Schools strive for 'no parent left behind'
With schools increasingly held accountable for the performance of every student, the demand to partner with parents has intensified. School plays and fundraisers supported by moms, dads, and grandparents are still staples of American public schools. But in the spirit of "it takes a village," families now might find such activities paired with a workshop on test-prep or a briefing on how to read state accountability reports.Skip to next paragraph
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When "no child left behind" became the mantra of federal education officials five years ago, it was touted as a way to empower parents to ensure their children received a good education. If schools are chronically failing academically, children can receive tutoring or transfer. But there have been barriers to parents taking advantage of those offers. In 2003-04, only 1 percent of eligible students chose to transfer, and only 19 percent participated in supplemental services such as tutoring, according to a recent report by Appleseed, a nonprofit organization in Washington.
Such escape valves give parents leverage, but it's perhaps more important for family members to be brought in as allies as local schools plan improvement, experts say.
"The revolution of [the No Child Left Behind Act] is it really institutionalized parent involvement in schools in a way that says, 'Your contribution is more than just sending your kids and baking cookies,' " says Edwin Darden, director of education policy at Appleseed. But, he adds, "there's a long way to go in terms of parents really understanding fully what the rights and the opportunities are of No Child Left Behind." The vision of the law, the group reported, "remains unfulfilled."
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) actually requires schools that need improvement to inform and involve parents in their strategies, but federal and state monitors haven't been paying much attention to that part of the law, says Anne Henderson, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and coauthor of "Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships."
Parents tend to have widely varied interactions with school staff, partly because of factors such as their socioeconomic background or ability to speak English, Ms. Henderson says. For white, middle-class parents, it's generally easier to walk into a school and advocate for a child to take particular classes to be on track for college. For low-income, less-educated families, "they don't know 'educationese'.... There are class and cultural differences that make it difficult for them to relate easily and comfortably to school staff – and school staff may look down on those families," she says.
When Baruti Kafele, principal of Newark Tech high school in New Jersey, hears educators lamenting that certain groups of parents just won't get involved, he tells them, "That is an excuse, and it is unacceptable."
The author of "A Black Parent's Handbook to Educating Your Children (Outside of the Classroom)," Mr. Kafele is often called upon to give talks to parents and educators. One creative solution he heard about at a school in Charlotte, N.C.: The staff took a bus tour of the communities the students live in, mostly impoverished areas where the teachers generally didn't venture. "Until you get into the community, you don't even know the child.... You can't fear the student, nor the community, nor the parent," he says.
Research shows that students do better when teachers and parents get past their misunderstandings and work together. Henderson mentions one study of schools with large portions of low-income students, for example, which found that when teachers did a three-part outreach – getting to know families, sending home assignments that parents could do with kids, and phoning routinely to talk about students' progress – there was a 40 to 50 percent faster rate of student improvement in reading and math.
Monique Taylor is the kind of parent who doesn't have much time to attend group meetings at school, but she appreciates that her daughter's teachers talk to her about any concerns.
"When she was kind of dropping in her reading, you know, they gave me a call, and between me and her teachers, we kept with her," she says as she's picking up her fifth-grade daughter, Amira Patterson, at the Maurice J. Tobin school in Boston. Soon mother and daughter will be attending orientation for a summer program that Amira's teachers suggested, to help the family plan for college.