Terri Watson is an assistant professor at The City College of New York's School of Education. A member of the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY, Watson is researching parent involvement in a large urban high school and how educators can involve and engage parents of color in their children's academic success.
1. Many districts around the state struggle to boost parent involvement. What are schools doing wrong?
Based on my research, I have found traditional models of parent involvement (i.e., PTA meetings, curriculum nights and book fairs) to be ineffective in urban schools because they are not designed with parents in mind. For instance, in New York City, a vast number of parents speak English as a second language and have a hard time communicating with their child's teacher(s) and school leaders. To increase parent involvement, teachers and school leaders should consider learning a new language as a component of their professional development. In addition, districts should consider hiring community-based staff to act as "cultural brokers."
2. You asked urban students' parents ‘What do you need?' to help your child be successful. What did they say?
Many of the parents I spoke to requested resources to help them help their children. To explain, one parent asked for assistance in obtaining family counseling and another wanted to know more about extra-curricular activities to support their child's academic success. Several parents requested information about post-secondary options for themselves as well as their children. I found the primary challenge to parent involvement to be time. Many of the parents I met with have more than one job. And some, in addition to working full-time, are enrolled in evening classes. They simply do not have time, particularly during the week, to be involved in traditional school-centered activities.
3. The union advocates strongly for community schools to help address poverty-related problems. What has your research found?
As part of my research, I created a matrix that proposed possible solutions to the challenges poverty presents students, parents and school communities. Moreover, I found that school closures, magnet schools, and the chartering of public schools were ineffective remedies for complex, poverty-related problems that thwart the success of primarily black, Hispanic and poor students. Similarly, in her 2013 book Reign of Error, education reformer Diane Ravitch explained how many of today's reform efforts have served to further distance schools from parents and communities of color.
4. What are better ways for schools to involve parents?
Schools can involve parents (and be welcoming) by accommodating parents' work schedules. Most parents are at work when school is in session, so events and meetings should be held in the evenings and/or on weekends as often as possible. Child care should also be provided at the school site to increase parent participation.
The first time a teacher contacts a parent shouldn't be because his/her child is misbehaving. Teachers should deliver "good news" as often as possible that celebrates students and promotes student success in order to foster a welcoming environment for students and parents.
5. What can unions do in this effort — to build bridges with parents and between K–12 and higher education?
My local union, Professional Staff Congress, has a long history of promoting equity and opportunities for disadvantaged students even amid these fiscally challenging times. At Ball State University, there is a program called Schools Within the Context of Community that brings pre-service teachers into the local black community to be mentored and to learn about the community where they will work. It's powerful and effective. More universities should be doing this with the help of unions and union officials.