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Urban Schools Must Start Empowering
-- And Stop Blaming -- Parents

by Pedro Noguera
New York, New York

Parents of children at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, California, fed up with years of academic failure, took matters into their own hands. They became the first in the state to activate the new “parent-trigger” law, which allows parents to radically overhaul a school’s structure and leadership when 51 percent sign a petition of support. The school district moved to block the parents’ bid to transform McKinley into part of the respected Celerity charter chain. It is now up to the courts to decide if the district or the parents will prevail.

After years of institutional indifference and neglect, it’s easy to see how these parents reached their breaking point. Compton public schools have been characterized by a long history of failure, even after being under state control for more than eight years. Parents in Compton finally decided to take matters into their own hands, using the law as a lever to push for change. They are setting a model for what needs to happen in more of our nation’s schools.

Research and common sense show engaged parents are critical to children’s success: The more involved a parent is in a child’s education, the more likely it is that child will thrive. So why are urban parents ignored by schools? Rather than welcoming families and building community trust, many urban, predominantly low-income schools blame parents for students’ and schools’ shortcomings.

Low-income parents need help to advocate effectively for their children, the population most vulnerable to dropping out. These families already struggle with scarce time and resources to devote to their children’s education; this is compounded by cultural and language barriers, and inexperience or negative experiences navigating the school system.

Studies have found that while teachers agree on the importance of parent involvement, too many urban educators approach these parents with hostility, assuming their ineptitude or unwillingness to teach their children values or skills. According to one 2010 study that compared teacher perceptions of suburban versus urban parents, “parent involvement may be further devalued for inner-city teachers, who hold beliefs that parent competence is reduced by socioeconomic challenges.” At worst, schools dismiss these parents outright; a significant portion of teachers don’t work with low-income parents to encourage learning at home. Blaming low-income parents for their children’s academic woes marginalizes them and further alienates them from a school culture they might already consider unapproachable. And it allows schools systems to evade accountability.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a different story for affluent suburban parents: Researchers have found these families tend to be recognized as equal partners in the educational process. Their participation is valued. They are invited to serve as school leaders. Staff responds to their concerns promptly. In short, suburban public schools work to ensure they are accountable to parents.

In 2002, the federal No Child Left Behind law attempted in part to remedy this long-standing disconnect between low-income parents and urban schools. It defined and mandated parental involvement and stipulated how schools should engage with parents. According to NCLB, schools must engage parents in “regular, two-way, and meaningful communication” or forfeit federal funds. Despite federal prodding, the communication gap between urban parents and schools remains wide.

The School District of Philadelphia is one urban district working to reverse these trends and strengthen the relationship with parents: Parent and Family Resource Centers throughout the city answer specific parent questions (school-related or otherwise) in eight different languages within five days. School leaders learn strategies to get parents involved; administrators, parents and teachers attend workshops together. In addition, every campus has a School Advisory Council comprised of principals, teachers, staff, parents, students, and citizens who help make key school decisions. More than 12,000 parents have enrolled in Parent University, learning everything from parenting skills to GED preparation; school systems in Boston and Miami have similar programs.

By comparison, parents in the nearby urban Chester-Upland School District have only a single, occasional forum to voice high-level education concerns: school board meetings.

Philadelphia, Boston, and Miami get it, and Compton seems to be catching on: Without authentic parent engagement, improving urban schools is impossible. Urban public schools must meaningfully include parents in children’s learning, establishing a spirit of trust and collaboration that encourages growth at home and school. As educators work to turn low-performing schools around, proven parent engagement strategies must be fundamental to any reform plan.

These schools must be accountable to every parent, because every child counts.

Pedro Noguera is Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. He is the author of the book "The Trouble With Black Boys: Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education." He is also a co-editor of In Motion Magazine.

Published in In Motion Magazine June 1, 2011.

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