like to see a stronger emphasis on keeping parents involved in their children's education from elementary school through high school. Currently, their involvement tends to drop off dramatically between elementary and middle school, she says, and it is even less common at the high-school level.

The Lilly Endowment has agreed to fund a research project at a junior high school to study how to keep parents involved beyond the elementary grades.

Ms. Warner says she hopes such efforts will spur more district-level support.

"This should not be seen as a frill," she contends. "We've got to see what works systemwide."

English-Literacy Classes Help Avert Family Rifts

Education Week
Volume 9, Issue 40, August 1, 1990, p 29

Copyright 1990, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

English-Literacy Classes Help Avert Family Rifts

By Peter Schmidt

Gail Weinstein-Shr, a professor of education at Temple University, was working with Southeast Asian refugees in the Philadelphia area when she made a discovery: Educators were creating a rift between parents and their children by teaching the youngsters English-literacy skills the parents did not possess.

The pupils were frustrated that they had to translate for their parents, who knew little about the children's new life. The parents reported feeling isolated from their offspring and disadvantaged by having to rely on them for information about school.

"Everyone is torn when these conflicts arise," Ms. Weinstein-Shr says. "Every single generation has something to lose."

In an effort to bridge the gap between the generations, Ms. Weinstein-Shr helped establish Project Learning English Through Intergenerational Friendship--or leif--in 1985. The privately funded effort pairs adult refugees with college students who teach them English so that they can teach their children and grandchildren about their native land and customs.

Today, the program includes more than 200 volunteers at four locations in Philadelphia. It is one of dozens of recent initiatives nationwide designed to reach out to the parents of students with limited English proficiency.

Although little is known about the efficacy of such programs, their supporters report a growing level of enthusiasm and funding, spurred in part by interest in the broader area of family literacy.

'A Hot Issue'

"It's a hot issue. It's growing before it has had a chance to establish itself, before it has been defined," says Laura S. Bercovitz, project coordinator of the Northwest Educational Cooperative in Des Plaines, Ill.

The nonprofit agency operated a demonstration project from 1986 to 1989 that taught lep parents basic "survival" skills and how to understand and interact with the American school system. More than 200 copies of the curriculum for that program, Home English Literacy for Parents, have been distributed since then.

In an effort to gauge the effectiveness of educational programs for l.e.p. families, the U.S. Education Department's office of bilingual education and minority languages affairs is conducting a two-year descriptive study of 15 demonstration projects that it has funded through its Family English Literacy Program.

The study, contracted to the Atlantic Resources Council, began last October and is scheduled for completion by September 1991, according to obemla officials.

Expanding Commitment

But even without data to support the effectiveness of the Family English Literacy Program, obemla has been expanding its commitment to the initiative since it was authorized in 1984.

In the 1985 fiscal year, the program consisted of four three-year demonstration projects, totaling $500,000 annually. By fiscal 1989, obemla had funded 35 such projects, with a total of $4.7 million in grants. And this fiscal year, it provided $4.9 million in funding.

According to Mary T. Mahony, coordinator of the federal program, all of the projects attempt to improve the academic performance of l.e.p. children by teaching their parents to teach them, by maintaining the cohesiveness of language-minority families, and by getting language-minority parents more involved in their children's schools.

The projects vary widely in curriculum and methods, however, primarily because they must accommodate diverse adult populations, Ms. Mahoney says.

'A New Deficit Model'?

Administrators of the programs also disagree over whether the schools or the parents should determine the curriculum for such programs.

Because many lep parents are recent immigrants, such efforts traditionally have told families how to shop, cook, and otherwise care for their children. And they have urged parents to tutor their youngsters by using activities similar to those taught in school.

More recently, however, literacy programs for l.e.p. families have begun to give parents greater control over the focus of the programs, based on the assumption that most parents already possess basic parenting skills and are concerned about their children's education.

Elsa R. Auerbach, an assistant professor of bilingual and English-as-a-second-language graduate studies at the University of Massachusetts, coordinated the Family English Literacy Project at the University of Massachusetts-Boston from 1987 to 1989. Since then, she has emerged as a leading advocate of parental control over family literacy programs.

According to Ms. Auerbach, children gain literacy skills by participating in routine activities that take place in the home on a daily basis, not by engaging in special exercises recommended by the schools.

"One of the dangers of the whole attention to family literacy," Ms. Auerbach argues, "is that it becomes a new deficit model, which blames parents for problems with education and says there is something wrong with the family, and if we could only fix the family everything would be okay,"

"The parents have a lot of strengths that may not take the form that schools are usually accustomed to," she adds. "The starting point has to be the strengths of the families."

Diverse Program Offerings

The obemla-funded Family English Literacy Programs are evenly divided between those that stress bilingual instruction and those that provide lessons in English. And they include an array of techniques for reaching out to lep parents. For example:

  • A project begun by the Grand Rapids, Mich., schools in 1988 requests that parents and teachers sign a contract to collaborate in the education of lep preschoolers. Parents can take books home from a lending library to read to their children. Teachers assist the parents in understanding the vocabulary and concepts contained in the books.
  • A program in the Baldwin Park (Calif.) Unified School District includes both English-as-a-second-language and bilingual-education techniques. It provides certificates of completion to immigrant parents who participate in the program, which they can use to help meet the language training required for U.S. citizenship.
  • A program operated by the Bilinguals United for Educational Opportunity Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder attempts to reach Hispanic and Asian families in remote rural areas by collaborating with local social-service agencies.
  • The Family English Literacy Through Books and Beyond program, in the Soel10llana Beach, Calif., district, is modeled after a highly successful districtwide project that has become part of the U.S. Education Department's National Diffusion Network.

According to M. Susan Holtkamp, literacy project director for the district, participating families meet at an elementary school for two hours each week. Parents and children spend the first hour working together on an e.s.l. lesson that teaches them how adapt to American society. During the second hour, children focus on literature, while their parents receive training in English and parenting skills.

Other l.e.p. families are served through the federal Even Start program, which works with the parents of disadvantaged children under age 7.

In addition, according to Meta W. Potts, director of adult-learning services at the National Center for Family Literacy, new family-literacy programs are being established as a result of the Family Support Act of 1988. The law requires states to establish a Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training Program for welfare recipients that includes the provision of educational services.

A network of Family Learning Centers has also been created by Service, Employment, and Redevelopment--a nonprofit, Dallas-based organization founded by Hispanic groups. The centers are designed to improve the education of Hispanic students and reduce Hispanic illiteracy rates.

The centers were piloted at three sites, in Milwaukee, Washington, and Grand Junction, Colo., in 1986. Today, there are 37 sites funded with $6.5 million in federal grants and private donations.

Tough State and Local MeasuresSeeking To Force Parental Control

Education Week
Volume 9, Issue 40, August 1, 1990, p 30

Copyright 1990, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Tough State and Local MeasuresSeeking To Force Parental Control

New "get tough" policies in a number of states and localities are imposing stiff penalties on parents for failing to control their children's behavior in school and in the community.

The controversial measures, which critics say are unnecessarily punitive toward poor and minority parents, address everything from school attendance to criminal activity. For example:

  • More than 150 parents in Los Angeles have been arrested in the past year under a new state law that allows parents to be charged with a misdemeanor if their children become involved with gangs. Officials in Aurora, Colo., adopted a similar ordinance this past spring.
  • In Florida, parents who own guns face five years in jail or up to $5,000 in fines if their children use the firearms to injure or maim someone. The law was enacted last year.
  • Wisconsin and several other states have adopted policies allowing them to cut the welfare benefits of low-income parents whose children do not attend school regularly.
  • States such as Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, and Texas have threatened to fine or jail parents who refuse to attend parent-teacher conferences or school disciplinary meetings about their children.

'Wishful Thinkers'?

Proponents of such laws assert that they are necessary to encourage recalcitrant parents to become more involved in their children's development.

But skeptics question their effectiveness, arguing that they tend to do more harm than good to family relationships.

Charles Gill, a superior-court judge in Connecticut who is president of the National Task Force on a Children's Bill of Rights, contends that those who support parent-responsibility laws are "wishful thinkers."

"I can certainly empathize," he says. "It would be nice if we could just make parents be good. But we just can't force people to be good parents."

Legal experts say the new laws are rooted in common parent-liability statutes, which require parents to pay for property damage by their children under age 18.

In addition, most states have compulsory-education laws that require parents to send their children to school. But while many states impose fines on families whose children are chronically truant, such laws are rarely enforced.

Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and Law, contends that the new parent-responsibility statutes are not yet a trend, but simply "isolated incidents."

But R. Bruce Coplen, deputy attorney for the city of Los Angeles, disagrees.

"I do see this as a trend, and a good one," he asserts. "It shouldn't come as a shock to anyone to say that if you want to do something about juvenile crime, you've got to start in the home."

Mr. Coplen argues that assistance must be made available to parents who need help controlling their children. "But for those parents who don't want help, you've got to exert some muscle and make them get help," he maintains.

No Intent To 'Victimize'

In Mr. Coplen's city alone, more than 150 parents have been arrested for their children's misbehavior since the state's anti-gang law went into effect last year. There are no statewide statistics on the number of arrests resulting from the 1988 statute, known as the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, or step.

The law requires parents to assert "reasonable care, control, and protection" over their children.

Violation of the statute is a misdemeanor offense with a maximum fine of $2,000 and a year in jail. But charges are dropped if the parents agree to take a class on improving parenting skills.

All of the Los Angeles parents have been referred to parenting classes that will teach them how to discipline their offspring, Mr. Coplen says. Although "several" cases probably will go to court if the parents refuse to attend the courses, he adds, the law is "not aimed at victimizing parents."

Gloria Williams, mother of a 15-year-old boy in Los Angeles, was the first to be charged under the law last year after her son was arrested for allegedly participating in the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl.

At the time, city officials argued that Ms. Williams knew of her son's gang membership and behavior, but did nothing to stop it.

The charges were dropped after officials discovered that Ms. Williams was attending a parenting class before she was arrested.

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles have filed suit against the city attorney charging that the law is vague and overly broad and, therefore, unconstitutional.

"It became obvious from the Williams case how the law could be abused," says Paul Hoffman, legal director for the Southern California aclu

"The way the law is now, you don't know what you have to do to comply," he says. "It makes something that is not illegal--being a parent--a criminal action. And it imposes liability on the parents when they did nothing themselves."

According to Mr. Hoffman, the aclu is considering a settlement that would include amending the statute's language so that it "passes constitutional muster."

Waiting in Aurora

Meanwhile, city administrators in Aurora, Colo., are anxiously awaiting the results of the Los Angeles case.

Officials there adopted a similar city ordinance in April, as part of a legislative package to crack down on gang-related activity.

The law went into effect in June, but the parent-responsibility component probably will not be enforced until later this year, when a statewide training program for parent involvement begins. Currently, there are no state-sanctioned classes to which parents who have violated the ordinance can be referred, says Charles Richardson, Aurora's city attorney.

When the law does take effect, Aurora parents will face a maximum $999 fine and six months in jail for "reckless disregard" of their children's behavior.

"I don't want to be seen as naive in thinking that sending parents to a class will steer children away from gangs," Mr. Richardson says. "But we're hoping we can reach that one parent who may need the skills to help their child stay straight."

In other places, states are stiffening the penalties for parents whose children skip school or fail to behave while there.

Mandating Involvement

In April, Mississippi lawmakers adopted an education-reform package that includes a number of provisions to promote parent involvement in schools. As part of that bill, which has not yet been funded, parents who refuse to attend disciplinary conferences called by school officials could face a misdemeanor charge and up to $2,000 in fines.

In 1983, Mississippi beefed up its truancy laws by allowing parents to be hit with up to $1,000 in fines and a year in jail if their children were chronically absent from school. At the time, attendance officers were assigned to work for juvenile courts, rather than school districts, to make it easier to prosecute violators.

But Andrew P. Mullins, assistant to the state superintendent of education, says a shortage of truancy officers and a loophole that enabled parents to claim they were educating their children at home have weakened the 1983 law's enforcement.

But in California, where there is a similar law, officials say fines and jail threats rarely get parents involved in their children's education.

The California law gives teachers the authority to call parents into school to observe their youngster in class if the student is suspended for using profanity, committing an obscene act, behaving disruptively, or defying school authorities.

The law prohibits employers from penalizing parents who ask for time off from work to comply. But there is no penalty for parents who ignore the school's request for an observation visit.

Hector Madrigal, coordinator of the Los Angeles Unified School District's student-discipline-proceedings office, argues that penalizing parents does more harm than good.

Jail sentences clog the court system, which is already backed up with more serious crimes, he says.

In addition, he asserts, monetary penalties are too harsh a punishment for parents who already live in poverty. "It's just another obstacle in their struggle to survive," he states.

Mr. Madrigal says the problems such laws attempt to address result from a more general breakdown of family structures in society, which should not be blamed on individual parents.

"One law is not going to reconstruct a family with a homicidal father and a drug-addicted mother, who is in a gang, to make them become better parents," he maintains.

The Fairness of Learnfare

Similarly, critics argue that Wisconsin's widely publicized Learnfare pro6gram unfairly punishes low-income parents for failing to control their children's behavior.

The law allows the state to reduce welfare payments for parents whose adolescent children do not attend school regularly.

Although Wisconsin in 1988 became the first state to adopt such a plan, several other states--including Florida, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, and North Carolina--have since linked a family's public assistance to its children's school attendance.

In June, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin announced plans to expand Learnfare to include families with children between the ages of 6 and 12. Currently, the law is limited t

Vol. 09, Issue 40

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