Lessons on power of parents in schools

Editor’s note:

This is a condensed version of a story published Dec. 8, 2013, in The Seattle Times, as part of a yearlong project called The Education Lab. Through a series of stories and blogs (http://blogs.seattletimes.com/educationlab), Times reporters are finding and spotlighting promising approaches to problems that have long bedeviled our public school system. The project is produced in partnership with the New York-based Solutions Journalism Network (http://solutionsjournalism.org).

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Parent mentor Pedro Rodriguez works with a group of students in Jessica Dye’s first grade classroom at Avondale Elementary School in Chicago. (Photo by Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

By Linda Shaw, Seattle Times education reporter

CHICAGO – One recent morning in northwest Chicago, Pete Rodriguez, a dad with a deep but gentle voice, sat at the back of a first-grade classroom with four boys who jumped up from his table at nearly every distraction.

As other students worked independently and teacher Jessica Dye sat with another small group, Rodriguez patiently worked to keep the four boys focused on the task at hand: a sentence about a grandma, her grandson, and a teddy bear.

Each day, the teacher wrote Rodriguez a note about what she’d like him to do. Each afternoon, Rodriguez, who is studying to earn a degree in early childhood education, replied with observations about the boys’ progress.

Rodriguez is one of 130 parents throughout Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, who are part of one of the strongest parent-school partnerships in the country.

Research backs the notion that parents play an important role in the academic success of their children, and their children’s schools. While too much parent involvement can cause problems, as happens in some higher-income schools, many other schools struggle to foster ties with families — especially in the growing number of neighborhoods, where teachers and students don’t share a language, culture, or ZIP code.

Despite good intentions, many schools end up in what University of Washington assistant professor Ann Ishimaru calls a toxic cycle, where teachers organize events and if parents don’t show, conclude they just don’t care.

The parent mentor program run by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association shows it doesn’t have to be that way. Over the past 18 years, it has recruited about 1,800 parents to spend two hours a day, five days a week for a semester or more in their children’s schools.

Parent programs exist in many Washington state schools, too, including new efforts in Seattle, Federal Way, and Kent.

But Logan Square’s program goes further, installing a cadre of 10 to 20 moms and dads in each participating school on the belief that teachers in the longtime immigrant neighborhood would learn as much from parents as parents would gain from watching and talking with teachers.

“It is pointing the way for how schools can build much deeper, richer, more productive relationships with parents as collaborators in improving student success. It’s not just a series of random acts of family engagement, which is what you often see,” said Anne Henderson, one of the authors of a 2002 review of 50 studies of parent involvement.

At first, teachers were as wary as parents, but many soon saw that parents could give more time and encouragement to students than teachers could do on their own.

The program now operates in 65 schools throughout Illinois, with 14 run by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and the others by other community groups.

In the Logan Square schools, where the program has the longest track record, principals and teachers credit the parents with helping to raise student achievement and motivation.

A new study, started this fall, will provide a much more detailed look, with researchers closely studying the impact of mentors at two Logan Square schools.

The program starts out with a week of training that focuses on the parents themselves, encouraging them to further their own education and become leaders. That’s based on the belief that better-educated parents lead to stronger students, and stronger communities.

After the training, parents are matched with teachers who request mentors, although never their own child’s instructor.

Those who speak little English often work in dual-language classes, and those with little formal education are placed in kindergarten or preschool. The only requirement is that the parents work with students — not photocopy work sheets or grade homework.

Those who complete 100 hours in a semester receive a stipend of $500.

Participating Logan Square schools contribute $5,000 to $10,000 a year, and the neighborhood association raises another $40,000 to $45,000.

Parent mentors have gone on to lead school committees and run after-school centers — and 23 have even become teachers themselves.

Among them is Ebelia Mucino, who started as a parent mentor about 15 years ago and now teaches kindergarten in Logan Square.

Mucino, who came to the United States from Mexico as a teenager, said she saw herself as “just” a stay-at-home mom until she joined the program. She found she had a knack for helping students, and educators encouraged her to pursue a career in education.

“I saw a window opening,” she said. “I saw a million windows opening.”

Here is a sampling of the parent programs that operate in many Puget Sound school districts:

  • Federal Way

To develop stronger relationships with students and parents, teachers at six schools are making home visits this school year. The district also offers parent workshops, employs eight family liaisons, and advises top district staff on how to strengthen relationships with parents.
More information: jzigarel@fwps.org, 253-945-2273.

  • Kent

The school district offers a nine-week course in four schools aimed at giving parents tools to help their children inside and outside class. About 15 course graduates have signed up to be “cultural navigators,” working in their schools to improve parent-staff relations. More information: 253-373-7081.

  • Seattle

The district offers a 12-week course to help parents become effective advocates for their children and for public education, covering subjects ranging from conflict resolution to common-core standards. Those who complete it are expected to spend a year building parent participation in their schools.
More information: 206-252-0693.

  • Seattle

The nonprofit Community and Parents for Public Schools offers one- and two-day leadership workshops for parents who want to advocate for high-quality schools.
More information: stephaniej@cppsofseattle.org.

  • Edmonds, Everett, Marysville, Monroe, Mukilteo, Northshore, and Shoreline

The Natural Leaders program run by these districts in partnership with the Washington Alliance for Better Schools trains parents, many of them immigrants, to bring parent perspectives into schools. Those who complete it seek out fellow parents to learn what they want and need for their children in school.
More information: 206-393-4503. (end)

Other links:

Watch a video of the parent mentors in action:

http://blogs.seattletimes.com/educationlab/2013/12/06/video-logan-square-chicago-parent-engagement-involvment/

Join a conversation about how schools and parents can work better together:

http://blogs.seattletimes.com/educationlab/2013/12/07/roundtable-how-schools-can-work-with-parents/

Share your own examples of successful partnerships:

http://blogs.seattletimes.com/educationlab/?p=15876

To read the full story of Chicago’s parent program and get links to earlier Education Lab stories: http://seattletimes.com/html/education/2022413246_edlabchicagoxml.html

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