Families & the Community

Teacher Taps Parents to Help With Test Prep

By Bess Keller — April 14, 2004 7 min read
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The two teachers in Room 215 believe that 4th grader April Perez, at this point in her young life, needs extra help to succeed. But that message is not one they have been able to lob into the midst of her protective family—at least not until an evening here last month.

On this Tuesday night, the older Perezes—mother, father, sister—perch on too-small chairs to join April in tackling problems like the ones she’ll encounter on New York state’s upcoming 4th grade mathematics test. The Perezes (not their real name) and more than a dozen other parents have come to Public School 198, near Spanish Harlem, to help their youngsters do well on the exam.

The two-hour workshop is the brainchild of 33-year-old Lamson T. Lam, a tall, square-jawed man who taught 4th grade for four years here, each year expanding his expectations for involving parents in their children’s education. Mr. Lam (rhymes with “palm”) got so interested in the subject that when he was selected to the elite ranks of the Teachers Network Policy Institute, he chose the workshops as the subject of his research.

From data he collected, he found that over the four years he had been holding the sessions at PS 198, student passing rates on both the state math and the state English exams went up dramatically. Pupils reported their parents were more involved after the workshops. Last year, in a school with “historically low involvement,” as Mr. Lam wrote in his paper for the institute, members from 22 out of 26 families showed up for the math workshop; two pupils came alone.

By that measure, the gathering this evening is a disappointment, says Mr. Lam, who now coaches teachers in math instruction at PS 198 and another New York City elementary school. Just under half the families in the class of 25 children are represented.

But the session is hardly a disappointment to the children and their relatives, who trickle in over the first 40 minutes of the session, several straight from work. One father arrives on time, looking tired, his knit hat pulled to the top of his head. When Mr. Lam asks him in Spanish if he speaks English, he responds: “Un poco.”

Mini-Tests for All

Slightly more than half the 350-student enrollment at the school is Hispanic, about a fifth is African-American, 15 percent is white, and just under 10 percent is Asian. More than three-quarters of the families receive free lunch.

The workshop’s organizers are prepared for the slow start, but they want to make every minute count, too. Inside an orange folder that each family gets on arrival are a corrected practice test and an individualized checklist of math trouble spots. The teachers ask the relatives to go over the mistakes with the students, a task that results in heads bowed together in concentration.

At April’s table, the Perezes pour over her exam. The 9-year-old’s list shows many checkmarks.

At about 6:45 p.m., Mr. Lam and teacher Tammy Ghirardi stand among the families and talk about the format of the exam and test-taking strategies. Mr. Lam points out that while students are not required to show their work on the first two parts of the math test, which stretches over three days in early May, that’s still a good idea.

“Sometimes,” adds Ms. Ghirardi, “if you are wrong but you explain it well, you get some credit.”

Then the teachers pass out an abbreviated practice test, inviting the adults to watch their children as they complete it or to take the mock exam themselves.

At one table, April’s classmate Latia Shipman works and talks. “I did P-O-E on that one,” she announces, pushing her translucent pink glasses back up on her nose. “What’s that?” asks her mother, stopping work on her own test.

“Process of elimination,” explains Latia.

Over at the table loaded with bagels, pretzels, and cookies, Latia selects snacks and confides that her mother couldn’t come to the English-test workshop in January because she was working, so a friend’s mother brought Latia.

“I want to learn more about the ELA,” she says, calling the math test by the English/language arts test’s abbreviation, “and learn more about percentages.”

When time is called on the tests, the teachers ask the parents to note for the group anything their children have done well. They ask the children to tell how they solved the problems. And they give suggestions for how parents can help at home, including challenging their children to add up the change in their pockets.

“If they need more help on homework, just send a note in,” suggests Lisa Mack, a special education teacher who shares duties with Ms. Ghirardi.

As most of the families hurry out the door at 8 o’clock, Frank Perez explains that he came simply to see how his daughter was doing in class. “Now,” he continues, “I know I have to work with her. ... I think she can use help, especially in math.”

Ruminating later about the workshop, Ms. Ghirardi says she could have guessed most of the families that came, but not all. She was surprised to see the Perezes, who have downplayed their daughter’s difficulties.

A workshop “kind of evens out parents,” reflects Mr. Lam. “If they are anxious, they get reassured, ... and if parents and kids have no sense of urgency, and then parents see there is a long way to go, parents kick things into gear.”

‘Incredibly Powerful’

Faced with his first class at PS 198, a school that had just gotten off the state’s list of deeply troubled schools, Mr. Lam decided five years ago to make parent involvement a centerpiece of his work. Most experts agree that parents’ attitudes and actions play an important role in student—and school— success.

“It’s something I’ve always felt was incredibly powerful,” says Mr. Lam, who earned a master’s degree in sociology and worked at a half-way house for troubled youths before becoming a teacher. “There’s a stereotype that parents are involved in high-income schools and not in low, but it’s just a question of reaching out in the right way.”

The test-prep workshops focus and extend parents’ involvement, Mr. Lam says. But the groundwork is laid early in the year with positive and then frequent phone calls, according to the teacher.

When he was named a fellow of the Teachers Network Policy Institute for 2002-03, Mr. Lam decided to take a closer look at his workshops. The institute, a national program striving to give teachers a voice in education policymaking, requires fellows to conduct research in their own classrooms or schools.

The fellows continue to teach during the year, but with the support of the MetLife Foundation, meet monthly for discussion among themselves and with policymakers. About 100 teachers are selected by application each year by a dozen local affiliates, including one in New York City.

For his research, Mr. Lam investigated whether his workshops actually turned family members into test-prep partners and raised student achievement. Parents reported last spring that the sessions they had attended gave them substantially more knowledge of the 4th grade tests than they had had of the comparable 3rd grade tests. Children reported that they got more help at home in math before the exam.

As the 2002-03 school year went on, Mr. Lam observed, parents became more likely to initiate phone conversations, which focused more on their children’s academic performance and less on grievances.

Most important, over several years, his students’ passing rates on the standardized tests jumped from an average of less than half in the 3rd grade to around 75 percent in the 4th. In interviews last spring, students gave on average 26 percent of the credit for their success to their families.

Ms. Ghirardi believes the session in her classroom made a difference almost immediately. The day after the math workshop, she says, “the kids were so much more responsive and excited about math. It’s almost as if they felt they weren’t in this alone.”

That feeling probably influenced nine more families to attend the math workshop held the following week for the school’s other 4th grade class, she said.

The long-term effects may be more ambiguous. Since they came to the workshop in March, for instance, April’s parents passed up a chance to get their daughter more help after school. But her father also showed up to collect homework she missed while sick.

Still, a parent of a pupil in Mr. Lam’s class last year testifies to the permanent difference the workshops made for her and her son, Alexander. “I always worked with him, but we weren’t working the right ways,” leading to deep frustration for both, says Elizabeth Estupinan-Paz. “For example, I learned at the workshop that it is not easy to answer the questions [on a reading assignment] without going back.”

With her new knowledge and the confidence Alexander gained from doing better in school, “there’s no more trouble at home,” she declares, “and he is a very happy boy.”

Lately, Mr. Lam has been busy spreading the workshops to other classrooms in the schools where he coaches. His work has also caught the attention of the city school system’s area superintendent, who recruited him to train others in running workshops.

Joyce Epstein, a Johns Hopkins University professor who is considered an authority on parent involvement, says educators should follow the lead of teachers like Mr. Lam because schools need new ways of getting parents in the door and enlisting their help.

“It’s hard to say to every single teacher: Plan it, do all that work yourself,” she offers. “A team approach spreads that effort around.”

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