School Climate & Safety Opinion

Two Views on Welcoming Students and Parents

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 13, 2017 6 min read
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In a recent conversation with a parent who is sending her only child to kindergarten, we heard her concerns about the school district in which she lives. Although including a small middle class neighborhood, over 80% of the district’s student population is on free and reduced lunch, a key indicator of poverty. For several months, this young mother tried to make an appointment to visit the school, but she received no follow up with an appointment time. Finally, on kindergarten registration day, she was able to meet and talk with some of the teachers. She felt the teachers were welcoming and well informed about teaching little ones. But, the teachers also openly expressed the challenges they faced with their students. They identified the main source of frustration as parent involvement. In fact, one teacher shared that this was a great year because she had a class of kindergarteners whose parents remained connected and involved. Another teacher commented that she hadn’t been so lucky. She added that one of her students told her should stop calling the house because her mom was not going to talk with her. What a message for that young child to carry. And, here was a young mother learning about school, about teachers and about expectations for parents and children living in poverty. We have all heard that new teachers learn the culture of a school in conversations with other faculty and sometimes those are faculty room stories. Here was a young parent learning about the culture of her 5 year old’s school from causal faculty conversations on the day she was registering her child. The power of the impact on her was so strong she couldn’t help but repeat them.

Poverty carries with it a burden that is so complex that it is easy to misunderstand its impact on children and learning. It brings with it a set of limitations, behaviors, and challenges that can be seen in the beginning, even as children enter kindergarten. Gaps can be noted immediately in preparedness to learn. And without awareness on the part of the educators, even the most caring and dedicated, can mistakenly miss the spark within a child waiting to be released or even contribute to the depreciation of hope in a young parent.

Here’s an example. A most warm and sensitive math intervention teacher was working with a small group of students on adding and subtracting. The problem she presented was based on a real world problem ... from her real world. Her son wanted an ATV for Christmas, and she was asking the students to research the costs from newspaper flyers she had thoughtfully brought into the classroom. Then, they were to determine which costs the most, the least, calculate the differences between them and make a recommendation to her. This school was in a middle class neighborhood with 19% of students living in poverty. Maybe there were students in that room for whom this was a typical family challenge but there were likely others for whom Christmas was a time with hopes for donations from local agencies or a community organizer with the heart to bring people together to help the less fortunate. This was a good teacher with a well-meaning heart and a thoughtful lesson who lacked the understanding of the silent hurt she could have been causing a child. Similarly, textbooks, E-texts, and TV present families and living situations not reflective of the struggles these children live. Often they hold the awareness of these differences, silently, as they try to figure out the world. Eventually, somewhere, somehow, the awareness breaks out. We wonder, silently, what else we might have done while we speak about less than engaged parents.

Even more divisive is the misunderstanding about parent involvement. If educators hold a belief that parents don’t care, they create an environment that is neither welcoming to a parent nor helpful for the child. These are the parents whose first encounters with school are to learn about what their child lacks, or how their child has misbehaved, or what they can do to help their child improve. These are the parents who themselves may have not had a positive experience in school. These are the parents who may be struggling to get their food stamps and get their younger child to the clinic on the day you have called a meeting. They can’t change those appointments or afford the cab fare to make an additional trip. These are the parents who are working two or three shifts and still can’t make the rent or they have lost a job and can’t find another. These are the parents who do not have time to take their child(ren) to the library or to read to them, or have enough money to buy a book let alone have a shelf of books in a child’s room at home. These are the parents who need school support as much as their children do. We cannot ignore these issues.

No matter the poverty rate in the school where one works, there are likely student(s) who face the challenges of poverty. No matter where we work or live, understanding poverty is important. As educators, we have the capacity and the opportunity to make a difference for both parents and their children. Now, with school winding down and the summer vacation upon us, consider taking the time to watch this documentary entitled Poverty in America.

Consider how it can provoke conversations among the district’s leadership team and the faculty. If we are to truly educate every child, the whole child, we need to understand the affects of their lives outside of school on their ability to learn. And according to those kindergarten teachers, parent involvement matters. Understanding how much they love their children, even in the context of material and social limitations and challenges, can better inform how they are invited into the process.

The Other Welcome

This past weekend, First Lady Melania Trump finally moved to the White House. It was a move delayed six months to allow 11 year old son, Barron, to finish his school year. We wonder about how St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, Barron’s new school in Maryland, will welcome this new student and his parents. We do know the St Andrew’s website describes its mission as “to know and inspire each child in an inclusive community dedicated to exceptional teaching, learning, and service”. They add “St. Andrew’s strives to challenge and support all of its students in a balanced program to nurture their academic, artistic, athletic, and spiritual growth.” The school believes that developing each individual’s intellect, character, and sense of self-worth encourages each to live a creative and compassionate life.” It sounds like a great choice for the son of the POTUS. We hope for schools like that for every child, yes, even those now living in poverty. We offer public schools to every child so they can develop intellect, character and gain self-worth. From the son of President and the First Lady to the child of poorest of moms and dads, let’s begin the next school year by welcoming all of them equally and making school their learning home. We have the summer to get the welcome mat ready.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration by tumisu courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.