Parents need more than good intentions from schools
By by Debbie Wei on May 26, 2004 11:00 PM
This article is reprinted from the Fall 1997 issue of the Notebook.
I was volunteering in Chinatown one day interviewing parents who wanted to register their children for an afterschool program run by a community organization. The questions were basic enough: How many children? How old? Why do you want your child in this program?
Across the room I watched another interview taking place. Something in the face of the mother responding to the questions stopped me.
I watched her and so did the rest of the room. She sat silent, fighting tears, her lower lip shaking uncontrollably.
I walked over to the interviewer and asked what was wrong. He looked at me anxiously. "I don't know. I only asked her why she wanted her child to be in the program."
The woman sighed and said in Cantonese, "Last night my six-year-old son came home with his homework. The teacher asked him to tell a story to his parents. His parents were supposed to write it down for him so he could bring it to school the next day. I told him his mommy and daddy couldn't do it in English, but we could do it in Chinese. He got angry and began to cry. He said he would fail school because his parents were so stupid."
In the seconds after she spoke, a terrible sadness filled the room. I looked around and noticed all the parents present folding into themselves. Silent. Sad. This mother's words reflected their own painful experiences as parents of schoolchildren here in Philadelphia - a sense of helplessness, a sense of failure.
A few months later, I attended a planning meeting for one of the clusters to introduce newly developed standards to parents. As the discussion proceeded, I asked, "Where will the childcare be?"
Everyone stopped and stared at me. Someone asked what I was talking about. I was taken aback. I had assumed that there would be childcare provided to parents if the meeting really intended to foster parental involvement.
One administrator looked at me incredulously and said, "We don't even provide child care for report card conferences. Why should we do it for this event?"
I mentally "checked out" of the meeting after that.
I don't think in either of these two cases any school staff intended to disrespect or marginalize parents. But the culture of schooling in our city has created a situation where parent involvement often happens in spite of our best efforts - not because of them.
I don't think we as education professionals intend to limit a parent's involvement on the basis of race or class. We don't intend to make parents feel inferior and helpless. But if these outcomes are the sum of our actions, then our intentions don't really matter.
I have often heard conversations where educators have said things like, "Well, these parents just don't care." "They don't want to be involved." I think folks really believe that is the case.
Parents who do not care about their children are the smallest of exceptions. "Lack of caring" hardly explains the near total lack of meaningful parental involvement at some schools.
I have also heard educators say that if parents want to be involved, they can. It's their own choice.
But then I look at the options of parental involvement is some schools. Fundraising. Cleaning up the building and grounds.
Unfortunately, for many Asian American children or children of other immigrants, their parents' involvement begins and ends when they are called on to cook and serve food for International Day celebrations or Asian New Year holidays.
These activities are nice and safe precisely because they do not specifically address students' achievement - the area of greatest concern for parents.
Everything we know about student achievement says that parental involvement is an important factor. All the literature says that children who have involved parents, for the most part, do better in school.
If our job as educators is to help children learn and if we know parental involvement has direct impact on children's achievement, then it seems to follow that encouraging and fostering strong parental involvement is simply part of the job. Parents need to be involved with teaching and learning. As educators, our job is to build bridges over the chasm that separates the school from the communities from which our children come.
I don't believe it is a simple job. Our school cultures have evolved into systems that are accessible only to parents who know and understand the system, who are comfortable in the culture of the system. For those outside this system - the vast majority of parents in the School District - our school culture is unfamiliar and unfriendly territory.
It will take collective will and a belief in the importance of true and meaningful parental involvement to begin to change the patterns long entrenched in our system. In fact, it is the parents who currently are not involved who can be the "cultural experts." They are the ones who can lead us in developing new practices that make parental involvement meaningful.
Most of all, this effort will require that we look past our best intentions to measure the effects our actions have on our children and on their families and communities.