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Mexico's new push to improve schools: Get parents involved

Parent involvement hasn't traditionally been part of the culture of education in Mexico. Now, programs are emerging to change that, with encouraging results.

Whitney Eulich
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz high school in Puebla, Mexico.

Luis Reynoso, a father of two, says he’s always tried to get involved in his children’s education: attending meetings on school-improvement projects and pitching in to provide classroom snacks.

But when his youngest daughter’s elementary school invited families to attend a nine-week pilot program to learn about parenting and school participation, he realized his past efforts barely scratched the surface.

“The workshops really woke me up,” says Mr. Reynoso about Let’s Change the Course, organized by Mexicanos Primero, a leading education advocacy group here. Each weekly session touched on different parenting themes ranging from the concrete – like setting up a dedicated space at home for kids to do homework – to the less tangible, like the importance of self-esteem.

“I realized there’s a lot more I can be doing for her education that will make an even bigger difference, like helping motivate her or having an adult home when she’s back from school or making time to read together,” Reynoso says. One of the most helpful sessions, he recalls, focused on what a child should know academically in each grade and how to talk to teachers about his daughter’s performance.

Levels of parental participation in Mexican schools have long been low, experts say.

Reasons range from commonly held beliefs that a child’s education is the school’s domain to few opportunities or tools to get involved beyond school cleanup. In some parts of the country, a mother's or father’s own lack of education can play into a sense that they have nothing to contribute. And even in private schools, where there might be more adults with professional careers, participation often lags, with some parents viewing their tuition bill as their educational contribution.

There are also cases where the schools themselves see parents more as a complaining nuisance than a potential partner in a child’s education, discouraging communication between families and schools.

But parent involvement is key to student – and school – success. A 2012 study of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries found that promoting higher levels of parental involvement can increase student performance, as well as helping reduce performance gaps across socioeconomic sectors.

The importance of family participation is something many nonprofits, education advocates – and recently the federal government – are starting to home in on in Mexico. Part of Mexico’s 2013 national education reform underscores the importance of parents playing a more active role in their child’s education, encouraging a boost in parental-participation programs.

And independently, programs are emerging, including Let’s Change the Course, which is ramping up from 420 families in low-income schools in the capital and Mexico State to roughly 1,200 families this academic year. Emerging charter schools require parents, students, and teachers to sign a pact agreeing to concrete ways they will work together. And there’s also a social enterprise that uses art to spark discussions among parents about what it means to be a “good” mother or father both in and outside the classroom.

“The culture is slowly changing,” says Susana Castellanos, principal of Manuel C. Tello elementary school in Mexico City, which participated in the pilot program last year. “People are recognizing you have to work together to create happy, successful citizens,” she says. “It’s no longer acceptable to isolate the roles of teacher vs. parent vs. school principal.”

'How can I help my kid more?'

Lines of kids run up and down the concrete yard at the Ricardo Flores Magnon elementary school on a recent afternoon, tossing balls into the air and clapping twice before catching them again.

Mallinaly Santiago says she signed up for the program last year because she wanted to learn how to improve her second-grade daughter Dana’s behavior and get closer to her teacher.

“The first two sessions I wasn’t convinced. But then I realized I was actually learning a lot. The workshop changed me and as a result, we have all seen changes in Dana,” says Ms. Santiago, who works at a nearby day care center.

“I learned ways to listen to my daughter so that I could understand her and respond better,” she says. “I learned how to set limits at home and techniques to not get frustrated as easily.”

Although the sessions were aimed at parents, teachers say they gain a lot when families get involved.

Whitney Eulich
Susana Valesca (left) and her mentor Mineko Matsumoto. They met three years ago at a public high school in San Pedro Cholula, Mexico. Mineko was teaching there as part of Enseña Por Mexico, a program modeled after Teach for America.

“Parents that participated tried to get a lot closer to me [after the workshops]. They would come and ask, ‘How can I help my kid more,’ ” says Janeth Valencia, a third grade teacher at Manuel C. Tello elementary. “They are the ones who can reinforce what is taught inside the classroom back at home. When support is constant between school and home, everything changes.”

Just because parents in Mexico have traditionally left education up to teachers doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be involved, says Manuel Bravo, co-director of family and teacher participation at Mexicanos Primero. And given decades of corrupt practices by Mexico’s powerful teachers union – where positions were sometimes bequeathed from parent to child and in some cases teachers collected paychecks without showing up to class – an increase in parental involvement is key to accountability.

“The education system in Mexico offers basically two instances for parents to get involved. Councils that meet once every [four months], where parents and teachers make decisions about the school [budget], and parent associations,” that help plan holiday parties or other events, Mr. Bravo says.

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Participation in school councils can be so low, it reaches zero in some states, including Michoacán and Mexico, according to the 2016 state Index of Fulfillment of Educational Responsibility report, published by Mexicanos Primero.

“The education system says that parents don’t want to participate,” Bravo says. “But what we found in these workshops is that they don’t want to participate with the current channels of communication. If we create opportunities to learn [how to] become better parents, they will show up,” he says, pointing to the 84 percent retention rate of participants in the pilot program.

Parents and teachers as allies, not adversaries

Ana Angelica Chenzi Segura took over as elementary school principal at Ricardo Flores Magnon last year, one of Mexico’s few schools that runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., instead of just four hours. At first, she says she was frustrated by some of the conversations she had with parents.

“Mothers would come by and ask for a spot in the school: ‘I work, I need a place for my kid,’ ” Ms. Chenzi says. “No one said ‘I want a better education for my child. I want him to study more.’ It made me feel like this school was a Walmart bag drop – Just bring the child and leave it.”

She tells parents who say they are too tired after work to think about their child’s school day, “You don’t have to teach him or her. But you have to provide the space, time, and material to study. Provide the consistency so that kids know this is the hour and the place for homework,” she says.

La Vaca Independiente, an organization focused on education innovation in Mexico, trains teachers to serve as moderators to help spark discussions among parents. The sessions rely on fine art and photography to create conversations about what it means to be a parent and how to help children move ahead.

“As a teacher, you only have a few hours a week with your students – it’s hard to create an impact. But if you align with a parent that sees the child every night you can create a much bigger change,” says Gabriela Bloise, a trainer who previously implemented these workshops in her own classroom as a high school teacher in Puebla State.

“Schools often don’t want to open up their doors to parents, and parents don’t approach the schools,” says Bloise.

“It’s a challenge. But slowly, we’re building that bridge.” 

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