How to Increase Parent Involvement in the Schools
George J. McKenna III, superintendent of the Inglewood (Calif.) Unified School District and a nationally recognized proponent of more parent involvement in schools, believes that, "ideally, a parent would be present in every classroom every day," observing and participating in the educational process. But how do we get there from here?
"Too often I have heard my colleagues protest the presence of too many parents," McKenna wrote. "Apparently, many of us feel intimidated by the thought of them observing our teaching on a daily basis." In most education schools, future teachers are not taught in any comprehensive way how to work with parents. Another, even larger barrier is parent resistance.
But times change. In 1999, an increasing number of teachers and principals viewed parents as allies, in school and at home. And many parents want to be more involved, too. According to a 1999 parent survey at De Portola Middle School in San Diego, 60 percent of parents say they can visit the school and 40 percent said they cannot—primarily because of work pressures.
Here are some ideas, collected from around the country, that could help increase the amount of parent involvement in schools.
Connect parents and schools before children reach school age
The parent-school partnership must begin long before the child reaches school age. One particularly effective program is Parents As Teachers (PAT), prevalent in Missouri and in other areas around the country. The basic idea is that school districts nurture the parenting and teaching skills of young parents before their children reach school age.
Among PAT's elements: monthly home visits by a parent-educator for the first three years of the child's life; group get-togethers for parents; a battery of monitoring procedures and a referral service for parents to obtain help if any signs of educational difficulty appeared. Instead of setting aside structured teaching times, parents are encouraged to set up interesting environments, to allow the children to indulge their natural curiosity, and then to follow the children's leads. Parents are also taught how to set limits, and alternatives to spanking.
In the 1980s, an independent organization in Overland Park, Kansas, evaluated the Missouri program's effectiveness and found that the children scored significantly higher than average in intellectual and linguistic development. The program worked about the same with children of parents with doctoral degrees and parents who were high school dropouts.
Create an organizational structure for parent involvement
Without organizational structure for parent visitors and volunteers, parents can feel at a loss as to how they can help, and teachers can sometimes feel burdened by parent volunteers whose skills may not match the classroom's needs.
Some schools have created school-based community involvement centers that recruit and train volunteers and visitors and help teachers make the best use of them. If, as in most school districts, money is tight, funds to pay a parent volunteer coordinator can be raised by local service clubs. The center staff, made up primarily of parents (some could be paid), can coordinate parent volunteers, class visitations and support for teachers and staff. Schools can also offer parent involvement workshops, led by teachers or parents.
As San Diego's De Portola Middle School has done, a school can also train office personnel to welcome parents, providing them with someplace comfortable to sit while they wait, offering them a cup of coffee and, when needed, a student escort. Indeed, students should be part of this equation. Schools can ask students to make name tags for adult volunteers, and assign student volunteers to offer parent volunteers and visitors a school tour on their first day. Some schools let parents know when their children's lunch hours are and invite them to drop in for lunch whenever they wish.
While schools can do a lot to encourage parent involvement, parents need to assume responsibility for creating a parent-friendly school atmosphere. In Houston, the parent-run Volunteers in Public Schools program coordinates 20,000 citizens as special classroom speakers, tutors and screeners for new kindergartners. At an elementary school in New Braunfels, Texas, parents have established a PTA office right in the building. On a typical day, at least 10 parents are at the office or in the school filing, preparing bulletin boards or working on requests from a teachers' "wish box."
Recognize parents' time crunch
In California, a little-known law allows parents to request paid time off from work, up to four hours per year per child, to visit school during school hours. This law, sponsored by Assemblyman Curtis Tucker Jr., D-Inglewood, has been in effect since 1991, but most parents are not aware of it. With or without this law, however, parents are unlikely to ask for time off to visit school if they know their boss frowns on it.
Consequently, some of the nation's schools are creating action teams of parents and teachers who encourage employers to allow their employees paid time off to visit and volunteer at the school. Many teachers are parents. They, too, should be given time off work to visit their own children's schools.
Mothers and fathers may not be able to volunteer during class hours, but they should consider other possibilities: Spend a few after-work hours at school helping teachers prepare materials for future lessons, decorate classrooms, inventory supplies.
Here are some projects that can be done at home, suggested by the National Committee for Citizens in Education: Make additional copies of games and other classroom materials; type class lists; collect recyclable items that can be used in the classroom, such as egg cartons, 35mm film cases, buttons, fabric scraps; operate phone trees to help schedule parent volunteers; provide child care so another parent can volunteer in the classroom.
The best way to increase parent involvement is to make it convenient and social. Some schools offer pizza on open house nights so that parents can come straight from work. Child care at these events is also important.
Parents who contribute a lot of time to a school should be recognized and rewarded. But schools should also make clear that a parent who visits a school occasionally is just as valued as someone who has the time and inclination to devote hours of volunteer time in the classroom.
Encourage father involvement
Much more emphasis should be placed on recruiting and keeping fathers (and grandfathers) as helpers in the schools. Needed: Clear and emphatic communications from schools in all announcements that fathers are welcome to participate; and businesses, professional organizations, churches and synagogues, police, firefighters and high schools to help recruit men as volunteer childhood educators.
"There is an enormous amount of father hunger among children in America: children who don't have a father living at home, as well as children whose fathers' work limits their contact," says James Levine, director of The Fatherhood Project in New York. "Getting more men involved in the early education of children won't restore the missing father in these children's lives", he writes, but it will help replace a narrow definition of fatherhood, "a vague abstraction or a stereotyped image taken from television—with a concrete and fuller sense of nurturant manhood."
Identify and support leaning environments beyond the schools
Schools should not be the only institution encouraging family learning.
Libraries are playing an increasingly important role. California state librarian Gary Strong believes that libraries are becoming quality of life centers or, as he puts it, mental fitness centers. Grandparents and Books, a state-funded, community-based library program, recruits seniors (whether or not they're grandparents) to read stories to children in public libraries. Community volunteers are given training in selecting and presenting children's books, in using puppets, flannel boards and other special techniques. Between 1989 and 1991, 280 volunteers read to more than 43,000 children in California.
In San Diego, the city's library system also has created homework centers at 33 branches and the central library. These centers offer kids everything from dictionaries to atlases and other reference books useful for completing their homework assignments. Though paper and pencils are not supplied, Macintosh computers are. The homework centers are especially useful for latchkey kids, although libraries cannot be responsible for children who are left unattended. Fifteen satellite homework centers also have been established at YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs and at park and recreation centers.
The idea is to get to where the kids are and to create partnerships with community groups, churches and businesses.
In addition to bringing the community into the library, some libraries are reaching out into the community. In Los Angeles County, library cards are issued at clinics serving pregnant women and babies; when the mothers drop in at the library, babies get a stuffed toy; older children learn how to check out books.
Neighborhoods, too, can develop learning centers, albeit more informal.
In San Diego, for example, Amy Pickell isn't waiting for public schools to do something about falling reading scores. She created a neighborhood reading program called Reading Pals. The notion is simple: With the help of neighborhood parents, Pickell rounds up the older kids and enlists them as reading tutors to younger children.
"In our neighborhood," she says, "we have a cluster of younger children between the ages of 1 and 3, and a second cluster of older children between the ages of 8 and 12. We'll pair up the smaller children with older ones. At least once a week they'll get together for their reading sessions."
Pickell doesn't pretend that such efforts can overcome all the forces that drive down reading skills. But her Reading Pals can't hurt. She's thinking about starting similar programs at a local preschool and at her church, enlisting parents and seniors. But what's unusual about her initial program is that it's not in an institution; it's in that often forgotten space in our lives, the neighborhood.
Richard Louv is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune, and the author of several books about family and community, including Childhood's Future (Anchor).