Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist
Education's missing link: parents
A student's home life is a greater predictor of achievement than his or her parents' education level, income or cultural background. It seems counter-intuitive, this...
Get involvedSeattle Public Schools is looking for new members to serve on the School-Family Partnership Advisory Committee. Nominations, due Oct. 12, can be found at www.seattleschools.org/area
A student's home life is a greater predictor of achievement than his or her parents' education level, income or cultural background.
It seems counter-intuitive, this notion of home rather than the classroom as the engine spurring academic progress, particularly in this age of in loco parentis — schools acting in the place or role of parents — driving most education budgets. From offering breakfast and student drop-off as early as 6 a.m. to after-school and weekend programs and wrap-around social services, schools shoulder the burden for children, sometimes doing it alone.
The dynamics are changing and it is about time. Years of strong research on the academic benefits of close parental involvement have forced educators to understand they face a Sisyphean task if they try to go it alone.
Hence, a new trend from the industry that loves trends. The latest buzzword in education is parents! Initiatives and no small amount of dollars are being spent making parents school partners rather than recipients of quarterly reports and fundraising letters.
The bible on parent involvement comes by way of "A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Communities on Student Achievement." Author Karen Mapp offers studies and research papers detailing how a parent's connection with schools can improve absenteeism and grade-point averages, even in families struggling with socioeconomic or linguistic challenges.
Against such compelling evidence, explanations passed around sparsely attended PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences — Mrs. So-and-So works two jobs, the So-and-So family would have had to catch a bus to get here! — emerge as what they are: excuses.
School administrators are full of war stories about uninvolved or clueless parents. One story had me shaking my head in dismay. A single working mother had no idea her child missed two full weeks of school. I know we're putting in longer hours these days. I know kids can be so crafty that intercepting the mail or phone calls from school can seem like, well, child's play. But, 10 days underscores some serious family-school disconnect.
The kind of involvement highlighted by Mapp and other researchers doesn't take a lot of time, money or, quite frankly, smarts. It can be done while making dinner, doing laundry or as one heads out the door for the evening shift.
Districts have begun putting on workshops to teach parents how to monitor homework and school activities. A Montclair, N.J., English teacher assigns parents homework to ensure they understand what their kids are learning. Shirkers see their kids' grades docked a few points. Maryland has created an office of parent involvement that reports directly to the state education superintendent. In the Puget Sound region, schools compete for 100 percent participation in the PTA.
Seattle Public Schools will use a new $600,000 grant from the 21st Century Community Learning Center for relationship building with parents and community organizations that serve families. The money pays for family-style school events and multilingual workshops on how parents can support their children's education. The city of Seattle uses some of the $116 million Families and Education Levy to pay for 40 school-based family-support workers who bridge the gap between school and home.
The expanse between some parents and schools is as wide as the achievement gap.
Some parents had unhappy school experiences. Others don't speak English well enough to navigate school bureaucracies, or they cling to outdated notions that I call the separation of church and state — only in this case it is the wall between school, where academics are taught, and home, where values are imparted.
And, no one should forget the intimidating specter posed to some parents by teachers who profess to be welcoming but practically block the classroom doorway with folded arms invoking body language usually reserved for door-to-door salesmen.
The biggest advance to emerge from the family and community engagement committee has been the hiring of a coordinator to centralize efforts at more than 90 schools. Bernardo Ruiz has been around the district working in bilingual education long enough to see the challenges and negotiate them.
"My mother was a single mom who worked 14-hour days," Ruiz says. "But she checked our homework, made us read to her ... She may not have known what we were reading but she'd ask little questions that made us think."
Parenting is a full-time job that few of us have the luxury of doing full time. It isn't easy keeping abreast of school changes, from the new math to the ways No Child Left Behind impacts the classroom, but it is as critical to academic success as water is to life.
Parents demanded accountability. We have it. But it cuts both ways.
Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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