By Kevin Boettcher
Although parents want their children to succeed, they may not be aware of the crucial role they could play in determining whether their kids do so or not.
Barb Rubin, parent empowerment instructional resource teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Madison, has seen the positive effect parents can have becoming more involved with their kids’ education.
“All parents care about their kids,” she said.
Enter Lincoln Elementary and you notice the inviting atmosphere. Rubin feels this is part of the reason the ongoing parental involvement groups at the school have been such a success.
“We have parents who come to this school who are just amazed at how well they’re treated,” Rubin said.
Schools with very low levels of parental involvement could simply be putting out a less friendly vibe.
“[Parents] may have come into a school and not gotten the respect that they need,” Rubin said. “All of those previous experiences play into why a parent may or may not feel welcome.”
Lincoln Elementary has students in grades three through five and is paired with Midvale Elementary, which has kindergarten through second grade. Now in her third year at Lincoln, Rubin previously taught at Franklin Elementary School, also in Madison.
At Franklin, she helped put into place and run African American, Latino and Hmong parent empowerment groups for more than 10 years. Largely due to her presence, Lincoln Elementary is in its third year with such groups for African American and Latino parents, and a Hmong group was started there this year.
Part of the reason the groups were introduced at both Lincoln and Franklin was to reduce the achievement gap: The large difference on test scores between white and minority students.
Some parents worked.
“It’s proven to be beneficial for me and my daughter. She’s come quite a long way at this point,” said Nicki Cooper, who started attending the meetings at Franklin when her daughter, Essence, was in kindergarten.
Cooper went on to facilitate some of the meetings, and her daughter is now in eighth grade.
“[The meetings] were to inform the parents about things they were confused about, or wanted information about,” Cooper said.
The parent empowerment meetings seemed to draw in parents who otherwise may not have been as engaged in, or monitored, the education their children were getting.
“The best part of it was when I realized that including the parents and their ideas in the meetings pretty much charged them up,” Cooper said. “It gave them ownership of the parent group and gave them something to feel more connected to or responsible for.”
Rubin said there are three layers to the process: Inform parents what you’re doing, try to get them involved, and then empower them with information that hopefully encourages them to become advocates for their children. The key to getting the groups started and keeping them going was—and is—consistency.
“You need to keep doing it. You can’t have one meeting and say only two people showed up, so we’re not going to do this anymore,” Rubin said. “If parents don’t come, then you have to figure out why they’re not coming.”
In the case of minority groups, parental involvement may be especially important and beneficial.
Dr. Julie Washington, the former Chair of UW-Madison’s Department of Communicative Disorders and now a professor at Georgia State University, spoke to a few teachers and parents at Lincoln Elementary School. She explained the concept of “code switching” and why it’s imperative that children, who speak different dialects with their peers or at home, also learn standard English.
“You don’t have to give up your identity, but you do have to learn the code of whatever environment you’re going into,” Washington said. “You have to be able to switch, depending who you’re with.”
Washington added that as long as children know the difference between standard English and whatever other dialect they use, and the appropriate time to use it, parents need not worry. If kids are having trouble, parents can help by explaining and using standard English more at home.
“If they can code switch, then they have a choice,” Rubin said. “If they can’t code switch, they have no choice and it limits their possibilities in life.”
Parent empowerment groups offer a safe place to talk about the idea of code switching for parents of minority students.
Rubin, who has been trying to get similar groups implemented in all schools in the Madison district, said it would be most effective if each school were given a set amount of money to come up with its own ways to get parents more involved. That way, teachers and others don’t have to consistently volunteer their time.
“The way I envision this happening is for the district to say, ‘we believe that parents are an integral part of their kids education’,” Rubin said. “If you don’t put money in back of the goals, then you’re leaving it up to chance. It may or may not happen then.”
At the same time, Rubin recognizes and agrees with others who have a somewhat broader view of what parental involvement should be.
“I certainly can reinforce that there’s a relationship between effective parental involvement and good outcome for kids,” said Dan Nerad, Madison School District school superintendent.
“It can’t be just about how many times they come to school for a meeting,” Nerad added. “It’s got to be the full range of things that parents can do to support kids in their learning. Some of it’s at school, and a lot of it’s not at school. We have to let schools customize.”
“Each school is going to look a little different,” he said. “Are the goals pretty much the same? Yeah.”
There is some debate over what parental involvement programs should consist of and whether they should be mandatory. But there is no debate over the need to improve in the future.
“I believe there should be more programs available,” said Nerad, who rated the Madison School District about average in terms of parental involvement, when compared to other districts. “That’s why the achievement gap plan has a section on parental involvement, because it’s in recognition that we need to get better.”
“There are barriers, but also possibilities, both on the home and the school side,” said Beth Graue, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the Associate Director of Faculty, Staff & Student Development at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.
“It’s a matter of families and school people figuring out what will be the right set of activities that will support both sides of the equation, so that the kid gets the best that they need,” Graue said.
Rubin is aware of all the barriers—either in parents’ personal lives or ones created by schools—that prevent some from becoming more involved. But the bottom line is clear as far as what parents need to do at the most basic level to stay involved in their child’s education.
“You need to have a good relationship with your child’s teacher, with your child and with the people at the school,” Rubin said.