How to Increase Parental Engagement in Urban Education, Part 1
In my 30 years as an educator, I have never met a parent who did not want the best for his/her child. It is always constructive to view families within their contextual reality and assume that the majority do the best that they can. I have met parents, however, who did not always know how to implement what was best for their children, even if their attitude or approach was appropriate.
For most of my career, I have worked in urban school districts that mirrored the demographics of typical urban settings within western society. I say "typical" to satisfy average research-based and statistical descriptions of urban communities in North America that over-represent single-parent homes, crime, poverty, and blended families.
Although I have observed a plethora of families in urban settings, I bear witness to strength, tenacity and commitment among many of these families who have learned to turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones while nurturing strong and vibrant children. These are the types of parents most expected to be engaged in their students' overall educational process. Many teachers, however, will testify that within urban community schools, parental participation is lacking and there is a growing need to increase both parental engagement and involvement.
The Impact of My Particular Experience as a Black Male Educator
For the record, despite much media exposure, all of urban America is not BLACK. However, of those who are ethnically and racially defined as African-American and/or Black Americans who live in urban communities and attend urban schools: many of their struggles resonate with me.
As a Black male educator with a doctorate, I am often respected, appreciated, feared, or considered suspicious; it depends on who is doing the observation and assessment [and why]. When I am respected and esteemed by Black urban parents it is not merely because I am Black, but because of my attitude, understanding, knowledge, sensitivity, concern, straightforward approach, and ultimately my belief in their abilities.
It is an age old principle that still works in 2014 and postulates the importance of faith and belief in others (even when they do not believe in themselves). It is respecting their struggle and not blaming the victim, but helping people be accountable, despite struggle or discrimination. Mentoring and modeling high expectations for parental engagement is a benefit, but also has the proclivity to catapult at-risk parents who are not engaged in their child's education to a whole new hemisphere of responsibility. I know. I have witnessed it.
Parent Engagement Vs. Parent Involvement
I believe that if parents knew the power of engagement in their child(ren's) education, they would build a tent in their child's pocket and camp out there. They would immediately notice progress with their child whether they had available time to visit the school or not.
Parent Involvement is defined as the amount of time parents volunteer or visit the school while I define Parent Engagement as the amount of support, communication, respect, and commitment parents demonstrate for their child's schooling. For example, as a principal I told my parents, "I understand if you can't physically visit the school, and we can conduct parent-teacher conferences by telephone, Skype, email, etc."
I needed my students' parents to be engaged by ensuring first and foremost that their children attended school every day unless they were ill, obeyed their teachers, and worked hard. Two primary variables that distinguish urban and suburban schools are poor attendance and discipline problems. When parental engagement is active, and there is collaboration between school and home, then attendance and discipline are usually improved.
Setting the Tone in the Home for Respecting Teachers
Most people may agree that parents are children's first teachers and inadvertently determine how their children will respect other adults. As a young child I knew early on that I had better show respect and say "Yes Ma'am, no Ma'am" and "yes Sir, no Sir" to my parents, our pastor, and to my teachers. My teacher was held to the same level of respect and honor as the pastor! "You don't talk back to the teacher, Tony," they would say. "Are you crazy?"
As I look back I see the connection clearly and what my parents were modeling. Although I am old-school and taught my children to have certain mannerable tendencies, I am not saying students must always say "Yes Sir" and "No Sir." But I am saying that when parents exemplify respect for the school at home and are in collaboration with their children's teachers, there is certain behavior expected of the students because they know their parents/guardians are working with the school. This type of expectation encouraged me to respect and obey my teachers or else deal with the consequences at home.
Again, the connection is clear: a student's behavior and attendance is strongly correlated with parental engagement, thus the likelihood of student achievement follows closely behind.
In Part 2 of this topic, I will explore some root reasons for the lack of parental engagement in some urban communities. I will also provide specific strategies to encourage active parental engagement through a collaborative process among educators and parents.
DR. ANTHONY L. MOORE is the Assistant Superintendent for elementary education with the Raytown Quality Schools in Kansas City, Missouri. Moore has nearly 30 years of experience in urban education as a principal, district leader, university professor, chief diversity officer, and educational consultant. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @aanmoore22.