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:

"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:

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.


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