Forty percent of students at Cox Elementary are African American, 44 percent are Hispanic (many of whom are limited English proficient), and 16 percent are white. All students live within a two-mile radius of the school, and most live in two nearby low-income housing projects. Many parents do not read or write well themselves, although, the principal notes, they have high hopes for their children and want them to succeed in school.
Outreach strategies to keep parents informed. About 20 percent of Cox students have telephones in their homes, and many families have no car. To help parents get the information they need about their children's school life, Cox requires teachers to make quarterly home visits; in fact, most teachers exceed this requirement. Although teachers do not receive extra pay for the home visits, the principal says that teachers see the value in making the effort to reach out to parents and scheduling the time for these visits. Most often, the parent involvement coordinator takes teachers to the homes of students after school. In addition, the full-time parent involvement coordinator and the migrant recruiters enhance communications by obtaining necessary parent signatures, recruiting parents for school committees and councils, and driving parents and teachers to ensure their presence at conferences or medical referrals arranged by the school staff.
The principal discovered that parent participation increases at school meetings when a meal is provided. Parents who volunteer at school during the day also receive a free lunch, which is paid for by fund-raising events and vending profits. In addition, as an added incentive, many school events are followed by a performance given by the students.
More teacher time to communicate with families. The school encourages parents to drop in to see teachers during their daily planning time, 8:00 to 9:00 a.m., as well as throughout the school day. Teachers can use their 45-minute special period (during physical education, art, music, or media) to meet with parents. The principal ensures that there is enough support staff available to cover classes if a parent needs to meet with a teacher. "We don't ever want parents to feel unwelcome here, even if I have to go cover a class myself," she said.
Cox has made a concerted effort to dispel parents' negative images of school by offering events to make them feel welcome, providing parents with training on how to work with their children at home, and by training staff to support parents' efforts to work with their children.
Training parents to support learning at home. The school provides monthly events for families that include "make and take programs" as well as workshops; each of these events attracts 60 to 200 parents. This year, at the parents' request, the monthly programs will alternate, with one session being held in the evening and the next taking place in the afternoon to accommodate parents' different work schedules. Bilingual teachers attend each meeting to translate for Spanish-speaking family members. These sessions include a preparation night for the Stanford Achievement Test (which is the test the district uses for all students in grades 25), an open house, spelling contests, speech contests, Primary Reading Intervention (a reading program for first and second graders), game night, multi-cultural night, and authors' day (an event when students present books they have created). Committees consisting of teachers and parents select the topics and events for these monthly programs.
Additional parent training for 1996-97 includes free adult education classes offered at Cox two days per week through the Moore Mickens Adult Education program. The principal expects that participating in these classes will help parents gain the self-confidence they need to feel comfortable helping their children with academics and interacting with school staff.
Training staff to teach parents as well as students. All teachers from Cox attended a workshop during the summer of 1996 called Parents Exploring Teaching and Learning Styles (PETALS). This three-day workshop for teachers taught them how to identify individual learning styles so that teachers can then help both parents and students learn while having fun. A reading specialist who participated said that as a result of this workshop, "You understand why one person approaches learning one way and another approaches the same material in another way. That is important for teachers." Teachers have found the PETALS training useful both in the classroom and in working with parents.
Designing parent involvement around family needs. In response to the high rate of poverty and mobility among the migrant population, beginning with the 1996-97 academic year, Cox became a full-service school, capable of providing dental care, counseling, and health care to students and their families. Recently a new building where some of these services will be available was completed on the school's campus. Additional services will be available by referral. Parents participated in the design of the building, which houses the nurse and the health paraprofessional, the dentist, a parent involvement office, and migrant student recruiters. The building provides a kitchen for students and adults to use. School leaders hope that offering these health and social services to families will allow students to concentrate on achieving success in school.
In addition, Cox's School Advisory Council (SAC), composed of the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, regularly surveys all parents and school staff to identify the school's needs. Surveys taken during the 1995-96 school year identified the following as strategies to implement by 1998:
Dedicating resources to building school-family communication. Several school and district employees serve a liaison function between the school and parents. For example, the school employs a full-time parent involvement coordinator, who is a certified teacher with no classroom responsibilities. He assists classroom teachers in their efforts to promote and encourage parental involvement. Teachers who don't wish to make home visits by themselves can request that he accompany them on their visits. The parent involvement coordinator also leads an activity he designed to help build students' self-esteem and to promote strong morale among all members of the school community. Each week he takes pictures of paraprofessionals, parents, and teachers as they interact with students. These pictures are published by a local newspaper, along with a brief caption identifying them and describing what they do at the school and outside the school.
"[It is important] to create a comfort level that [will allow parents] to freely verbalize their concerns...."
Principal, Rodney B. Cox Elementary School
Including parents in school decision-making. In response to the new Title I requirement for school-parent compacts, the Cox SAC reviewed several other schools' compacts before designing their own. The goals for students, parents, and teachers during the upcoming year are outlined in the compact. For example, students agree to attend school and arrive on time, maintain a positive attitude, and respect themselves and the rights of others. The Cox staff accepts its responsibility not only to provide an orderly classroom and a high-quality instructional program that meets students' needs but also to assist families in meeting their children's needs. Parents accept the responsibility to send their children to school, check their work regularly, and communicate with teachers and students. The compact is signed each year, and recent student test scores are written on the top so that parents can assess their children's progress.
"At first it was difficult to get the parents to school unless there was a problem. They now see that we are not just providing a service; they are a vital part of their children's education... It is what we want."
Reading specialist, Rodney B. Cox Elementary School
Student test scores on the Stanford Achievement Test have increased over the past two years. In the 1994-95 school year, 31 percent of students scored at about the 50th percentile in math and 14 percent scored at that level in reading. In 1995-96, 61 percent of students scored above the 50th percentile in math and 34 percent scored above the 50th percentile in reading.