Can Schools Teach Parents to be Involved?
As my school’s Gifted and Talented Education coordinator, a large portion of my time is spent working with middle school parents on how to understand the Los Angeles Unified School District’s byzantine web of programs and school options. Doing this work for over 15 years has led me to some understandings about parents in this urban, minority district, and a realization about how much work we have left to do to fully maximize their potential.
In my school’s community, GATE parents usually demonstrate a strong interest in all aspects of their child’s education. They seem to understand that their Gifted child is different, has unique needs, and the school is a good place to get help. Many times, gifted children have gifted parents, and these see the pivotal role school plays in improving their child’s future possibilities. This is not to say general ed parents don’t care about education; but for every 10 conferences requested by parents, 8 out of 10 are usually for my Gifted/Honors students.
Our school participates in the Schools for Advanced Studies (SAS) Program, where gifted and advanced students from throughout the city are allowed to attend SAS schools outside of their attendance area. When we first started the program, we admitted 25 students. The next year, as the acclaim grew, we admitted 100 more students. Last year, we admitted around 125, bringing our advanced studies total to 250 students from all over South Central Los Angeles, a low socio-economic community in Los Angeles.
The admissions process has introduced me to a whole subset of parents that impress me with their scope and diligence in securing the best educational opportunities for their children. These parents actively researched all options available to them and sometimes landed at my school, 5, 10, 15 miles from their own neighborhood in a program that does not offer transportation, only solid academics.
Some of these parents and students take the public transportation to get to our school. Some carpool with their Advanced Studies neighbors. Some bite the bullet and make that round trip journey by car twice a day, through traffic congestion and gasoline spikes. Several pay someone to pick up or drop off students every day.
Sounds an awful lot like middle class parents, doesn’t it? But I’m getting to that.
Once at our school, these parents become fixtures. They participate in the shared governance councils. They attend every single parent conference and back to school night. They schedule meetings with teachers if their child’s grades fall below an A. In the GATE program, there are mandatory and optional parent meetings, and they are sitting in the front row, at every meeting. The image of one student’s father, waiting at my office door at 7:30 am, after getting off of work from the night shift is indelible. He sits down with me, for help filling out high school applications for his son, his hands calloused and his clothes stained from the labors of the night before. He can barely keep his eyes open, but nothing, nothing will stop him from doing what it takes to get his child into the best high school available to him.
They are persistent, not intimidated by the complexity of this institution called school, considering the majority of them are immigrants still learning English. They quickly identify whom they need to see for what, and calmly and assertively ask for it. These are the parents who ask me why their child is scoring Advanced in math in the State test, yet earning only a C in class. They understand the disparity in the data. They don’t ask “how is my child behaving,” at the parent conference, but “what does my child have to do to earn an A?” They want a detailed syllabus and a prompt phone call should their child deviate from their expectations.
If this behavior sounds normal, what is to be expected from all parents in our society, I say yes, it should be. But in the community in which I work, it is the exception, not the norm. It is something that has to be taught to the vast majority of parents, the idea that they are in control of their child’s life, they are in control of their educational future. It is a foreign concept, in many ways, due to cultural and socioeconomic reasons. It never occurs to some parents, that when the report card arrives at home, that they can meet with the teacher if there is an unacceptable grade. They do not understand the difference between a progress report, a midterm grade, and a the final grade. Report cards just keep on comin’.
I take a deep breath when I hear parents leaving important educational decisions such as what courses to take the next year, or what schools to go to to their children. That tends to happen with parents who have not attended all the informational meetings available to them. How must it feel, to be an adult and think your child knows more than you when it comes to their future?
We have a lot of work to do with parents in our community. In spite of the workshops about “characteristics of gifted children,” and “how to meet their social and emotional needs,” we might have to have basic workshops like “how to get your child to turn off their iPod and do their homework.” We have a parent panels planned, with parents of different backgrounds who will share the secrets of their success with other parents. But it really isn’t a secret. It is about hard work, tough choices, and an eye on the prize. But can parental ideas and expectations about the school system be taught? What do you think?