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Can Schools Teach Parents to be Involved?

April 18, 2010

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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?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2010 12:37 pm


    I appreciate your raising important issues about how schools can better connect with parents.

    At the same time, though, I am concerned about the paradigm you’re suggesting. I might characterize it as schools “communicating” to parents — telling them what they “should” know, “educating” them, “informing” them. Often, schools view this is a one way process.

    Instead, I would suggest developing an effort that is more focused on “conversation” — a two way process where schools are also asking parents what is going on in their lives and what they worry about; then bringing parents who share similar concerns together and working with them to approach the problem.

    Yes, some parents don’t actively participate in the school lives of their children because they don’t know how. Others, however, feel like they have their hands full trying to work multiple jobs, trying to protect their children from neighborhood drug dealers, etc.

    I don’t believe that we will ever get many people participating in anything if the focus is on what WE want them to learn. Community organizers call that “irritation.” Rather, let’s listen to find out what THEY want to learn — that’s “agitation.” Through the relationship-building that goes one in that process, it’s amazing what EVERYBODY will learn….


    • April 18, 2010 2:48 pm

      Hi Larry!

      I hear what you are saying about this dialogue between schools and home. It is definitely possible that sometimes our approach to parental involvement borders on coercion (ie. mandating 40 hours of service as some charters do.) I would hope most people understand that lack of involvement certainly arises from the issues you mention. It doesn’t take much to dig a little deeper to find that there is usually a parent with a health issue, or an unemployed breadwinner, etc. that results in a student’s difficulties in school. But then what? Teachers and schools are being held 100% responsible for the achievement of students. Students in my school have 5 years left in the school system. After that, they are gone, on their own, adults in our society that will either help us or burden us. I feel we must move quickly and urgently and educate parents about their share of responsibility in their child’s education. Can parents ask for something they don’t know about?

      I wish my school had the funds to have a web of social services to mitigate the effects of poverty and lack of education of most of our parents. But instead, we are cutting our counseling services in half, already laid-off our dropout prevention counselor, and are reducing our deans for next year. In a society that truly valued public education, these positions, and more, would be fully funded. But we don’t live in that place anymore. And it is unacceptable that healthy, relatively problem-free parents allow their children to spend 5-8 hours daily in front of TV, the computer, or on their PSP because the child said they finished their homework in school. I see this more as teachers and parents closing ranks, especially with my gifted students, who are quite adept at getting out of doing work.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! Certainly each school and each community is unique, and there are probably many answers and approaches to this issue. I appreciate your perspective.


  2. April 18, 2010 5:32 pm

    I’m a parent that has just found this site, and have to say, I very much agree with Larry. I have had experiences with schools that are so welcoming and so approachable that I feel like I’m working with partners. I join their committees, volunteer, actively engage. And then there are schools that talk down to me, act like there is only one way to be an involved parent, and otherwise disengage me. I tend to not get involved much there, hurry in and out of Open House as quickly as possible, and count the days until it’s over.

  3. April 19, 2010 4:06 am

    Very important topic. Well done!

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