How and Why Urban Schools Fail to Engage Parents of Color

Changed attitudes, values and behavior are the building blocks of empowerment. So, what needs to happen to fix our schools is not rocket science. Priorities for parent involvement need to be changed and alternative approaches explored.
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"Can you hear me, now?" was a popular query in a cell phone ad a few years back. The caller was seeking confirmation that two-way communication was occurring. By inference, and assuming no language barrier or auditory impairment, any caller could depend upon that brand of phone for clearly transmitted conversations. By contrast, when it comes to communication between urban schools and parents concerning involvement in the children's education, either something gets lost in the transmission or the schools fail to connect in a meaningful way. Miscommunication between schools and parents can have serious consequences for both, but especially for the parents who may be affected more negatively.

Since the positive correlation between parent involvement and student achievement has been well documented, the under-representation of urban parents appears to be solely their fault. Conventional wisdom is that schools bend over backwards to get every parent involved, but for whatever reasons (ignorance? fear? unconcern? other priorities?) many urban parents choose not to do so. "They" are the problem. "They" don't know what's important. If "they" really loved their children... and so it goes. That communication from the school may be misdirected is never a consideration.

Schools seldom see themselves as part of the problem. They fail to consider that the opportunities for involvement they are offering may not be what urban parents really need, at least initially. Traditional parent involvement tends to be student-centered and/or school-based, characterized by activities conducted in or out of the school with the child and/or the teacher. For parents whose personal and family circumstances afford them the confidence and comfort to involve themselves in these activities, student-centered opportunities can be very attractive.

However, for parents whose circumstances may be less than optimal, invitations from the school to get involved may as well be communicated in a foreign language. For these parents, the activities of daily living may be so compelling that finding time to attend meetings, conferences or volunteer at the children's school seem like an impossibility. It is tantamount to asking them to run before they know how to walk! Until they can discover new ways of thinking about themselves, their children and their future, nothing will change. Instead of repeatedly dialing the wrong number, urban schools can play a major role in transforming reality for urban parents by offering them parent-centered opportunities as a critical first step. Empowering parents with a different sense of themselves clarifies their perspective and unleashes their commitment and creativity to benefit their children. Thus far, there is little evidence that urban school leaders understand this potential or desire to tap into it.

Rightly or wrongly, urban schools seem to expect parental commitment without the development of trust or mutual respect. Among many urban parents, for whatever reasons, the kinds of commitments desired by today's schools require cultivation. Investing time and scarce resources into cultivating more than superficial relationships with urban parents seems fiscally irresponsible when the return on investment may be modest. Moreover, failure to do so assures the status quo. If the status quo is unacceptable, urban school educators should do two things: 1) resist the temptation of short-term "quick fix" approaches that typically over promise, but under deliver; and 2) invest in programs that not only build trust and respect, but also change parental attitudes, values and behavior.

Changed attitudes, values and behavior are the building blocks of empowerment. So, what needs to happen is not rocket science. Priorities for parent involvement need to be changed and alternative approaches explored. The future of our nation and its children resides in our ability to radically re-direct the trajectory of our aspirations in a global community. Otherwise, the coveted place the U.S. once held on the world stage will become ancient history. Consistently, the airlines remind adults on-board each and every flight what to do for children seated next to them "in the event the cabin pressure drops and the oxygen mask appears." "Put your mask on first; then, attend to your child!" Urban school leaders should heed this directive! Parent-centered engagement programs are not a quick fix, but they can resuscitate uninvolved moms and dads with fresh air.

Providing urban parents experiences that motivate, enlighten and bond many of them for life transforms their ability to impact the education of their children. Those of us who do this work persevere because our auditory capabilities are intact. We heard the needs of those whose reality we now champion long before any of them knew we were listening. We will not rest until others take time to hear and heed their call!

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