Parents play many roles at John Welsh School
It’s nine in the morning. More than 40 parents are on hand as the Home and School Association meeting at John Welsh School gets underway.
Parents, many wearing parent volunteer T-shirts, talk about improving school safety, collecting canned goods for needy families, organizing a fundraiser, and electing new officers. It seems like a typical Home and School meeting.
But Welsh School, located in West Kensington, is anything but typical. It challenges the stereotypes about inner city schools as dangerous places where kids don’t learn and parents aren’t around.
The Welsh student body – 650 students in grades K-8 – is three-quarters Latino, mostly from families where Spanish is the first language, and one-quarter African-American. Low-income families make up 86 percent of the school population. Drugs and drug-dealing are major problems in the neighborhood, and violence is a fact of life.
But student achievement is high, and strong parental involvement is clearly part of this success story.
The percentage of Welsh students who test at advanced and proficient is twice the Philadelphia average and higher than the state average as well.
For example, 73 percent of Welsh fifth-graders tested as advanced in math compared to 20 percent citywide. These scores represent steady progress rather than a suspicious one-year jump. Welsh has met the benchmarks set by No Child Left Behind four years in a row and has a reputation for academic achievement and positive school climate that goes back a decade.
Besides having a large and active Home and School Association, Welsh has 18 parent volunteers who work several hours a day in the building. They staff a parent welcome desk outside the school office, tutor younger children in and outside classrooms, and patrol the halls and playground. These volunteers made a 70-hour commitment and receive a $250 stipend as part of the District’s Parent Volunteer Program.
But as Home and School President Lyselly Rivera stresses in her recruitment efforts, “It’s not about money – it’s about helping kids.”
One way Welsh has strengthened parental involvement is by making the school a welcoming place for parents. Parents who call or come to the office are promptly and warmly greeted by school secretaries and offered assistance.
Principal Laverne Wiley has an open-door policy for parents and hosts a weekly “Chat and Chew” where parents are invited to come and raise concerns.
Lisa Claudio, a parent volunteer with a second grader at Welsh, gives the school high marks. “At our last school, I really didn’t feel welcome, even though I went out of my way to help out…. Here they’re happy to have us.”
The school also is a place where parents can get help with a variety of problems. President Rivera tracks down information for parents on topics like real estate counseling, tax assistance and adult education opportunities. Principal Wiley is going to be teaching a weekly course in word processing for parents.
Assemblies where students perform are a vehicle for drawing parents into the building. “Parents love to see their children read poetry or dance,” Wiley points out.
Communication between the school and parents is another important arena for building parental involvement. Welsh utilizes folders that students take home with “Keep” and “Need to return” pockets to send written materials home. A monthly bilingual parent newsletter is published.
With teachers, Wiley emphasizes practices like calling all parents at the beginning of the school year, sending out interim reports identifying academic or behavioral problems, and keeping a binder recording parent contacts.
Discipline is sometimes a source of conflict between parents and schools, but Wiley addresses this by stressing the need for a calm, even-handed approach focused on problem-solving. She also credits her teachers with showing “good sense.”
Several parents say the strong parent volunteer presence has had a positive impact on school climate. Suspensions are infrequent (fewer than 20 in 2005).
While parents are clearly involved at Welsh, their role in making policy appears limited. Welsh has a school council, an instrument created during the superintendency of David Hornbeck, with the aim of empowering parents as decision-makers. However, it is largely composed of teachers and focused on boosting student achievement and improving school climate. Rivera is one parent who does regularly attend the meetings.
Wiley describes parental involvement at Welsh as “a work in progress.” One of her goals is to have a “parent representative” for each classroom who would take special responsibility for building parental engagement for that class. Another idea is a “family math night” or reading night to explain the instructional program in greater depth. If the resources were available, Wiley says she would like to see a parent center in the school that would centralize resources, build parental support for independent reading, and “be a place where parents communicate with each other.”
Strong parental involvement did not fall from the sky at John Welsh. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Alliance Organizing Project, a citywide effort to build parent power, pulled together a strong core group of parent leaders at Welsh, convincing then-Principal Steven Alper that parent organizing could help turn the school around.
According to local researcher Eva Gold of Research for Action, Alper observed that before the AOP got involved, the Welsh Home and School was “two or three ladies who did all the work.” But by the late 1990s, Home and School meetings were attracting 40 or 50 parents. Teacher attitudes toward parents changed as they saw real parent interest and commitment, Gold observes. Teachers and parents began working together to improve school safety and develop a homework club.
“The legacy of this work,” Gold says, “was a new school culture that values the involvement of parents.”