Parents Must Make the Grade on Involvement

Last week, Louisiana State Rep. Joe Harrison introduced a bill in that state's legislature that -- if passed -- would grade parents on the level and quality of their involvement in their kid's education.

Focusing attention on the need for parental involvement is always a good idea. But Rep. Harrison's "we" versus "they" approach has no chance of achieving the desired results in our country's urban schools.

What will bring about systematic long-term change in the attitudes of urban schools and households is ongoing training, creative solutions and respectful dialogue. Sure, I'm putting the onus squarely on schools. Educators know without a doubt that kids do better when their parents are involved with their education. Where schools fall short is their failure to overcome the barriers and challenges of urban environments and within urban families.

At LEAP Academy in urban, low-income Camden N.J., parental involvement is not an option, but strongly encouraged as part of a partnership between parents, teachers and administrators. From the very first communication, parents are notified of their responsibility to their children and to the school. They are asked to sign a Parent Partnership Agreement that requires them to be present, help with homework, volunteer at least 40 hours a year, attend parenting workshops and adhere by the rules of the school.

Still, it takes so much more than a piece of paper to engage urban parents in their children's education.

For starters, schools must recognize that parents are not the enemy.

In fact, many parents don't get involved because they lack the confidence to do so. They often feel threatened by the school establishment, lack social capital and feel that there is a lack of school support. Some don't speak English, work several jobs or care for generations of family members, sapping their energy for involvement in a mentally challenging school environment.

Responding to these challenges has led to some key lessons about parent empowerment that can be applied in urban school districts around the country.

Urban parents -- who generally view education as the way out from a life of poverty -- may not know HOW to get involved with their children's education. Forcing involvement is not the answer. Urban parents need a guide and personal guidance to learn how to navigate the school system. This knowledge is not intrinsic.

The only roadmap many urban parents have is the one created by their own experiences growing up in homes where education rarely extends beyond high school and income is low. And those roadmaps are often devoid of how-to's on engaging with your kids, supporting their schools and helping with their homework.

At LEAP, a parent-school coordinator leads parents through the maze of school engagement and facilitates the Parents Council and Parents Academy. The Parents Academy runs monthly parent training series to strengthen parent leadership and advocacy, while the Parents Council offers learning and training that extends beyond the school day.

Parents learn how to support their children with homework and deal with character building. Staff and teachers develop homework exercises that emphasize interaction with parents, and parents receive training in study skills and basic grammar, and coping skills to manage their children learning styles.

Practice makes perfect for parents, too. They need supportive forums and arenas in which to put their parent advocacy skills to work. Training workshops, presentations or involvement with community projects are great practice fields.

To help urban parents deal with the financial and social challenges, schools can become community service hubs where families access assistance and professional services. At LEAP, health care services are provided to our students and their families, along with access to legal services and social service counseling.

Some educators balk at having to educate parents when it's often hard enough to teach their kids. But when students come to school armed with the knowledge that their parents care and are engaged in their education and are there to help and support them, they are more open to instruction and achieve at higher levels.

By providing guidance and clear expectations for parents, a new parent roadmap will be created and handed down to the next generation and those to come.

Louisiana State Rep. Harrison means well, but for his bill to engender meaningful change, it must be more realistic to help all parents make the grade.