Scott Wallace - Staff

Key to stemming high-school dropouts: parents

Many parents of students in low-performing schools say they're not kept informed, a new report finds.

If America is going to stem the dropout crisis, low-performing schools will have to do a better job of reaching out to parents.

That's the conclusion of a new report that found that, among parents with students in low-performing high schools, fewer than half said the schools did a fairly good job communicating about their child's academic progress.

The report's findings "counter the myth that many parents, including low-income parents, don't value education or don't want to be further engaged by the schools," says John Bridgeland, the report's coauthor and CEO of Civic Enterprises, a public-policy firm in Washington. "Parents with students in low-performing schools see the need for their involvement as advocates for their children," he says, "but they need schools to provide good information and more tools – from homework hot lines to [guidance on] how to help their child get into college."

The report, which was released last Thursday, is aimed at bringing the voices of the 25 million parents of high-schoolers into the dialogue on education reform.

Research shows a correlation between parental involvement and academic success, and young people themselves see the need for it: 71 percent of high school dropouts said better communication between schools and parents was one key to keeping students in school, according to the landmark 2006 "Silent Epidemic" study by Civic Enterprises. According to that study, nearly half said the school did not contact them or their parents when they were absent or dropping out.

The great majority of parents want their children to go to college. But they cite vastly different levels of engagement with high schools, according to the new report, "One Dream, Two Realities."

In schools considered high performing, 83 percent of parents say the school did a fairly good or very good job communicating about their child's academic progress. Just 43 percent say the same of low-performing schools. Only 51 percent of parents in low-performing schools say they've had good conversations with half of their child's teachers (versus 70 percent in high-performers).

The nationally representative survey included 1,006 parents of current or recent high-schoolers. A school was labeled "high performing" if parents said most students there go to college, "low performing" if most do not. Researchers also conducted focus groups. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned the report from Civic Enterprises and Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

The report aims to move the conversation beyond traditional tensions – with schools and parents sometimes blaming one another for low student achievement. It shows broad support for a number of steps that schools could take, including a single point of contact for parents and a way to check grades on the Internet. Six of 10 parents in low-performing schools say it would be extremely helpful to be notified when a student is cutting classes or having academic problems.

Too often, such communication doesn't come when "the parent and teacher can … help this child better his grade before it's too late," says Mary Najera, who helped found the Los Angeles Parents Union to educate parents about their rights and responsibilities. In some people's native countries, such as Mexico, it's not expected that parents will question teachers and play an active role, she says.

Ms. Najera was "a desperate mom" after her son got into trouble in junior high. But after he spent some time at a Green Dot charter high school in L.A., he joined a club for students with grades above 3.0, she says, and now he's in college. She saw his progress connected to the school's requirement that parents do at least 35 hours of service each year. "When you start to realize that the parent engagement makes such a difference in your child's education success – I can't explain it, it's a transformation," she says in a conference call with reporters.

School systems should create that welcoming culture, and high-achieving schools do, says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va. "The least amount of parental involvement tends to take place at the high school…. That is where we really have to make the effort," he says, citing one estimate that about 7,000 US students drop out each day.

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