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Getting parents involved

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Over the summer I have been thinking a lot about parent involvement in high school reform. 

I continue to believe that involving more parents in multiple ways is critical to turning our schools around. Parents need to be not only supporting their own children, but also holding schools accountable for providing quality education.

Getting parents out, however, has not been easy at any of our schools, especially high schools. I attended a parent meeting at one neighborhood high school in June that was attended by only one parent. 

I often hear people blaming the problems in our schools on parents who don’t care about their children. While I am concerned about the lack of involvement, I don’t think parents don’t care about their children or that blaming parents grasps the complexity of the situation or moves us toward a solution.

I think there are a number of reasons why it has been difficult. 

One reason is that many parents went to the same or similar schools as their children. Many of them felt disempowered by their own school experience and therefore do not feel comfortable talking to teachers and principals now. 

Also, I think we have to take into consideration that many of our families are living in communities that have been decimated by poverty. I don’t say this to make excuses for anyone, but I do think it is important for educators to understand the stresses caused by poverty

Another reason is that our schools often have a very limited view of parent involvement. Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins University talks about six kinds of parent involvement: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making, and collaborating with community. 

School leaders often want parents to come to meetings, support their children, and volunteer in the school, but rarely really involve parents in meaningful decision making. I think if we want more involvement from parents, we have to give them more meaningful ways to participate.

I have also been reading Dennis Shirley’s book, Community Organizing for Urban School Reform about parent organizing in Texas by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Shirley talks about how the IAF organized parents to transform some of the lowest performing schools in Texas. 

The process they used started with door knocking and one-on-one meetings with all of the parents in a school to listen to their concerns about the school. From there they would hold house meetings of five to ten parents to talk together about their concerns. Then they would do a Walk for Success where a group of leaders including clergy, students, teachers, and parents would first rally at the school and then go out and knock on the doors of every parent to talk to them about how they could work together to improve the school. 

After doing all of this outreach, they were able to get hundreds of parents to come out to meetings and to participate in school activities in a variety of ways. The results in a number of schools were remarkable. 

It seems to me that if we are serious about improving parent involvement we may need to do the kind of intensive outreach that the IAF did. Beyond that, we have to really listen to parents about their concerns and give them opportunities to talk to each other and learn from educators so that they can be part of the process of creating solutions. I would be glad to hear other people’s ideas about how we can engage more parents. 

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