Families & the Community

Teach Your Parents Well

By Juliette Guilbert — November 10, 2006 14 min read
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With muffled TV sounds emanating from another room, Larry Reese and his 12-year-old daughter, Lakeetha, sit together at the kitchen table in their North Miami home, their heads bent over a civics textbook. The small living-and-dining area is tidy, if somewhat sparsely decorated, with harsh overhead lighting and an empty fish tank against one wall. Lakeetha, just back from cheerleading practice, is wearing shorts and a T-shirt, her hair in neat cornrows.

Larry Reese helps his 12-year-old daughter, Lakeetha, with her civics homework. She  says the things he’s learned in his Parent Academy classes have helped her concentrate better on her studies.

“‘Legislature,’” she reads aloud from her vocabulary list.

“They make the laws,” Reese offers in a slightly weary but patient voice. “Like Florida has the legislature up in Tallahassee.”

“It says right here on page 21,” Lakeetha replies, in the eternally aggrieved tone of a 7th grader dealing with a parent. As her father watches, she writes a sentence using the word.

Lakeetha used to hole up in her room to do her homework, sometimes with the television on. But after her father attended a series of workshops offered by the Parent Academy, Miami-Dade public schools’ nascent parental-involvement program, Reese decided to provide a quiet, distraction-free study space for Lakeetha—and to get more involved in her academic life.

“They said you should have a designated study area,” says the 45-year-old Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department supervisor, who promptly moved the TV out of her room. “The class made me realize that I should cut down on TV time so she would read.” Reese has always wanted his daughter to succeed, but before he took the workshop on helping students learn, he wasn’t sure how to go about it.

“With me being a single parent, and a man dealing with a young lady,” he adds, “I need all the help I can get.”

Enter the Parent Academy, a deeply ambitious, privately funded project aimed at improving students’ education by improving their parents’. Since Miami-Dade County Public Schools superintendent Rudy Crew launched it last year, TPA has reached tens of thousands of parents through hundreds of free workshops on study skills, test preparation, memory enhancement, reading, and creating a positive learning environment at home.

After attending his first four Parent Academy sessions this fall, Reese says it’s too early to tell if what he’s learned will have an effect on Lakeetha’s so-far “average” academic performance. And while Lakeetha is less enthusiastic about the no-TV concept, she acknowledges that the screen-time limit has forced her to read more. (Specifically, she confides, her consumption of romance novels has gone way up.) More seriously, she admits to liking the extra time her father now devotes to helping her with homework.

“He’ll actually sit there and look at it with me now, and show me what to do,” she says. “I appreciate that a lot.”

So does the school district. In the year since the Parent Academy started taking education directly to parents, the school system’s scores on the standardized Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test have risen significantly across several subjects and grade levels. Although the gains are still too recent to be officially attributed to the program, preliminary information released by TPA Dean Sandra Smith-Moise confirms that a majority of principals surveyed by the district found the academy “in part responsible” not only for better achievement, but also improved student conduct and attendance.

If the magnitude of TPA’s impact seems out of proportion to its brief life so far, consider its scale. Although other districts have launched efforts with similar goals, the academy’s scope and depth make it one of the most ambitious parent-education initiatives in the country, according to William Jeynes, a professor of education at California State University at Long Beach who has published three meta-analyses of research on such programs.

“The state of the practice of parental-involvement programs is largely a school-by-school type of parental involvement,” he says. Jeynes cites the Houston Independent School District’s Parent University as one of the rare examples of a large districtwide effort. “It reaches a lot of people, but is nowhere near as sophisticated as [the Parent Academy],” he says. The 15-year-old Parent University, like TPA, offers classes focused on both kids’ academic success and parents’ personal and professional growth. The difference is that it is much smaller. Targeted at five Title I high schools and their feeder elementary and middle schools, Houston’s project served just 5,354 parents last year. Another well-regarded districtwide program, San Diego’s six-year-old Parent University, is also limited to parents of children in Title I schools.

That’s not to say that small programs aren’t good ideas, says Crew, who became Miami-Dade’s superintendent of schools in 2004—only that they can be the seeds of an even better idea.

“When I first came to Miami-Dade County, I saw a number of really wonderful parental-involvement efforts,” Crew says. “But they were isolated, not connected to the District Strategic Plan, and not being shared for the greater good.” So he set about building and financing a parent-education plan to unify and expand what had been a piecemeal, mostly school-based assortment of parent-education programs.

Maria Elena Garganta leads a Parent Academy session in Spanish. The program offers courses throughout Miami in three languages.

The idea, he says, is to help parents become “active partners” in their children’s learning. Academic success is the core goal, so many workshops focus on giving parents tools and strategies to help with homework in specific subject areas. But so-called “soft skills”—discipline issues, teacher-interaction protocol, and how to navigate the school system—can be equally important, particularly given the county’s large population of immigrant parents. So courses are also available covering those topics, along with ESL and GED preparation.

To reach its audience, the academy last year offered a wide variety of courses in all three of the city’s major languages—English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole—and in 125 locations. Classes were held at neighborhood schools, but also in more convenient, less conventional locations such as churches, businesses, parks, homeless shelters, and migrant-farmworker camps.

To pull in parents unlikely to attend a formal class, TPA has also been working on a designated educational radio program in Haitian Creole and free early childhood classes, offered in partnership with Gymboree in low-income neighborhoods, thanks to a grant the city won.

The academy has additionally partnered with local attractions such as the Historical Museum of Southern Florida to present free “family learning events” where parents and children together can gain access to Miami’s cultural capital through presentations on local history or wildlife, along with literacy activities and information tables publicizing other TPA workshops. In the poorest of Miami’s families, a trip to a museum or a zoo may be as much of a revelation for the adults as for the kids. “It’s just amazing to see the parents and the children learning together,” Smith-Moise says of these events. “And I’m realizing that the parents sometimes need the same knowledge that we’re trying to teach the children.”

Not surprisingly, teachers and principals at the nation’s fourth-largest school district have greeted the idea of more parental involvement enthusiastically.

“When I first came here seven years ago … I didn’t see many parents throughout the day,” says Sylvia Hernandez, a 3rd grade teacher at Shadowlawn Elementary School in Miami’s immigrant-rich, cash-poor Little Haiti neighborhood. “Now, with our parent resource center and the Parent Academy, I see them a lot. They call, they come by unexpectedly, they check up on their kids.” Hernandez estimates that 75 percent of her students whose parents become more involved experience some academic improvement.

Shadowlawn principal Brenda Dawson credits the academy with helping her ongoing efforts to connect with parents. In 2000, after Shadowlawn was rated “F” by the state for its abysmal standardized test scores, Dawson created a school-based parent resource center that offers free classes in parenting, English, computers, and other subjects. She believes TPA’s involvement over the past year has helped get more parents in the door.

Taking It All In

The Parent Academy, Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ wide-ranging program to improve students’ learning by teaching their parents, has offered hundreds of classes since it launched last year. Here’s a small sampling of the free courses offered in September. For more information, visit: The Parent Academy.

Introduction to Computers and Microsoft Word

Family Museum Experience—A series of parent-child workshops on local history held at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida

PASSport to Success—A series of workshops on how to help children succeed in school

Xtreme Preparation—How to help kids prepare for tests

Xtreme Effective Communication—How to communicate with your child

American Sign Language for Families

Beginning Spanish

M-DCPS: Everything You Want and Need to Know About the School System

Steroid Use and Abuse

Launching Young Readers: Roots of Reading

Active Parenting Teen—A series of workshops for the parents of teenagers

Parent Portal—How to use the school system’s online resources for parents

Gymboree Parent and Me

Achieving the Dream: Owning Your Own Home

Understanding and Overcoming Eating Disorders

Financing Your Child’s College Education

What’s more, Dawson believes that the increase in parental involvement in the five years since Shadowlawn’s parent center opened has helped raise the school’s standardized test scores, leaving it six points away from an “A” rating in 2006. In particular, last year’s TPA activities delivered benefits to some of her most challenged students.

“[Shadowlawn parents] went downtown to the library trip, and they don’t normally do that,” she says. “It’s not a priority for them to make arrangements and have a car to take their children to the library. I have found that the children of those parents who attend those trips tend to have FCAT gain points,” she says.

Miami Edison Senior High coprincipal David Moore also attributes his school’s achievement gains in part to the efforts of the Parent Academy. Located, like Shadowlawn, in Little Haiti, a neighborhood populated mostly by Haitian immigrants, Edison has long had problematically low rates of parental engagement, something Moore blames on cultural misunderstandings.

Once one of the worst-performing schools in Florida, with “F” grades five years in a row, Edison was forced into a state “corrective action plan,” but last year posted a 20-point jump on the FCAT. Moore asserts that the improvement—one of the biggest leaps in the state—is due in part to TPA.

The academy “helped us break down the walls between the community and the school,” he says. “In urban schools, you have to deal with the parents’ attitude that it’s the school against the parent. It goes back to knowledge is power, and it’s getting much easier to deal with parents. You see them in the building a lot more now.”

Despite anecdotal evidence of TPA success and the independent blizzard of research showing the benefits of parental involvement, the program is still too new for its contribution to be conclusively assayed.

Not everyone is convinced that even the massive apparatus of the academy will be enough to turn around the district’s most troubled schools. Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says her research has identified six types of parental and community involvement in schools, all of which are necessary to raise achievement scores. TPA has only some of those elements.

“When I think of a parent-involvement program, I’m thinking of a full comprehensive program, of which [the Parent Academy] would be part,” she says. In addition to fostering parenting skills and promoting community partnerships, she explains that a “comprehensive program” would incorporate school-based practices such as volunteer recruitment, home-learning activities linked to homework in a student’s grade, and parent participation in school governance.

“I know that Miami-Dade as a district has as its goal to develop comprehensive programs, but it has a long way to go,” Epstein says. “This is a good start. But parenting workshops are just one step in the development of a full partnership program.”

“A good start” might also be the best description for the academy’s financing.

Through a combination of foundation grants, individual donations, and corporate gifts, Crew and his chief private fundraiser, TotalBank chairwoman Adrienne Arsht, have managed to pay for the academy’s $586,000 annual budget without dipping into school or other public funds. Those financial commitments extend a maximum of three years into the future, however, and there’s some question as to whether the initial burst of well-heeled enthusiasm can keep pace with the district’s needs.

In fact, one of TPA’s biggest problems may turn out to be staying abreast of the swelling demand for its workshops. Smith-Moise says that more than 18,000 parents attended TPA classes and events during the 2005-06 school year, and so far this year, attendance at workshops for this quarter has more than tripled over last year’s numbers for the same period.

Next year’s growth may be even more prodigious: In response to popular demand, a whole new tier of “Certification Courses,” enabling parents to earn clerical, paraprofessional, or vocational certifications, is planned for launch in 2007-08.

TPA also is drawing admiring attention from other districts interested in borrowing its ideas or copying them outright. Smith-Moise counts at least five school systems that are considering putting at least some of the academy’s strategies to work in their own cities.

“We’re hoping that every school district can follow along and reach their parents,” Smith-Moise says.

In a gleaming, light-filled conference room on the 18th floor of Miami-Dade County’s downtown government office building, about 30 parents—mostly county employees on their lunch breaks—look over an academy worksheet. Dressed in a range of white- and blue-collar attire, and reflecting the ethnic medley that is Miami, nearly all of them wear a squint of perplexity as they try to navigate the tricky series of calculations before them. And when TPA instructor Maria Elena Garganta coolly informs them that she will deliver the instructions only once, their voices form a collective groan.

“How can I remember the instructions if I don’t understand them in the first place?” demands 39-year-old parent Duff Reed in frustration.

“You see?” the lively, no-nonsense Garganta says brightly, having stoked the indignation she was looking for. “This is what your kids go through every day, trying to remember instructions!” The class uses an off-the-shelf curriculum called PASSport to Success that’s designed to address parental attitudes and communication with teachers, as well as specific strategies for homework and test preparation. Garganta goes on to read the instructions aloud twice more, slowly, before moving on.

After class, she confides that many of her students—presumably among the most motivated and involved of the district’s parents, seeing as they’ve bothered to attend a workshop—come to class with surprisingly little knowledge of how to direct their kids’ learning.

“It’s amazing, but what we’re seeing is that parents are not prepared at all, and oblivious as to what it takes to raise their child in a fashion so that they can behave properly in school,” she says. “It’s very important to start at ground zero, and teach them how to navigate the school and use the resources that the district gives them.”

That’s exactly why Reed came to the Parent Academy. Two years ago, when the self-employed caterer learned that her son, Julian Cepero, was in danger of failing kindergarten, she felt as if the school bureaucracy were turning a deaf ear to her pleas for help. Julian squeaked through kindergarten, but flunked 1st grade because he hadn’t yet begun to read.

“At first, I was upset with the teachers,” Reed says. “I had no idea how to get him what he needed. I was having a really hard time and was very frustrated with the school system.” Teachers called Julian a bright child with an unusually large vocabulary, but she felt like she was getting nowhere with the district’s unresponsive learning disability program. Finally, in the hope of picking up some new strategies to support Julian’s learning, Reed began attending the same lunchtime workshops that led Larry Reese to turn off his daughter’s TV during study time.

Using Garganta’s tips, she’s already begun to open more productive and positive channels of communication with Julian’s teachers.

“I’m trying to work within the system to bring him up to speed and to take her advice so I can work better with the teachers,” she reports. Reed says that one of the workshop’s most valuable lessons covered the “etiquette” of talking to teachers—something she put into practice recently when asking a teacher about a missing reading log.

Working from Garganta’s lesson on setting up a study area, Reed has also been able to conquer the organizational problems that plagued her son through kindergarten and 1st grade.

“Before, I would get upset because I was the one having to scramble to find pencils, even though I had just bought 100 of them,” she says. “Now I made up his work space at the kitchen table, and he has a certain area always to find his things.” Reed says that Julian is much happier at homework time now, and so is she.

Toward the end of the hour, Garganta asks the class for an update on how they’d put a previous lesson—on improving attitudes and home study spaces—into practice.

“How many of you have improved your attitude?” she asks. “Who has created the home environment?” About half a dozen hands go up, including Reed’s. “And has it worked? Have you seen a difference?”

The consensus—at least among those with their arms dutifully in the air—is yes.

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2006 edition of Teacher Magazine as Teach Your Parents Well


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