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Parental Involvement: Not Optional

Ilana Garon

Two weeks ago, the school I teach at held its bi-annual parent-teacher conferences, which were attended by the parents or guardians of approximately 40% of our student body. Of this group, the majority were parents of 9th graders—conference attendance always drops out after 9th grade, as though at age 15 kids stop needing their parents to supervise their education. As a 10th grade English teacher, I saw about 30% of my students' parents in total, and as usual, the parents who showed up were the ones I least "needed" to see: Their children, on the whole, are making excellent progress in my class. The parents of the kids who were failing my class—parents on whose answering machines I'd been regularly leaving messages, and to whom I'd been sending parental-notification letters—were typically AWOL.

There were two parents in particular I'd hoped to speak with, both of whose children are bright and hilarious but are experiencing sudden, precipitous declines in my class: One child recently stopped turning in any assignments, and another child left two consecutive quizzes completely blank. I called the first of these parents twice, leaving messages about missing assignments and both times ending my call with "and I hope to see you at parent-teacher conferences on Thursday or Friday." The second parent, I tried to contact on several provided phone numbers, but either the phone would ring eternally without being answered, or I'd get an automated message telling me the line had been disconnected. Letters to both these children's homes also went unacknowledged.

Naturally, neither of these children's parents showed up to conferences.

I know that many of the families in our high-needs school face enormous difficulties in their home-lives; however, education cannot happen without parental engagement. The parents whose children succeed in school not only provide up-to-date contact information, attend conferences, and return calls from teachers—they also provide their kids with assignment notebooks, check nightly (sometimes by cell phone, from the office) to see which teachers have given homework, monitor their children's progress in completing projects and studying for tests, and make appointments to come to the school when they are concerned.

Recently, our school began utilizing an online program called "Engrade," an Internet gradebook that students and parents can log into from their home computers; they can then check current grades in a given class, look for missing work, email teachers with any questions, and even download copies of assignments. The program makes it easy for busy parents to keep themselves informed about their children's progress—and all the more inexcusable for them to have no idea how their kids are doing in their classes, or to ask me when I call, "Why did you give my child this grade?"

A grade isn't "given"—it's earned by a combination of student work and parental supervision and support. The longer I teach, the more I see parental involvement as the strongest correlate to academic success. Parents need to empower themselves by being informed, engaged, and proactive partners with teachers in their children's education.

Ilana Garon has been teaching high school English (and math, in emergency situations) in the Bronx since she graduated from Barnard College in 2003.

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