Engaging Parents to Engage the Kids

This past March, I facilitated a day-long series of activities for parents as part of the annual GEAR UP Alliance Institute for a College-Going Culture here in Louisville, an event that draws some 800 educators, parents and students from throughout Kentucky to learn about and develop ideas to prepare traditionally underserved students for postsecondary education. Working with my educator colleagues to design these parent sessions and as a parent myself who was always very involved in the education of my children, I spent a lot of time thinking about how and why parents become engaged in the school lives of their children.

In my case, my own parents were role models:  Both my mother and my father took an active interest in everything I did, in and out of the classroom.  What I did in school each day was Topic 1 at the dinner table every night.  What were we studying?  What supplies did I need for school the next day? Graded papers, tests and report cards were presented and discussed.  Assignments that were difficult (read: math) were analyzed:  What did I not understand?  How might I approach the teacher for help?  Could Mom or Dad help me at home?  (When timed arithmetic tests made me nervous as a second grader, Dad made up tests for me to practice at home.  “See?”  he’d say as I gradually calmed down, “You know how to do this!”)

My parents eagerly attended school meetings and events.  They served as room parents, field trip and school dance chaperones, and members of the parent-teacher association.  They knew my principals and teachers, and my principals and teachers knew them.  As a teenager, I responded with classic rolled eyes to their ongoing presence–but loved that they cared enough to be so involved.  As I prepared to apply for college, Mom and Dad–Depression-era kids, neither of whom had graduated from college–were involved in the process every step of the way.

And so my husband and I likewise focused on our son’s and daughter’s school lives–discussing, advising, supporting, applauding, meeting, advocating, and taking active roles both in and outside of school.  “We’re all on the same team,” we used to say to our kids’ teachers on conference day.  “Let them know what you expect, and we’ll back you up at home.”  When it came to the college preparation and application process, we were on it like peanut butter on jelly:  We read, asked, debated and discussed right along with our kids, supported their decisions about where to apply, and then made sure they had what they needed to succeed.  Our involvement was good for our son and daughter, but not incidentally, also a tremendous pleasure for us.  (Our kids were great eye rollers, too–but also always let us know, sometimes well after the fact, that our presence had been greatly appreciated.)  We were fortunate to have as a blueprint the example set by our own parents, reinforced by our own good personal experiences with education, making schools comfortable places for us to be.

As an educator, parent or both, what do you see as the facilitators and the barriers to parent engagement in the education of their children?  How have you personally reached out or been drawn in?  What would make the process easier or more inviting–for educators and for parents?  If parents could ask their children’s principals and teachers anything at all to help them become more involved in the school lives of their youngsters, what would those questions and requests be–and what should be the answers?  I will report your responses in a future post, and will incorporate your suggestions in the planning for the 2011 GEAR UP Alliance Institute parent strand.

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