A r c h i v e d I n f o r m a t i o n
Family Involvement in Children's Education - October 1997
Buffalo Parent Center:
A Large Urban School District Gives Parents a Place of Their Own
Buffalo Public Schools
Buffalo, New York
The Buffalo Parent Center opened its doors in 1989 in response to a request from the district's parents for "a place of our own; something we can access seven days a week." Housed in the Urban League building in downtown Buffalo, the parent center offers services and activities for all families in the school district, with priority given to families whose children receive Title I services. Center activities include family literacy training, parenting education, computer training, and tips on helping with homework. Except for adult education classes, all learning activities at the center are designed so that parents and children can participate together. The numerous opportunities for family-oriented learning include two computer labs with more than 90 computer workstations, a discovery room and hands-on science center, and a robotics laboratory. A restored grand piano, violins, drums, and other instruments are available so that parents and children can take music lessons together. Families also learn about telecommunications by using interactive videos, such as an "electronic balloon ride over New Mexico," and by recording themselves in an on-site television studio. Some parents videotape themselves reading and interacting with their young children and then review the tapes as a way of improving their parenting skills. The Center not only provides activities and resources that some local schools may not be able to provide on site, but ultimately helps parents and students gain the skills and motivation they need to stay involved with their local schools.
Buffalo Public Schools is a large urban school district that serves about 48,000 children from birth through grade twelve. Fifty-three percent of the district's students are African American, 34 percent are white, 10 percent are Hispanic, and 3 percent are American Indian or Asian. Fifty-nine percent of its students qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program.
The parent center operates year-round, except for school holidays. During the school year the center is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; it closes one half-hour earlier during the summer. The center's Even Start Family Literacy program serves the same group of families for an entire calendar year; all other programs operate on a semester basis. Activities take place within one of three daily sessions: morning, afternoon, or evening. During morning sessions parents with young children engage in developmentally appropriate learning activities and parenting skills training. In the afternoon and evening sessions, families with older children take parent and child computer courses, and participate in tutoring and homework sessions or nonacademic classes such as art, aerobics, and music. Evenings are the busiest time, with 25 to 40 families attending the center.
The center employs about 30 staff members, including 7 specialists in adult and early childhood education, 3 home liaisons employed by the Even Start program, a full-time computer teacher, and teachers from the public school system who serve as mathematics, reading, and language specialists.
Breaking Down Barriers to Family Involvement in Schools
To reach as many parents as possible, center staff along with parent volunteers publicize the center's services and activities in schools, at shopping malls and grocery stores, via mailings and fliers, and through door-to-door visits in neighborhoods. Additionally, Title I schools invite parents and their children on field trips to the parent center, where center staff give tours, answer questions about the center, and provide parents and students with opportunities to use the center's technology, music, and art resources. Staff say that on these field trips, "the center sells itself." For example, children who visit the center unaccompanied by their parents often return with their parents in tow.
Through the many center workshops, programs, and tutoring opportunities, parents not only learn how to become partners in their children's education both at the center and in their own local schools, but can also work on achieving their own educational and personal goals.
"We need to motivate parents to make a commitment to come [to the center]. [It's] more than 'your child needs additional help....' Attractive activities and services bring them in ... [and] when their child performs better, then they commit [to being involved]." |
Assistant Superintendent of Federal Programs, Buffalo Public School District
Overcoming Time and Resource Constraints
Recognizing that some parents may have difficulty finding the time or means to visit a parent center regardless of where it is located, the district housed the Buffalo Parent Center near a downtown main rapid transit line. The center issues free tokens for families to ride the public transit system; it also maintains three buses for added convenience. In the near future, the center plans to operate mobile learning units that will bring teachers and learning resources directly to neighborhoods. Parents who need child care can (and are encouraged to) bring the whole family to the center, which provides a nursery for infants.
Providing Information and Training to Parents and School Staff
The parent center holds regularly scheduled meetings for parents conducted by the Title I District Advisory Council. The meetings prepare parents for decision-making roles by updating them on changes in Title I, relevant local and state education issues, and Title I budgets and services. Other center activities are designed to attract parents of older students and provide information and training on opportunities for parents and children to learn together, especially during non-school hours.
Training to attract parents of older students. Center staff recognize the difficulty schools face in reaching out to parents whose children are middle and high school students. To address this problem, the center maintains an extensive collection of computer and telecommunications technologies to attract older children, teenagers, and their parents. Two evenings a week, approximately 40-50 students in grades 6-12 and their parents participate in a parent/child computer program. (Families who sign up for a semester- or summer-long program are expected to attend regularly.) The center urges families to work together on all technology learning activities; the program software and work stations accommodate parent/child teams. Older children and their parents can create documents with desktop publishing software, improve their math and science skills using custom-designed curricula created through a satellite hook-up with a software company, produce video tapes, and learn robotics and computer programming. For parents who resist interacting with teachers, this array of technology opens up new possibilities for learning that move beyond traditional teacher/student relationships. In addition to technology-based opportunities, older children and their parents can also participate in courses on conflict resolution and trust-building through the parent center. For example, an outdoor ropes course, used in such outdoor education courses as Outward Bound, teaches parents and children to trust each other and work as a team.
Training to help parents and children learn together. Other Parent Center activities focus on parents and children learning together through the use of tutors, computers, family literacy activities, and extensive educational opportunities for parents. These include:
- Homework labs and afterschool tutoring. The center employs 10 to 12 part- time tutors for small group work with parents and children in all of the center's programs. Most tutors are college students from the State University of New York at Buffalo, University of Buffalo, and other local universities. Also, every year three or four high school students, who are former students at the center, return to tutor younger children and their parents. Tutors assist parents and children in the resource center, where families complete their respective homework using CD-ROM computers and software programs. Because parents accompany their children during learning activities, tutors also are able to model tutoring techniques for parents.
- The Take Home computer program. For families who participate in an orientation, the Parent Center has 140 portable computers that it loans for five- to six-week periods. The families are nominated for the program by their children's Title I teacher, who has an agreement with the center to refer those children who are most in need of supplemental academic work. Reading and math specialists at the center map out an individualized plan for each family and select appropriate software and materials. Parents and children are expected to work together on the computer at home every day. After the six-week period, the Parent Center tests the children to evaluate their progress; center staff report that children who completed the daily program demonstrate substantial improvement. Parents also complete a survey at the end of the program to report its impact on learning and motivation.
- The Even Start Family Literacy program. More than 60 families with children under the age of eight are enrolled in the center's Even Start program, which is offered in collaboration with the local adult learning center. Parents in the adult education program agree to accompany their children to the Parent Center for a minimum of 12 hours a week. Time at the Parent Center is set aside for "parent and child time" in the early childhood center, where families can use developmentally appropriate computer programs. The parent center also employs home liaisons who conduct home visits with the Even Start families once a week. Parents in the Even Start program have an array of choices to meet their own educational needs, including: classes in adult basic education to earn their GED, computer literacy training that can lead to advanced courses and college credit, English as a Second Language courses, and classes in parenting skills.
- Parenting Courses. According to a teacher at the center, the Parent Center "incorporate[s] lots of personal improvement for parents so they always feel successful and commit themselves to learning and to being involved with their children." More than 100 adults at the center participate in activities geared toward their own education and enrichment, including sewing and wearable arts, aerobics, adult basic education classes, advanced computer classes for college credit, and parenting seminars. Staff at the center take advantage of community resources such as college professors and adult educators to expand the educational opportunities open to parents.
"We have shown parents that it's important to play an active role in their children's learning. They want to know what's going on in the classroom, and they attend parent/teacher conferences, even when they used to miss them. Now that they've learned more about what their child's needs are, [parents] know how to focus on that and make sure the child is learning."
A Parent Center staff member
Tapping External Supports for School-Family Partnerships
The Parent Center works with several organizations to provide services to parents and families. For example, the center collaborates with the local adult learning center to expand its array of educational courses for adults. Also, because it shares a building with the Urban League, the Parent Center has formed a partnership to provide comprehensive social and medical services to families. Parents who come to the center benefit from having staff from the Urban League available to help them at the same location. In some cases, the League has helped Parent Center participants find housing and employment.
With other community agencies the center co-sponsors special events and outings to revitalize families and to keep parents and children interested in learning together. For example, in collaboration with the local YMCA, Salvation Army, and Boys and Girls Club, the center organizes camping trips, outdoor education courses, trips to the aquarium, and outings to university theatrical productions and local restaurants. To participate in special events, a good attendance record at the center is required of families, parents and children alike.
Evidence of Success Over the course of a year, the district's Title I director estimates that the center serves about 3,000 parents, with a core of 250 families enrolling in ongoing programs such as adult education, parent/child computer courses, or the family literacy program.
Center staff also point to changes in parents and children that they attribute to participation in Parent Center activities, including:
- Parents now support and motivate one another to play a greater role in the educational lives of their children. Staff remark that "new parents are embraced by other parents" and often meet outside of the center to organize family events together. "Parents become a community and a support network," says one staff member.
- Several students who participate in the center's tutoring program with their parents have gone on to become tutors for younger children in the program.
- Each year the Parent Center surveys parents who participate in the Take Home Computer Program, an activity that serves children identified by their classroom teacher as being "most in need" of supplemental academic help. A survey of the participants in the 1994-95 program indicated that 44 percent of parents reported that the program had a "significant" effect on their child's motivation toward learning; 52 percent indicated some effect. Virtually all parents reported noticeable or significant improvements in their children's math and reading skills, and 64 percent reported that the program had significantly enhanced their child's knowledge of computers.
In addition, the parent center is tracking the academic achievement of students whose parents participate in center activities.
The Parent Center's programs ultimately help to increase parent involvement at local schools. For example, parents learn about their child's curriculum and how to supplement what their child learns through learning activities parents initiate at home. Parents also have received training that teaches them important questions to ask their child's teacher, such as what exactly is meant when a teacher indicates a child is "doing well" in class. In this situation parents might ask whether their child is doing well in comparison to other children in the class, or other children in the district or state, and with what specific skills their child still needs practice.
[Atenville Elementary School]
[Cane Run Elementary School]