Special Report
Families & the Community Opinion

How to Solve the Parent-Engagement Problem

Parents should be treated as full partners in their children’s education, not taken for granted
By Whitney Henderson — January 10, 2018 6 min read
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Editor’s Note: This Commentary is part of a special report exploring game-changing trends and innovations that have the potential to shake up the schoolhouse. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.

When I think about families and schools, I think about my own mother. She was a single mom who exhausted her resources to supplement the public school education I was getting in East St. Louis, Ill., which she knew was mediocre compared with the one my more affluent peers were receiving just six miles down the road.

My mom was always my champion, fighting for me and my future at every parent-teacher conference and stitching together a patchwork community of friends, neighbors, coaches, and mentors to help guide me. They were a constant presence along my path from East St. Louis Senior High to Jackson State, Columbia, and Harvard Universities.

After graduating from high school and entering college, I promised to be the same advocate my mother and mentors were to me for other children whose families were counting on schools to open doors of opportunity but who often found themselves getting lost along the way. Following Hurricane Katrina, I moved to New Orleans in 2005, where I helped my cousins cope with the tremendous strain of their work as police officers in a traumatized city. There, I saw myself in the faces of a generation of students and parents facing even steeper challenges. I became a teacher and eventually a school administrator.

Over the course of a decade, I saw how the moms and dads of my students could become transformational advocates for their children when empowered with the right resources and knowledge. As an educator, I know firsthand the challenges dedicated teachers and principals can have trying to engage busy families and how little support families typically get even when they are trying to be involved, even when their schools are fully committed to it.

Giving busy parents an ally is exactly what I do now at EdNavigator, a nonprofit organization that helps working families find and stay on the path to a great education. As the navigator-in-chief, I oversee teams of “navigators” in New Orleans and Boston who serve as personal education advisers for parents and caregivers. Navigators work one-on-one with each of them to answer questions, offer advice, and help solve a thousand different problems. On any given day, you may find a navigator helping a parent find the right school for his or her child, decipher a set of test results, create a plan for college, or set up a home routine that supports learning.

The navigator’s job is to understand each family’s education goals and ensure that they reach them. We strive to be an enduring presence in their lives, as familiar and trusted as their child’s pediatrician.

What makes all this work is a critical and underutilized resource: local employers. EdNavigator partners with committed businesses—global and local. These employers provide support for our service as a benefit to employees. They contribute to the cost of the service and, just as importantly, open their doors for our navigators to meet with their employees in-person where these parents are: at work.

It’s a structure designed to benefit everyone involved. Busy families get expert advice and hands-on educational support, without having to go one step out of their way. Employers get more focused and engaged employees who are more likely to stay in their jobs. And students with so much riding on their education get a better chance of achieving their dreams.

Today, more than 2,000 families in New Orleans and Boston have sponsored access to EdNavigator through their employer. The people we support occupy many different roles, including housekeepers, building engineers, machine-shop workers, security officers, veterinary assistants, and chefs, among others. Like my own mom, they all want the best for their children and will do extraordinary things to achieve that goal. All they need is a little help along the way.

If we want to keep more students on the path to success in school and beyond, it’s time for us to stop expecting families to engage without showing them how. It’s time for teachers and families to come to the table more frequently, more openly, and on more equal terms. It’s time for parents to be treated as full partners in their children’s education, not taken for granted or pushed aside. And it’s time for more businesses to recognize that their success is intertwined with the success of their employees, communities, and local schools, and step up for working families.

I’ve seen how willing families are to be engaged and do their part, and I’ve seen how game-changing involved parents can be. But sometimes they need help getting there. They shouldn’t have to manage this terrain alone, like my mom so often did.

Background: Getting Parents Involved in Education

By Francisco Vara-Orta

Improving parental involvement and community engagement are two goals that school districts often set and even include as part of how state or federal governments judge their performance. But there is often a breakdown on how to make that happen, as parents and the surrounding business community can be busy or unsure of how to help improve the school system.

To add to the challenge, there’s conflicting research on the impact of parental involvement. Some studies have found that parental help with children’s homework doesn’t improve academic outcomes, while others have shown that once parents understand the help their children need, academic test scores, grades, and behavior improve.

The sweet spot, research suggests, is customizing programs to best meet parents where they are—something the nonprofit EdNavigator does, literally. Launched in 2015 in New Orleans and expanding to Boston this month, EdNavigator relies on the private sector to help parents understand how to deal with school systems and keep their children on track. As of December 2017, the nonprofit was partnered with 17 New Orleans employers, dispatching its paid counselors, or “navigators,” to participating local businesses that sponsor its support as an employee benefit. At year’s end, about 350 parents and adult learners were consulting with navigators on a regular basis.

With the program’s expansion in 2018, more than 2,000 employees in New Orleans and Boston will be eligible to use their services at any time. The cost of the program to parents is usually covered by their employers with the hope that it will result in better work focus and retention.

The majority of parents using EdNavigator are lower-wage workers, who may struggle with working multiple jobs, be single parents, and face language barriers. All parents at participating organizations, as well as employees seeking to continue their education, are eligible to use the nonprofit’s services.

Timothy Daly, the former president of the New Teacher Project, is one of the co-founders of EdNavigator. In an interview with Education Week last fall, he said, “There’s a huge misconception that the reason parents aren’t more involved in their child’s education [is] because they don’t care, it’s that they have to work for a living, often more than one job, or with inflexible hours to be at school for meeting during the day. Our goal is to find ways to empower parents amid those demands.”

Nicole Ellzey was one of the first parents to sign up for EdNavigator’s program. A manager of housekeepers at the International House Hotel in New Orleans, Ellzey calls her navigator Gary Briggs a personal miracle worker. Together, she and Briggs have worked on goals—both short- and long-term—for her sons. Briggs has picked her older son up from school, arranged for tutoring, and intervened in a meeting with a teacher to figure out concrete steps for supporting him academically. For Ellzey, there’s been no doubt that having a navigator has been a help to her family: “I now know what to ask for and how to ask for it,” she said. “For 10 minutes of Gary’s time, it’s become a lifetime of knowledge for my kids.”

Related Video

Parents who earn $75,000 a year are more likely than parents at the low end of the income scale to volunteer in school, attend school meetings, or move so that their children can attend a better school, according to data gathered by Education Week:

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A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2018 edition of Education Week as Parent Engagement

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