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Mind the Gap

by Brendan Lowe

March 20, 2010

An inner-city schoolteacher examines the lack of parental involvement.


We're in the midst of parent-teacher conferences here in New York City public high schools.

Between last night and this afternoon, family members from 20 of my 78 students' families attended meetings. Of those 20, 16 made the honor roll, which unscientifically shows a correlation between parental involvement and academic success as well as a lack of involvement by parents of struggling students.

I can count on both hands the number of family members who have contacted me in the past year and a half, despite having given out my cell phone number and e-mail address to them all. My e-mails seem to be sent into an abyss; about one in 10 of the voicemails I leave with parents is ever returned. And even though my students’ grades are posted online and all parents or guardians are given login information, about three out of 25 students’ families ever check their progress. (And just in case you’re wondering, it's not for a lack of Internet access—I take a survey at the beginning of the year.)

Based on conversations I've had with colleagues at similar schools throughout the Bronx, this low-level of involvement is more or less par for the course.

But there are exceptions to this trend—heroic mothers, fathers, grandmothers, aunts and siblings who provide strong support—and, as for the rest, it's not their fault. Not yet.

Just as I believe all students want to succeed, so I (need to) believe that all parents want their children to succeed. Yet just like my students, I have found that some of their families aren't sure of what they need to do to be successful. If schools expect families to be involved, it falls to teachers and administrators to teach them.

Am I recommending that schools teach parents how to carry out their responsibilities? Absolutely. Condescending as may it sound, evidence suggests that someone must intervene if we—teachers, schools, supporters of better public schools generally—expect family involvement to increase.

(I’m inclined at times to abandon laborious efforts to engage parents and relatives and just work directly with my students, who at 16-, 17- or 18-years-old should be held responsible for their academics. Deep down, however, I understand that the kind of dramatic improvement we are seeking will only come if all parties are engaged.)

There are endless ways teachers and schools can increase families’ engagement (and I’d love to read your ideas in the comments section below). First, prove to them their participation makes a significant difference in their students’ achievement. Next, provide different ways they can get involved. Furthermore, incentivize involvement. For instance, a middle school where a friend of mine works raffles off computers and flat-screen TVs on parent-teacher conference nights. Another friend’s school offers free ESL classes to parents on Saturdays. Many parents have a lot going on, especially single-parent households and heads of low-income households. We must appeal to their self-interest.

Lastly, exhibit interest in families, too. Parents are people, not just the number to call when their child breaks a rule. Many families only hear from their children's teachers when they've done something wrong, which complicates the relationship between families and schools. Try calling home to reinforce positive behaviors or academic achievement. I don’t make enough positive calls home—I’d say about three in 10 calls are solely to deliver praise—but the ones I do make have a dramatic impact. One mother woke her daughter up at 1:30 am after hearing my message about her daughter winning the Student of the Week award. Such calls also add weight to more critical calls I may need to make in the future.

So, fellow teachers, let’s extend the four walls of our classrooms, to include parents and families in our pursuit of increased academic achievement.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD will appear on Fridays. Last week's essay can be gotten here.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user majoracartergroup.

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