"You know parents are the same. No matter time nor place. They don't understand that us kids are going to make some mistakes. So to you, all the kids all across the land, there's no need to argue, parents just don't understand!" – The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Parenting is a critical aspect of life. Parents influence how children learn, live, play, process things, interact with others, develop, grow and ultimately succeed in life. Parents are also our children’s first educators. But family engagement in school is reported and discussed as a nationwide dilemma, causing us to ask why more parents aren’t actively present and engaged in their child’s education.
Further, when we do seek out stories and engagement from parents, it is often to support narratives about the numbers of children being suspended, expelled, labeled as failing, pushed in special education or remedial programs and ultimately being failed by schools.
Recent meetings about stopping school closings in my home state of Georgia have been heavily attended by Atlanta residents, alumni, community organizations and students, but very few parents. Some argue that the common denominator between failing schools, the school to prison pipeline, defiant behavior and communities are parents. Everyone is asking: where are the parents?
I would like to challenge educational leaders, advocates and stakeholders to consider the ways that parents are connecting to the academic success of their students, not the failures. To celebrate and empower parents where they are and help them build more effective successful pathways for all students.
There are many ways parents are involved in their children’s education that largely goes unnoticed. Parents register their children for school and complete district paperwork, transport their children to school, ensure children have uniforms or school clothing, assist in homework and projects, volunteer at schools and so much more.
These areas may seem small to some, but for parents who battle extreme circumstances effecting livelihood, safety and security, a task like getting a child to school safely is one of the most difficult and intimate moments of any given day.
In order to truly empower parents, school districts and education advocates like all of us can:
Listen first to parents and then help them find their voice, instead of trying to speak for them.
Provide communication to parents about needs and expectations in a timely manner.
Invest in providing transportation to school and district family engagement events for students from all areas.
Provide child care at PTA meetings, parent teacher conference days, enrollment days and report card/curriculum nights.
Engagement is not a cookie cutter program designed solely for happy, positive moments. Intentional engagement causes us to look at what success look like for all families and the barriers that prevent it; asking questions about how schools and districts can help the parents they serve find success so that the students they serve are also successful. Too often success is tied to a standardized test, the number of parents who attend a workshop or funds donated to a school.
In my year as a YouCAN Advocate, I plan to design a family engagement program for a school that helps all families succeed. I don’t believe that parents don’t understand how to be engaged, but that schools, districts and advocates sometimes don’t understand the needs of parents and families as well as we think we do. Engagement is a two-way street!