When her Fordham Road neighbors see Yokayra Fernandez-Haghighi walking in their New York City community during the week, they often ask her why she isn’t working at Public School 85.
The question always makes Ms. Fernandez-Haghighi smile because she isn’t a teacher. But the stay-at-home mother of two elementary school children has become a fixture at school because of a new parent-engagement partnership between PS 85 and Mercy College’s school of education in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.
“It’s not like I’m [at the school] and I have to be there,” Ms. Fernandez-Haghighi said in a telephone interview from PS 85 in the city’s Bronx borough this month. “I want to be there.”
Last fall, Mercy College opened the Bronx Parent Center to help improve student achievement by teaching, training, and supporting parents to become education advocates and active partners in their children’s schooling. The center wants to provide meaningful and individualized support for parents to assist their children academically, socially, and behaviorally from kindergarten through college.
The effort has also become a service-learning project for Mercy College, whose professors are donating their time to work with parents.
“This is an opportunity for our faculty to go back and work with the schools in a concerted way,” said Aramina Vega Ferrer, the center’s director and an associate professor of literacy and multilingual studies at the college.
About 200 parents have participated in the college’s workshops, and some, like Ms. Fernandez-Haghighi, have helped lead sessions. The center offers workshops throughout the school year covering topics that include strategies for children with special needs, technology, math instruction, reading, and parent leadership.
School-based parent centers are already open at two Bronx schools, and plans are underway to conduct quantitative and qualitative research to evaluate the Bronx Parent Center’s programs and identify best practices. In the future, Mercy College’s teacher-candidates will be involved with the center.
And while the center’s focus has been on Bronx public schools, which serve predominantly low-income and minority students, the college’s faculty is working with a parent group from suburban school districts in Westchester County, N.Y., as well.
“We know how to work with parents and not blame them,” stressed Ms. Ferrer, a former principal of Public School 46 in the Bronx, which also is working with the parent center. “We’re doing this to improve education.”
Alfred S. Posamentier, the dean of the education school at Mercy College, said he has been frustrated by what he perceives as the “lip service” being given to parent engagement. So, Mr. Posamentier, a former high school math teacher in the Bronx and former dean of the school of education at City College, challenged his faculty to develop a parent center “to make parents feel that they are really and truly part of the education equation.”
In recent years, parents have led efforts to save academic programs or, in some cases, schools from being shuttered in districts nationwide, leveraging their weight as stakeholders and voters.
Anne Foster, the executive director of Parents for Public Schools, a national nonprofit group committed to educating, engaging, and mobilizing parents, said that school leaders can sometimes underestimate parents’ ability to change schools.
Nationally, organizations, universities, and districts run workshops or centers to educate parents, with some serving specific groups, such as the parents of children with special needs. Ms. Foster said efforts like the Bronx Parent Center often prove that parents are both eager and able to learn how to be involved in their children’s schools.
“Parent engagement is the most neglected school reform strategy,” she said, “yet it’s the one that makes the most sense.”
With space donated by Mercy College and a $225,000 pledge from the Bronx borough president’s office, 17 faculty members are pressing forward to make the Bronx Parent Center a model program.
Jungkang Miller, an assistant professor of literacy and multilingual studies at Mercy College, chairs the Bronx Parent Center faculty committee. Ms. Miller explained that many of her Mercy College colleagues are Bronx natives and former Bronx educators who have yearned to help the community’s parents.
For others, like Ms. Miller, who was born in South Korea, the center is their entrée to assisting immigrant families with the cultural hurdles that often impede their relationships with schools.
“It helps that we can reach out to them on a personal level,” Ms. Miller said. “Parenting is very different in America.”
In Westchester County, Rivertown Parents, a group representing five villages along the Hudson River, partnered with the Bronx Parent Center last year.
It wasn’t long before the group, which includes members of parent-teacher-student associations from Ardsley, Dobbs Ferry, Hastings-on-Hudson, Irvington, and Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow, discovered there was power in numbers. Almost twice as many parents attended workshops tackling subjects ranging from bullying to social media when Rivertown Parents hosted them together on Mercy College’s Dobbs Ferry campus.
“Our goal has been to open the doors and bring more people into the conversation about parenting and education,” said Lisa Ferrara, the co-chair of Rivertown Parents and a stay-at-home mother of three children.
In the Bronx, PS 85 Principal Ted Husted was eager to work with Mercy College and Ms. Ferrer, his longtime mentor. Mr. Husted said she helped him identify PS 85’s greatest needs when he assumed the helm of the 1,000-student school in 2005.
PS 85, known as the Great Expectations School, serves a vibrant, largely immigrant community where about 96 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Roughly 25 percent of the students have special needs, and a third are learning English as a second language.
Mr. Husted tapped teacher Jeanette Diaz to serve as the school’s parent-engagement coach to encourage more parents to learn about the curriculum and how to work with their children at home. The school also opened its own parent center on campus.
“We’re not only asking them to help with their kids,” he said, “we’re also asking how we can help them.”
Ms. Diaz, who lives in the neighborhood, said she works individually with parents on math and reading strategies in addition to leading workshops. Parent volunteers help to develop workshops and reach out to other parents.
“Parents do want their children to succeed, and they want to make a difference in their lives,” Ms. Diaz said.
PS 85’s parents founded the People’s Circle—a meeting where they discuss their parenting challenges.
Minnie Walinski, the mother of four children, spanning elementary school to college, said the circle’s trusting and honest environment means parents can trade homework and child-rearing tips free of judgment. Sometimes the principal is invited to attend to address their concerns, too.
Still, she said bluntly: “Some parents just don’t care. They just drop their kids off from 8 a.m. to 2:50 p.m. and expect the teachers to raise them.”
Ms. Walinsky said she hopes that by sharing her stories with other parents, they will see the benefits of getting involved in their children’s education.
Parent Lucilla Alejandro said she feels more comfortable at PS 85 after attending the workshops. Ms. Alejandro, who is from Mexico, speaks very little English. A workshop teaching parents how to read aloud to their children, which was conducted in Spanish, gave Ms. Alejandro useful tips she used at home.
Through an interpreter, Ms. Alejandro explained that her kindergartner and her 2nd grader are now reading.
This year, Ms. Ferrer and Mr. Husted are working on English-as-a-second-language classes for parents like Ms. Alejandro at PS 85. Ms. Ferrer stressed that it is vital for non-English-speaking parents to get the same information and resources as their English-speaking counterparts.
Another priority this school year, Mr. Husted said, will be to track the academic performance and behavior of students whose parents are actively participating in the center’s workshops to monitor the program’s effectiveness.
But parents like Ms. Fernandez-Haghighi and Ms. Walinski don’t need a study to see the difference an involved parent can make. Both said that when they volunteer in PS 85’s classrooms, they can identify the children who don’t have meaningful parent support at home.
“Being involved in the classroom, you see what teachers have to deal with,” Ms. Fernandez-Haghighi said. “You see that it comes from the home.”
Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2013 edition of Education Week as Partnership in Bronx Aims to Build Skills On Behalf of Parents