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Boosting Parent Engagement in Majority African American High Schools

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What gets in the way of parental involvement at inner city high schools with predominantly African American students?

Terrinieka Williams, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, studied this issue, and is the lead author of "Parental Involvement (and Uninvolvement) at an Inner-City High School," recently published in Urban Education.

She believes administrators and teachers at such schools could increase parental engagement by looking at two areas.

"First, I think they should not place blame on parents. When people feel they're being targeted for not pulling their weight or causing a problem, they're not going to want to [participate]," Williams told K-12 Parents & the Public. "Parents have complex lives, just like teachers and principals have complex lives."

"Second, if they do want parents to come to schools, they want to be sure to create a space that is welcoming and inviting for parents," she said. "There are so many different small things in the school environment that suggest, 'If you're an outsider, we don't want you here.'"

For instance, when parents enter through a metal detector and are escorted to the office—sometimes by school personnel who don't greet them warmly—it can leave a negative impression, according to Williams.

"That's not to let parents off the hook," she said, acknowledging that there are uninvolved parents who are fed up or not interested in their children's education. "I'm just not convinced at all that that's the majority of the parents."

To do their research, Williams and co-author Bernadette Sanchez, an associate professor at DePaul University, interviewed 15 parents and 10 staff members at a large Midwestern high school.

"I was actually surprised at how open parents and school personnel were. They were honest about their strengths and some of their shortcomings, parents and teachers both," Williams said. Some teachers told her, "It's not all the parents."

Williams believes both parents and school professionals could benefit from having conversations along these lines: "Let's figure out how we could work together. This isn't necessarily working for me, and I think you can help. But I don't know how. Can we think about how?"

Some parents felt like every time they went to school it was to respond to something negative happening about their child.

In the Urban Education article, Williams and Sánchez identified five major themes about the meanings of parental involvement:


  • Participation at School;
  • Being There Outside of School;
  • Communication (between adults and children, and among adults at school);
  • Achieve and Believe (involving parents' aspirations for their children, and for more than half, a belief that God's plan was at work in their students' outcomes), and
  • Village Keepers (who act as surrogate parents to help out other people's children).

As for "uninvolvement," three themes emerged:


  • Unconcerned Parents (with low expectations for their children and indifference toward the overall well-being of their children);
  • Busy Parents, (who wanted to be involved, but whose employment and/or other family obligations prevented participation);
  • Previously Involved Parents (who, despite their efforts, had children in consistently negative situations with the school.)

Williams invites those interested in her research to contact her at tewillia@jhsph.edu.

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