Sunday, September 28, 2008

Parental Involvement in Our Schools

In 1959 when I started first grade my parents visited school exactly twice that year, once to attend Back to School Night and once to visit the classroom mid-year to meet with the teacher and be given my report card. At the end of the school year without fanfare we were dismissed. There were few opportunities, if any, for parents to volunteer in schools. Research shows that when parents are involved in their children's schools, both the schools and students benefit. The attached article reviews the research and illuminates the issues. Yes, parental involvement is a wonderful thing. Children are always excited to see mommy or daddy at school for a happy reason. They are usually proud and feel special to have a parent participate in their school day. As a teacher and a specialized tutor I remember that there were always a few parents at the ready, standing in the wings, who would bake cupcakes with two hours notice or drop everything and chaperone a field trip. There were parents who would sew costumes and put together sets for school shows, help transport students, come in and share their knowledge about a hobby or occupation and some who would cook hot dogs for a sporting event or head up a raffle or bake sale for the school. There were also parents, dreaded parents, who were ever present, who were sometimes overly involved in the lives of their children. Then there were parents who I never saw, never. When I inquired about these parents I heard they were “too busy to help out.” But I also knew that many of these parents were working, had other children at home, or aging parents who they were caretakers for. I remember one mom who had cancer and a dad who worked two jobs. There was also a grandmother who was the caretaker for her second grade grandson, there were no parents around. These parents and grandparents were stretched, some financially, some by time, some by emotional stresses and family responsibilities. They were not “too busy”- they were living complex lives and were not able to participate. Perhaps it is key to the success of all schools to find empathy for the parents and guardians of our students. As educators how do we engaged parents who have limited time and resources? How do we make these parents feel a valued part of the school community? How do we show that we care about them being a part of our lives?
This is a complex issue. I do not pretend to have the answer, just some thoughts. During the spring semester I had the pleasure to observe at School within School at Peabody, a DC Public School serving Pre-K and Kindergarten students. I was amazed at the parental involvement. I watched parents mulching the garden, bringing in recyclable materials for art projects, reading to the children, cleaning and organizing supplies or just visiting for an hour. When I asked why so many parents were at the school, participating in varied activities in varied ways the lead teacher said something that was profound. “Parents want to find a way to help their children’s school, but as a school you have to look outside of the traditional ways, you have to find out when and how it can happen.” I realized in that moment, that it is about teachers and administrators looking at the parents and guardians at their schools and taking the time to figure it out. It is very easy as teachers to always call on the moms and dads who are waiting in the wings to help, it is more of a challenge to figure out ways to engage parents who may feel marginalized or that they just don’t have the time or resources to share. This is not their problem, it is ours. So I hope that with a new school year getting underway teachers and administrators will take the time to contemplate and discuss how they can bring all parents into the volunteer circle. Making the circle wider will enrich everyone!
Some resources:
Education World
The National PTA