Families & the Community

Putting the ‘Parent Piece’ in Schools

By Linda Jacobson — October 02, 2002 8 min read
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It’s Blue Day in Roscoe Elementary School’s “Mommy and Me” class, and 16-month-old Salvador, being wheeled into a classroom in a navy-blue stroller, is appropriately decked out in royal-blue overalls and carrying a large, stuffed, blue dog.

Parent educator Kim Shirley adds the words “stroller” and “overalls” to her vocabulary list on the board as she exuberantly leads the group of mothers and toddlers in applause. Having the Spanish-speaking mothers remind their children to bring something blue to class, she said, is a subtle way to get both mother and child involved in education and to encourage conversation at home.

For the mothers, who all have older children at Roscoe Elementary, the weekly class is a chance to learn some English, get to know other parents, and familiarize their future preschoolers with group activities. The class is also just one of many educational opportunities open to parents at the school and throughout the Los Angeles Unified system’s District B.

This subdistrict in the San Fernando Valley includes 80 schools and roughly 80,000 students—making it bigger than most full-fledged school districts in the country. It devotes about $1.8 million annually to its parent education program, which pays for 90 staff members and other costs.

Bernarda Madera, who has a daughter in 3rd grade at Roscoe, participated in the Mommy and Me class with her 3-year-old daughter. She says it helped her as a mother and prepared her younger daughter for preschool.

“She’s not going to cry like most of the kids,” Ms. Madera predicted. “And I have learned how to be social.”

‘The Parent Piece’

For district staff members, the long list of parent activities is necessary to help educators here form bonds with parents that can improve their children’s school performance.

“The ‘parent piece’ had not been hit upon for a long time, not in urban communities,” said Charlotte Castagnola, District B’s facilitator for parent activities. “There was some idea that because these parents didn’t have the language or the educational background, they would not be capable of anything that was worthwhile or would make a difference.”

District B’s efforts—and the structure that has been built to support them—have been recognized nationally. For the past three years, District B has received an award from the National Network of Partnership Schools. Run by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the network supports initiatives to foster positive community and family partnerships.

This dedication to treating parents as partners—not just giving the idea lip service—has also spread to Los Angeles’ District F, which has also received partnership awards from the national network.

Located in downtown Los Angeles, District F includes more than 57,000 students in 62 schools. District F Superintendent Richard A. Alonzo and Linda Ariyasu, the school-family facilitator there, both worked in District B before the 737,000-student Los Angeles system was reorganized.

The parent education efforts in Districts B and F provide “a great model for the rest of Los Angeles,” said Joyce Epstein, the director of the national network and a Johns Hopkins education professor.

What is significant, she said, is that the two districts have been able to expand their efforts to a much larger group of schools following the school system’s reorganization. And they were able to do it even after new leaders were hired.

Goal- Oriented

Schools in both Districts B and F organize their work around specific school or districtwide goals, which include having a welcoming environment and improving student achievement.

“It’s nice to have parent activities, but if they’re not relating to your school outcome goals, then they’re just activities,” said Curtis Johnson, a program coordinator at Roscoe Elementary School. Ninety-three percent of the school’s 1,300 pupils are Hispanic, and all of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

For example, Roscoe’s teachers conduct “interactive homework sessions,” in which parents are invited into classrooms to participate in lessons taught by their children’s teachers.

Less than a mile down the street at the 1,150-student Arminta Elementary School, parents can work with their children during “math nights,” attend a workshop on the “Open Court” reading curriculum used in the district, or take part in sessions on test- taking strategies or writing.

Parents are also invited to take a “learning walk,” in which they visit classrooms during the school day and take notes on the instruction. That feedback is then shared with the teacher.

Some parents even help teachers during Open Court tests, said Angelica Guitierrez, one of Arminta’s community representatives. Those representatives are staff members who help coordinate parent activities and run the schools’ parent centers, which are located throughout districts B and F.

“Language doesn’t have to be a barrier,” Ms. Guitierrez said. What most parents need, she said, is the confidence to help their children and to learn skills that can benefit the school as a whole.

Tailored to Parents

Walking into Arminta Elementary’s parent center, Ms. Guitierrez reaches for a photo album and proudly points to page after page showing parents operating the school’s office machines and working on projects to assist teachers in the classroom.

Many classes offered at these schools are tailored toward the needs of parents. Computer and English-as-a-second-language classes are common. A Latino Leadership class teaches assertiveness and how to use local health and social services.

Arminta even holds an immigration workshop class for parents who might have questions about work permits or residency requirements. And in District F, which has a large Asian population, classes and materials are also translated into Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese.

What’s more, districts B and F both have a mother-daughter college- preparation program in which girls from families in which no one has been to college are encouraged, beginning in middle school, to be the first to enroll in postsecondary education. Support from the girls’ mothers is seen as an essential part of reaching that goal.

The mother-daughter program and some of the family-literacy activities offered in the schools are projects of Families in Schools, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that develops parent-involvement programs. Because of its work in districts B and F, the organization also received an award from the National Network of Partnership Schools this year.

The emphasis on parents has also affected hiring practices. When he interviews prospective principals, Superintendent Alonzo of District F asks them what they did at their previous schools to improve relationships with parents—and he doesn’t just want to hear that they held open houses.

And in District B, teacher-candidates who are receiving their training from a teacher education and professional-development organization called Delta—an alternative, one-year certification program affiliated with California State University in Northridge—are being taught how to work with parents before they receive their teaching certificates.

‘Just Hard Work’

Ms. Castagnola, District B’s facilitator for parent activities, says the parent-involvement effort in the district has been effective, in part, because she has taken it slowly.

District B is made up of five school “families,” each consisting of a high school and its feeder middle and elementary schools. So far, Ms. Castagnola has concentrated on building parent education programs in only three of them: Francis Polytechnic, North Hollywood, and San Fernando.

“I don’t think I would have met with near the success if I had done it all at once,” she said. “You have to move it in manageable pieces, or you just end up working on the surface again.”

Ms. Castagnola is now increasing her efforts to create opportunities for parents to be more involved in the middle and high schools.

For instance, “Tea for 10" is an afternoon session in which parents of students who are performing well in high school are invited to talk to the staff about what they are doing to help their children. That information is then shared with the parents of what Ms. Castagnola calls the “shaky C students.”

And at North Hollywood High, parents of students who are struggling volunteer to mentor other students who are having trouble. In return, other parents are assigned to mentor those parents’ children.

The idea is that parents make “a commitment to supporting a child’s academic program, but they practice these activities with another student,” Ms. Castagnola said. Laura Gonzalez, a parent whose two children have already graduated from North Hollywood, is still volunteering as a mentor at the school because, she says, it is a rewarding experience.

“I really love it,” she said. “I feel like I have another daughter.”

During her meetings with a girl she is mentoring, Ms. Gonzalez reviews the girl’s study planner, and they talk about school assignments. “And I always ask her what she is reading for pleasure,” Ms. Gonzalez said.

Ms. Ariyasu in District F has had a less organized approach to implementation. Rather than systematically moving to put the program in each school family, she simply works with any school in the subdistrict that’s interested in having the parent education program.

“I have a more ‘y’all come’ kind of attitude,” she said, with a laugh. “Whoever wants to join, we’re willing to work with them now.”

As a former elementary school principal, she has found it more challenging to reach parents at the secondary level. But she’s learned that their children’s class schedules and whether they are taking the courses they’ll need to prepare for college rank as the parents’ biggest concerns.

“Whether you’re a preschool or a high school parent, everyone wants their child to have the option to go to college,” Ms. Ariyasu said.

The administrators at Roscoe and Arminta elementary schools say they know they are able to involve more parents when they schedule activities both during the day and in the evening. But they also recognize that some parents may never take advantage of such classes.

“In no way are we at a point that we’d like to be at,” said Mr. Johnson, the program coordinator at Roscoe. Because of cultural differences, the parents at his school may never participate in the same way as those in a more affluent school, he added.

Ms. Castagnola emphasizes that she doesn’t want those she works with to grow comfortable with their success.

“I hound them on this all the time,” she said. “They used to get excited if they had five parents show up. Now they fill the room, and it’s easy to slough off the outreach piece. [But] there’s no magic answer. It’s just hard work.”

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