By Nina Gilbert, Sr. Education Advisor, The Morehouse Research Institute and Bryant Marks, Executive Director, The Morehouse Research Institute
There have been vigorous debates among policy makers and educational leaders about the most important aspects of parental involvement. Some theorize that the absence of involved parents is one of the primary reasons that some urban schools persistently underperform. Others argue that a root cause of the underachievement of poor or minority students is that their parents don’t see education as a priority.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
The recent release of the state Department of Education’s report cards for Georgia school districts show that several urban and economically disadvantaged elementary schools are performing as well, if not better, than some of their suburban counterparts, including Fulton and Gwinnett County schools supported by stay-at-home parent volunteers and school foundations that raise thousands of dollars annually for the education of neighborhood kids.
According to the 2013 College and Career Ready Performance Index report for Atlanta Public Schools, several economically disadvantaged elementary schools received the equivalent of a B or better on their state report card despite the turnout they receive at PTA meetings.
APS’ West Manor Elementary and Burgess Peterson, which are funded in part by federal funds for the education of the poor, both scored an 85 percent on their state report card. Kindezi, an APS charter school also designated as a Title I campus, received an 87.2 percent.
Gwinnett County School’s Jackson Elementary, on the other hand, received a score of 82.4 percent, a low B, in a neighborhood surrounded by gated communities, manicured lawns, homes approaching the half-million dollar mark, and a district with its own nonprofit education foundation.
APS also had schools ranked with the equivalent of “A’s”. Morningside Elementary, an APS school not designated as impoverished, scored 96.1, a high A, topping North Fulton’s Alpharetta Elementary, which posted 93.5.
While a parent’s presence at their child’s school can be extremely beneficial to student performance, an adult’s engagement should not be measured by the number of meetings attended, wrapping paper sold, or high bids at silent auctions.
The nurturing that occurs at home long after the school day has ended may actually have the most lasting impact for underserved poor and minority students. The dinnertime conversations about their day, the late night checking of homework, and the stern conversations about behavior are often all a hard-working parent is able to offer their child’s school.
For many low-income families, being actively engaged in their child’s school is just not an option when they work long hours or multiple jobs. However, this does not mean that these parents do not also want the best for their children.
Many factors should be considered before labeling the parent who is rarely seen at their child’s school. After all, parents are a child’s first teacher and they can show engagement by modeling behaviors associated with academic achievement.
Parents may demonstrate a thirst for knowledge by reading the newspaper or watching the news. They can display the importance of critical thinking by teaching their children how to play chess or showing them a creative method to complete a household task. They can display the importance of work ethic by being on time for work everyday or taking on a second job in order to cover their financial responsibilities.
A parent who makes a conscious decision to live their life in a manner that fosters the development of important life and intellectual skills in their children is very much engaged.
Regardless of the number of school events and parent teacher conferences they can or choose to attend, parents whose children are assigned to underperforming or unsafe schools, often still feel trapped, as their involvement usually has very little impact on the curriculum that is taught and the leadership and culture of the school.
Parents would become more connected to their children’s schools if they felt that their presence, suggestions, and criticisms truly made an impact.
For many low income and working class parents, researching and selecting where their child attends school, applying for enrollment, participating in a lottery, securing the resources for uniforms and transportation is how they demonstrate engagement. In many cases, it is all they have to give- even to their school of choice.
Let’s end the rhetoric around parental engagement, and the double standards that emerge when we draw comparisons between high-and-low performing schools. Parental choice is parental engagement. Schools that understand their audience are showing gains.