In a departure from blogging about the world outside of Boston Arts Academy, I am going to switch things up for the new year and return to life inside the school. While my travels over the past year and a half have taken me to many amazing schools and introduced me to so many incredible people, I feel I am ready to get back to the home front and the business of asking those hard questions.
Educators gnash their teeth and wring their hands about parent engagement in schools, especially in urban secondary schools. There is a great deal of research that suggests student achievement increases when parents/caregivers are involved and know what is going on with their children in school. There are three references in particular that I think are great: Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships, by Anne T. Henderson, Vivian Johnson, Karen L. Mapp, and Don Davies; School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action, by Joyce L. Epstein and Associates; and Trust In Schools: A Core Resource For Improvement by Anthony S. Bryk.
Recently, I brought together a group of secondary school principals and educators at Boston Arts Academy to brainstorm different ways to encourage parents/caregivers to connect more to their children’s schools. Our first idea was to ask our students. How would they define family engagement and what would they say were the challenges?
The first activity involved watching a short play called, The Waiting Room. Four theatre majors at Boston Arts Academy co-wrote this piece with their theatre teacher, which explores questions of what constitutes family. The action occurs in hospital waiting room in which two sets of siblings who have never met anxiously await to hear if their beloved mother or “Mama T” will live. One pair is the mother’s biological children; the other her community center-formerly-gang involved “children”. Both sets claim Mama as their mother. The group of educators watched the performance along with the 40 ninth and eleventh-graders. Afterwards we engaged in a discussion with actors and audience.
First, the actors spoke. “This play is about how you make your family with blood or not,” said one of the gang involved-children.” Another actor-child said, “The play speaks to the importance of nuclear or extended families and also how important it is that your parent or caregiver know you.”
Sitting in a large circle, students spoke passionately about the barriers for their parents to become involved in school. “My mom can’t participate because she knows there won’t be an interpreter. She’s embarrassed cause her English isn’t good. And also, she works at night so if the meetings are then, she can’t ever come.” Lots of kids nodded their heads. Another student suggested that the meetings not be just about talking about school issues, but that different activities should be offered (like cooking, computer classes, and personal finance). Cece, a ninth-grader, said that there should be more incentives to come up to the school. Deirde, a sunny-faced junior with energy bursting out of every pore, seconded that idea. “My mom doesn’t even get why she should come up to school. ‘What you do wrong?’ she asks whenever there is a call or a letter. “Why they want me to come up there?’ But if you could bribe her—like she’d win a raffle or a big prize then she’d come. You have to trick parents.” Others concurred, and Tishana said that parents are ‘old school’ and think that the only reason teachers ask parents to come to school is to be told that your kid is doing badly.
Students suggested that advisors call home every Sunday to tell a parent or caregiver something good or funny that had happened that week. “That way you have a relationship that isn’t about the bad stuff,” Stanley said earnestly. Tyrone agreed and said that he didn’t want his parents to have a real personal bond with the teacher—“That’s creepy. But I feel better if my mom knows what’s going on in school. It affects me if she doesn’t have a clue. But a teacher’s got to balance with parents and not get too close.”
Connor thought the idea of a carnival would be fun. “That way every family can share their culture and it’s a way to create a community where everyone comes together and you get to taste everyone’s food. That’s a good way to get to know people you know.” Again, the affirmative nods moved like lightening around the circle.
Ideas kept flowing—the idea of parents shadowing their kid for a day, an interactive newsletter where parents could ask questions and get answers from teachers or principal, facebook for parents, and a culture day. Arthur said that if his mom could actually do his art than she’d understand why he spends so much time in school, and she wouldn’t make him do so many chores at home. Other students laughed at this idea. “Naw, that wouldn’t matter. I’d still have to clean my room and do the dishes, but I would like my mom to understand what I do. When she knows things she feels better and then I do, too.”
I was impressed with the insightfulness and thoughtfulness of these young people. I worried, too, that even fourteen year olds use the phrase, “Coming up to the school” which seems to define school as a foreign, distant and even alien place. Our challenge is to change that perception and ensure that older adolescents see a positive partnership between their parent/caregiver and their teacher. Sometimes, as seasoned educators, or even as newly minted leaders, we forget to ask those closest to the issues: the kids. I learned a lot from listening to my students. Next, we will be sure to ask the parents and caregivers which of these suggestions they would like to implement.
As always, I’d love to hear your feedback about these issues. Feel free to leave comments!