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Children benefit academically when parents and educators work together. For this reason, parents' involvement in their children's education is a priority of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. But a strong connection between parents* and educators does not come about automatically. Both parties may need to learn new roles and skills and develop the confidence to use them, especially as parents move beyond traditional activities, like helping children with homework, and toward shared responsibility for school improvement. Intermediary organizations, like federally funded Parental Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs), can help. Drawing on lessons learned from five PIRCs across the country that have been meeting this challenge, this guide shares promising strategies for increasing effective parent involvement.
Rosa Sanchez is a Maryland mother whose experience illustrates what can happen when parents receive help in developing the knowledge, skills, and confidence to participate to greater degrees and in new ways in their children's education. It was not as if Sanchez had been uninvolved to start with. As the mother of four children in Maryland public schools, she had volunteered in their classrooms and helped out with some events sponsored by the parent-teacher organization at her school. Yet when Sanchez had questions about her children's education, she did not always know where to go for help or, if she did, she did not always have the confidence to ask.
Although Sanchez did not regularly attend parent-teacher organization meetings, the president of that group had seen enough to know that this dedicated mother had more to offer; she nominated Sanchez to participate in the Maryland Parent Leadership Institute. This six-day, three-weekend training program produced by the Family Works-the PIRC that was serving the state of Maryland-was designed to help parents understand the state's standards-based assessment system, the resources of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and techniques and strategies for increasing parents' involvement in their children's schools. Sanchez, who speaks English as a second language, initially worried that she would be unable to keep up with the institute's presentations and discussion. But with others urging her on, she agreed to participate, becoming one of 20 members selected for the institute's leadership class of 2004.
Over the course of the sessions, Sanchez's confidence grew along with her understanding of effective family involvement techniques and ways parents can contribute to their children's school success. When it came time for participants to plan and implement a project at their children's school, Sanchez set out to jump-start Hispanic parent involvement. To that end, she organized Spanish-language "study circles"-parent meetings in which participants learned about and discussed basic school functions and activities, and how to be involved; for example, they discussed how to read the school report card, which, as required under NCLB, describes how the school itself is performing in a variety of areas, including its students' performance on state assessments. In addition, she worked with the principal to be sure that both homework directions and teacher comments on students' report cards were translated for parents with limited English. Perhaps most importantly, Sanchez made sure parents with limited English understood to whom they could turn and how to ask for help if they had questions or problems related to their children's schooling. Additional Hispanic parents have started getting involved thanks to Sanchez's efforts, and Sanchez herself has become increasingly active. Even as she continues to volunteer in the classroom, she also has assumed leadership positions in the parent-teacher organization not just at one school, but at two: At the school her youngest children still attend, Sanchez serves as vice president of parent outreach; at the high school her oldest now attends, she serves as the group's liaison to other Hispanic families. And when Sanchez has questions about her own or other children's education, you better believe she knows who and how to ask.
Education research over the past three decades has established a direct correlation between increased parent involvement and increased student achievement. One of the most comprehensive parent involvement studies done to date (encompassing more than 51 research studies and literature reviews) is A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement.1 After reviewing a wide range of studies on parent involvement, Henderson and Mapp found that "students with involved parents, no matter what their income or background, were more likely to earn higher grades and test scores and enroll in higher-level programs; be promoted, pass their classes, and earn credits; attend school regularly; have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school; and graduate and go on to postsecondary education." Additionally, the study found, "Schools that succeed in engaging families from very diverse backgrounds share three key practices:
- Focusing on building trusting collaborative relationships among teachers, families, and community members;
- Recognizing, respecting, and addressing families' needs and any class and cultural differences; and
- Embracing a philosophy of partnership where power and responsibility are shared."2
By the U.S. Department of Education's definition, parent involvement occurs when parents and educators participate in "regular two-way and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school activities."3 In this definition, parents are encouraged to be actively involved in their children's learning at school and are included, as appropriate, in decision-making activities, for example, sitting on parent advisory councils, which inform the policies affecting their children's education. (See "Engaging Parents as Education Advisors" on p. 3.)
*When using the term parent, this guide intends it to refer as well to a child's guardian or any other adult who plays a significant role in a minor's life.