Family engagement is both a mystery and a solution for schools and the educators who work there. Many are challenged to develop meaningful partnerships with parents and adult caregivers of students. Even more challenging is involving parents of color.
Traditionally, schools have operated from within a white middle class framework and a similarly standardized approach to teaching, and engaging students and their families. With the increasingly diverse student populations who attend U.S. public schools, staff are forced to rethink instructional strategies, curriculum content and context, cultural relevance and responsiveness. It is now with a sense of urgency that we purposefully develop broader perspectives by confronting all biases and immaculate perceptions. It is necessary to successfully partner with families [and students] who represent diversity and don’t respond well to ‘standardized’ views and strategies. Schools MUST engage these groups, and it is critical that they inform us prior to implementing programs, initiating supportive services and designing instruction.
“Parents hold the master key to the doors that lead to student achievement and school turnaround.”
Particularly vital is the input and involvement of lower income parents who, historically and systemically have been marginalized, culturally misunderstood. We can’t negate their importance as primary partners with schools or as strong advocates for their children. Realistically, the best way to develop a strengths-based mindset regarding parents of color, is to present opportunities for them to demonstrate their strengths within the school setting. Long-term challenges to schools have been ways to get parents to show up at school, other than when problems arise.
Parents of color have too often separated from our public schools with less than fond memories.Whether they graduated or dropped out, there is an overall negative past associated with k-12 schools, and before parents return to these settings with a sense of agency, schools and staff have specific tasks to perform. The first of these is acquiring cultural awareness and empathy.
Endeavor to erase any negative memories of school, and ensure that your students will enjoy the positive experiences that their parents did not. That’s the task of educators. Recognize probable past trauma and demonstrate that 21st Century educators are better. With a can-do attitude, parents and their children can actively engage and partner in learning. What’s needed is opportunity and access to information from trustworthy sources. Communicate sincerity and trustworthiness!
Show parents that we are aware of the past, examined it from both sides, and have learned important lessons. Demonstrate that history will not be repeated with their children. By altering mindsets, challenge and confront ‘immaculate perceptions’, using a better approach in all we say and do, parents can engage less reluctantly and less guarded.
Understand that for many parents, their past histories may be etched in memory and will influence their level of openness and trust of educators. This emotional ambivalence impacts their capacity to support their child’s learning process at home and willingness to collaborate with teachers. It is critical to believe we CAN change. Primarily needed is empathy-not sympathy and certainly not apathy. No more!
Educators at school CAN develop authentic and meaningful relationships with parents of color and all families School staff can start small, but dream big! Below are 21 suggested ways to get families into the school building voluntarily, and in the school spirit, as empowered members of the school community.
- They[parents] can share information with a student or entire class about a particular hobby.
- They can share information about a country they’ve visited or lived in. Parents can help bring geography and social studies lessons to life.
- They can help coach an athletic team. Put potential ‘soccer moms‘ and dads to work. Don’t forget about double dutch and stepping!
- They can help draw or paint a school display, be active participants in entire school or class theatrical productions… costumes, backdrops, hair and makeup or the design of classroom bulletin boards.
- They can help proctor exams, ensure silence, distribute supplies and writing utensils.
- They can accompany teachers on home visits. In fact, by conducting visits into the community this also helps build a stronger sense of community among parents- networking promotes social capital.
- They can help the school maintain a presence on Facebook. Almost everyone does Facebook, including today’s parents. Let them help establish a school profile. Try twitter, too!
- They can help the school create parent surveys and poll other parents on pertinent issues.
- They can reach out to community organizations to solicit collaborative partnerships, job shadowing, etc… Simply provide parents with bullet lists of key talking points and then follow-up.
- They can help translate informational materials into languages other than English. Parent-designed posters and flyers can be distributed throughout the neighborhood, advertising events, in the same manner as ‘lost pet’ posters.
- They can participate in ‘safe’ student walks to or from school.
- They can help coach other parents on ways to improve parenting skills. Each one, teach one!
- They can help with the school’s garden. Any ‘green thumbs’ or wannabes? Science teachers: should definitely involve parents to participate in green projects.
- They can lead community field trips for teachers and other school staff to help familiarize them with the area. Parents make ideal tour guides and cultural ambassadors for their community.
- They can share information with school staff regarding communication preferences, challenges and trends. Internet, grapevine, email, in person, telephone and so on….
- They can help staff learn key words and phrases in Spanish and/or other languages. It is so helpful in developing relationships with parents and students when staff can speak at least a few key words in their native languages.
- They can visit other schools and share information about engagement practices considered favorable to the school. Plan school or district-wide events to review innovative parent programming practices to potentially implement or adopt at your school[according to needs].
- They can help prepare proposals to outside organizations with donation requests. After making suggestions and assessing class-specific needs, parents can help pen letters to businesses like IBM, Apple and others asking for computers, and other needed resources.
- They can help with school safety and security efforts. During arrival or dismissal, parents can help monitor behavior, ensure students board the right bus, etc….
- They can assist with school-wide distribution of information to different classrooms and academic departments. Parents can retrieve papers from the office and deliver them to teachers. This familiarizes them with each teacher in the school, the general floor plan and helps to increase their visibility.
- They can help each classroom teacher’s engagement efforts by ensuring communication of parent-specific information. Teachers can appoint one parent each month to assist in class and at home with specific student assignments. Teachers can have parents help grade papers, by providing him/her with an answer key post-assignment. Parents return the graded papers to be reviewed by the teacher, and returned to parent for distribution to each student.
Be creative, empathetic, compassionate, authentic and non-judgmental. Get to know your students’ families and when they speak to us, actively listen to hear their messages. Give parents a voice in all things learning and education, for their voices inform us. Without families, educators at school will continue to struggle to do their jobs.
Remember that WE are all family; humans with different realities, but most often, with the same dreams! Avoid being color-blind. Be culture-conscious and family-friendly! Leverage the love parents have for their children and actively engage families of color.