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

Successful Local Approaches (continued)

Bridging School-Family Differences

Language and cultural differences as well as differences in educational attainment separating families and school staff can make communication and family participation in school activities difficult. For example, survey data show that parents who do not speak English at home are less likely to participate in school-based activities, and more likely to participate in fewer activities over the course of the school year (U.S. Department of Education, 1997). Still, many Title I schools with innovative leadership and creative, hard-working staff have found ways to bridge these differences and cultivate meaningful school-family partnerships.

Reaching Out to Parents With Little Formal Education

Schools today work with a diverse group of parents, some of whom may not easily understand all of the written communications sent to them, and may see themselves as unprepared to help their children with homework or schoolwork. In addition, parents who have bad memories about their own experiences in school may have trouble helping their children with schoolwork, especially in subject areas that they themselves did not master. Among the schools we studied, some creative solutions to this barrier included parent meetings that review activities non-readers can carry out with their children to promote literacy.

At South Delta Elementary, school staff focus on home learning activities for non-reading parents by using newspapers. For example, parents and children look at ads and make price comparisons or discuss the weather, which often includes pictorial representations of the weekly forecast. At Turnbull, the bilingual parent involvement coordinator makes telephone calls to relay written information about student progress to non-readers on a weekly basis.

Even for parents who read well, the prospect of helping with their children's schoolwork is often daunting. Many parents are haunted by their own memories of school, and are uncomfortable in a setting that brings those memories back. One school district hired a third-party contractor to operate a Mom and Pop Mobile to expand its outreach to include those parents who are uncomfortable in school settings. The Mom and Pop Mobile specifically targets parents of private school students receiving Title I services. Through the traveling resource center, these parents learn effective parent involvement strategies, such as how to help students engage in learning activities at home.

Parents may also doubt their ability to help their children master new content, especially in math and science. Schools can help allay these fears by giving parents a chance to experience first hand what their children are learning in an environment that is pleasant and non-threatening.

For Parents with Little Formal Education, Literacy Can Be a Family Affair: Clinton Kelly Elementary School

Portland, Oregon

According to Clinton Kelly's principal, for as long as anyone can remember, Clinton Kelly students have been among the poorest in the city. The Portland neighborhood surrounding the school, know as Lents, suffers from frequent evictions, high unemployment and crime rates, and the principal estimates that two out of three Kelly students have an immediate family member or close relative in jail or who has been incarcerated. The principal realized that if she were ever going to connect with students she would need to reach out to their parents. She began to reevaluate the ways teachers and other school staff communicated with families.

This principal also soon realized the futility of activities such as sending home newsletters encouraging parents to read to their children, when many parents in the community couldn't read or couldn't read well. To reach those parents with little confidence in themselves or their language skills, the Family Stories Project was born.

The Family Stories Project makes literacy a family affair. Family Stories helps parents improve their reading and writing skills by developing their own oral and written family histories and sharing them with their children. About 30 parents meet for two hours weekly to share written stories or poems, write in their journal, check out library books to read with their children at home, or join their school-age children in language development activities. For example, parents often make up a story with their child, which the parent writes and the child illustrates. To date, Kelly has published two volumes of Family Stories, which have been distributed to parents and teachers--who integrate the stories into their curricula--as well as to the State Department of Education, university faculty members, and other Title i schools upon request.

Because the 30 women who participate in the project have about 90 children among them, the principal estimates that about 120 adults and children have benefitted from Family Stories. This year, the Family Stories parents and children will keep a portfolio of work to reflect on their development over the year.

According to one mother, "My daughter loves me to come to hear and tell stories.... She has learned to become a story teller herself. [She] will spend at least an hour telling stories to her brother and teaching him how to tell stories too."

Breaking the Language Barrier

Fifty-five percent of Title I schools report that they serve parents with limited English skills (U.S. Department of Education, 1997). Although differences in language between parents and school staff often exist in large urban areas with growing immigrant populations such as Imperial Beach, California, or Cleveland, Ohio, they also challenge schools in rural areas such as Alamo Navajo Community School, where the entire reservation community is Navajo and only 35 to 40 percent of the school's professional staff are Navajo.

Most strategies for addressing language barriers include some form of bilingual services for communicating with families about school programs and children's progress. Many schools successfully use bilingual parent liaisons, instructional aides, counselors, and parent volunteers to reach out to families through a variety of school-home communications as well as parent workshops or classes.

Translation services. Several schools we studied provide translation services for parent involvement activities including school-home communications, parenting training, and participation in decision-making and school governance.

Workshops and classes in parents' first language. Several districts and schools also conduct bilingual workshops or classes designed to provide parents with information and ideas about how to help students at home with homework and other curriculum-related activities. At Turnbull Learning Academy, parent training on topics such as helping children with homework are offered in Spanish and English. The South Bay Union Elementary School District offers a wide variety of year-round parenting classes in several languages. Parent training that ultimately helps students learn at home during the non-school hours often includes adult ESL classes. The Family Resource Center at Charter Oak School, the Buffalo Parent Center, and Turnbull Learning Academy regularly offer ESL classes for parents and other adults.

Promoting Cultural Understanding

Although breaking the language barrier between English speakers and those whose primary language is other than English constitutes a giant step towards increasing parent involvement in their children's education, building bridges with families of different cultures and backgrounds also deserves special attention if all families are to feel comfortable participating in school activities. In many schools, a home-school liaison can play a crucial role in reaching out to parents of different backgrounds and building trust between home and school. Usually the home-school liaison is a parent who lives in the neighborhood or someone else with close ties to both the school and the community. Because the home-school liaison is closely identified with the community and shares the same cultural background with parents, he or she is well-equipped to reach out to parents and invite them to become more involved in their children's education. Through the home-school liaison, schools can build relationships with parents founded on understanding and trust.

In addition, many schools offer training to parents and school staff aimed specifically at bridging cultural differences between home and school. Some of these efforts include:


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