As educators, we know that all of our efforts, though well-intentioned and well-studied, pale in comparison to the lessons taught by our students’ first teachers – their parents. Parental engagement in the educational process has definitively proven to help students in the realms of academic progress as well as social skills. And, while many view parental engagement as volunteer time within the school building, in fact, any sort of interaction that parents and children have regarding school is important for the student’s growth academically as well as emotionally and socially. As educators, it should be our goal to support this relationship. Sadly, however, the focus of laws like NCLB, which emphasize testing, and other related mandates change the focus of educators and administrators alike onto the numbers over the people who produce them – and that means parents as well as students. Despite a written clause in Title I legislation which requires any school district receiving over $500,000 in Title I aid to devote 1% of those funds to parental engagement, the lack of direction so far offered has led many schools to simply make half-hearted attempts at reaching out to parents. However, the Obama Administration seeks to change that trend and has thus sought to redefine parental engagement under the umbrella of Title I as well as devote a larger portion of those funds to cultivating it – 2% of all Title I funds in districts receiving $500,000 or more. This goal is not without its challenges however, as schools still struggle to figure out the most effective ways to encourage and support parents in taking an active role in their child’s education. What Is Parental Involvement? The original NCLB law leaves the meaning of parental involvement subject to interpretation. It merely states that it should be “regular, two-way and meaningful communication” which takes place between schools and parents in regards to both academics and other school activities. That’s why many overburdened districts have taken their Title I money and simply devoted it to mailings or refreshments at Back to School night events. However, educational experts define parental involvement as something much more complex. Steven Sheldon is the director of research for the National Network of Partnership Schools, located at Johns Hopkins University. His definition of parental involvement is a bit more exact, saying that it is essential that parents take an active role in the life of their student as well as the academic life of the school. As mentioned above, this brand of engagement is not limited to volunteer hours, but also relies on parents taking part in the educational process with their children. Helping with homework and school projects is one way to accomplish this, but the National Network of Partnership Schools also defines several others including involving parents in the decision-making process of the school. However, parents who lack the basic educational or linguistic abilities to communicate these ideas are at a severe disadvantage, which is why reform and a more comprehensive approach to parental involvement is needed. Introducing Parent University Boston Public Schools, which serves approximately 57,000 students, responded to the NCLB call for additional parental involvement in a new way. They call it Parent University. Offering classes on everything from the same academic subjects taught to students to general parenting tips, the purpose of this program is to provide parents with the tools and education that they currently lack in order to ultimately help their children to succeed. The sessions are even offered in several different languages, including Spanish, Chinese and Haitian. Parent University spans three day-long Saturday sessions which are offered throughout the year as well as several satellite sessions at additional times. In them, parents learn the importance of being a Teacher, Advocate, Leader, and Learner. At the end of the school year, there is also a Parent University graduation, which gives the parents an opportunity to celebrate their decision to engage in education and show their child their devotion to that ideal. The idea is to empower parents to take a more active role in their child’s academic life, which includes asking questions and aiding schools in reaching social and academic goals. Though only 500 parents participated in Parent University in its first year, that number has risen to 2,400 this year, showing the program’s success in getting parents to take that first step. What experiences have you had with trying to engage parents in school? Have you met resistance from administrators? Parents? Why?
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