Which school do you want to support?
Parents and other caregivers play a very direct role in a student’s education. Among those working for education change, a common misconception holds that teachers wield the greatest influence on a child's learning. Not so: teachers matter a lot, but it all starts with parents.
What happens at home, before kindergarten, sets a child on the learning path. A child fortunate enough to be born healthy and to grow up surrounded by words, in any language, generally will do better at school than a child raised in adversity or neglect.
Reading to your children is one of the most important ways to prepare for success in school. The earlier the better. Research now indicates that reading, more than talking, builds greater literacy skills. It makes sense: The language in books is usually more enriching than everyday speech.
A variety of community campaigns support parents as a child’s first teacher. For example, “Pequeños y Valiosos,” a program by Univision associated with the "Too Small to Fail" program, provides information to encourage parents and caregivers to talk, read, and sing with children birth to five to develop their language and vocabulary skills. The national PTA partners with Reading Rockets to provide family learning tools.
Poverty, or even mere lack of income, makes it massively harder for parents to participate in schools. There is little or nothing schools can do about it. Boosting parents' income isn't what schools are about. Professor David Berliner, an influential writer and researcher on the role of poverty in student learning, calls poverty “the unexamined 600 pound gorilla in the classroom.”
Poverty, or even mere lack of income, makes it massively harder for parents to participate in schools. There is little or nothing schools can do about it. Boosting parents' income isn't what schools are about.
Professor Berliner argues that poverty is tremendously disruptive to parents’ capacity to support their children’s education, and that education reform, standing alone, is fated always to fall short of true success. By age 3, for example, children from high-income families are exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child amplifies this work by looking at the biological impact of stress and neglect and offers 8 ideas to remember about child development.
While schools are not able to directly increase the income of parents, school systems can use resources in ways that help low income students. In California, schools with large numbers of students living in poverty get more money through the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Reducing the impact of poverty is a central aim of Community Schools, which provide services right on campus.
Parent engagement goes way beyond the act of deciding where your child will go to school. From preparing your child for the first day of school to creating a space for learning at home, engagement makes a difference in the success of a child - and also the success of a school. One of the great challenges schools face is creating an environment that encourages ALL families to be engaged. Much of the research in this area is based on the work of Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins, who identified six areas of engagement:
It is relatively easy to engage English-speaking and highly educated parents in school. It's what they expect and often demand. The real work is creating a school environment that welcomes all parents, including those with limited time, those who don’t speak English, and those who may not have experienced success in school themselves. School-based parent organizations are critical to that work.
Parent-teacher conferences are a critical ritual that probably gets too little research attention. In most cases, schools arrange conferences at the beginning and the end of the school year. In well-to-do communities, parents almost always show up. But attendance in most schools tends to be spotty. Scheduling, transportation and language barriers can pose challenges, though in a pinch Google Translate is better than trying to get your point across through interpretive dance. At their best, these conferences enable parents and teachers to coordinate their efforts in support of each child. Practically speaking, however, most parent-teacher conferences last only ten minutes or so.
With the introduction in 2014 of the Local Control Funding Formula in California, parent involvement became more important than ever, because local communities were given increased authority over the use of funds. Parents and communities now must have a say in how your school district spends its money. But how can you make informed decisions? Try these two resources to get started:
It’s important for parents to know what they can do to support their children’s academic progress, from how to prepare for a parent teacher conference to knowing their rights as parents. The California State PTA has also created parent academies called School Smarts to help parents navigate their local school systems and become effective child advocates. In 2014 EdSource released conclusions from a survey about ways to support parent involvement in schools. Among the top findings? Give parents advance notice about meetings, offer translation services and hold the meetings when parents are available.
A wealth of evidence shows that parent and family engagement in schools can strengthen them and improve the quality of education.
One of the first questions to ask about your school is whether it is welcoming to all families. Check out the National PTA Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit for ideas on how parents as well as school leaders and staff can help create a school where parents feel welcomed, valued, and connected.
Joining your school’s PTA or parent group is an important first step in learning more about your school and how you can help make it even better.
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