How Parents Can Help Improve Low-Performing Schools

Some schools respond to parental engagement and some don't. Understanding which kind of school your child attends is key to getting involved.

by Andy Hinds
Originally Published: 
how parents can improve schools

Many parents of public school children take it as an article of faith that their involvement in public education is a good thing. The assumption is that not only will getting involved have a positive impact on our own children, but it will be beneficial for the school in general. But when it comes to the public school system, it turns out that idea isn’t as simple as you might think.

Professors Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris, authors of The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education, suggest that involvement as parents generally understand it — helping with homework, attending PTA meetings, volunteering in the classroom, regular communication with teachers — do not have a universally positive correlation with improved academic outcomes for their kids. In fact, according to Robinson and Harris’s meta-analysis of longitudinal studies, in many cases, more parental involvement is associated with lower student performance.

Robinson and Harris conclude that it’s unproductive for schools to assume their students’ parents should be more involved. They’re particularly concerned with federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which mandate that schools increase parental involvement. Rather, they suggest that “schools should move away from giving the blanket message to parents that they need to be more involved and begin to focus instead on helping parents find specific, creative ways to communicate the value of schooling, tailored to a child’s age.”

That’s a pretty low bar and doesn’t leave more ambitious parents much to work with. More importantly, is it even the right idea?

The School That No One Wanted

Phillip Troutman, of Falls Church, Virginia, has two daughters and works as an assistant professor at George Washington University. His kids’ elementary-school student body was 83 percent socioeconomically disadvantaged when they started.

Phillip Troutman and his wife moved to an inside-the-Beltway suburb of Washington, D.C., when their daughters were ages 4 and 1. They didn’t give much thought to the reputation of the local school — it was Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the richest counties with one of best school districts in the country.

So he was surprised to learn their neighborhood school, Graham Road Elementary, was in “the economically poorest elementary school zone in the county, a Title I school where 83 percent [of students] qualified for federal free or reduced-price meals.” The majority of the student population came from a low-income apartment complex near the school. Most were from immigrant families, with 54 percent receiving additional English-language help.

“The middle-class families didn’t understand and made assumptions about what was going on.”

The school’s reputation was “unfortunate,” and part of the school’s reputation was that parent involvement was extremely low. Troutman says that, while it was true that PTA meetings were sparsely attended and fundraising was weak, parents were involved in other ways: walking their kids to school, sitting down with them for the free breakfast, attending parent-teacher meetings and resource workshops, and so forth.

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Graham Road Elementary School, Falls Church, VA

Satisfied with what they had observed on their visits to the school, Troutman and his wife enrolled their daughter, becoming one of the few homeowner families in the neighborhood to do so.

Either Troutman or his wife attended almost every PTA meeting. Troutman, an avid cyclist, organized bike education and safety events, securing grant money to give hundreds of helmets to students. He also advocated for the families in negotiations with the school board when they were considering moving the school to a different site.

Their efforts certainly contributed to the school’s culture and started chipping away at its reputation as the school middle-class families should avoid. And perhaps most importantly, they acted as “evangels” for Graham Road, spreading the word that it wasn’t the scary place imagined by their neighbors who had never stepped foot in it.

“The big lesson for me,” Troutman says, reflecting on his family’s tenure at the school, “was that all this great stuff was already happening at the school, but the middle-class families didn’t understand and made assumptions about what was going on.”

The Lessons From Chicago

According to Anne Henderson, senior fellow in the Community Involvement Project at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Harris and Robinson were right to question what kinds of school engagement are really effective for parents; she just thinks they looked at the wrong data. “They were studying a bunch of government statistics, which are a mile wide and an inch deep,” she says.

So, what’s the right data? Henderson’s glad you asked.

In their book Organizing Schools for Improvement: Learning From Chicago, researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) came up with a list of best practices for schools at a socioeconomic disadvantage. Using a huge database of information on Chicago schools, they compared 100 elementary schools that had shown improvement against 100 elementary schools that had not.

The results of the CCSR study are dramatic, according to Henderson: “Schools that were strong in the area of parent-community ties were four times as likely to improve as those that were weak in this area.”

Still, parent-community ties are just one factor that the study cites, so it would be oversimplifying to simply hold it up as proof that parental engagement with local schools is a worthwhile and effective means of improving those schools.

Phillip Troutman certainly wouldn’t — he considers his own contributions to be pretty modest and can point to the other four CCSR factors being fairly well-established at Graham Road. While that may be a fair assessment, it raises the question: What happens when those other factors are not nearly as present, and the parents’ contributions are a little more … vigorous?

Why Parents Are Only Part of the Solution

Annenberg’s Henderson cautions that collaboration between parents and schools is not a panacea. The other four factors identified in the CCSR study — strong leadership, professional capacity, student-centered learning climate, and instructional guidance — need to be interwoven. That’s important, says Henderson, but even more important is an understanding on the part of the administration and teachers that parental engagement is a two-way street. “I’ve never seen a school make big improvements without actively working toward making parents their partners in educating the kids,” she says.

Vito Borrello, the executive director of the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement, stresses that parents aren’t solely responsible for building relationships with the school. The administration and teachers need to lay the groundwork. And parental engagement alone, without the other factors identified by the CCSR research, is “minimally impactful.”

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That’s not a minor point. Improving any one of the CCSR’s five factors can tax an under-resourced school, and effective community outreach can be resource-intensive and challenging. So what happens when a parent tries to engage and winds up rebuffed?

The School That Wasn’t Interested

Nick Downey of South Bend, Indiana, has three kids and works as a local TV news director. His son’s elementary school student body was 78 percent socioeconomically disadvantaged when he started.

Nick Downey and his family moved to South Bend, Indiana, halfway through his son’s kindergarten year. The boy’s previous school was solid, with an active PTA, high parental involvement, and “great” teachers. Downey says that, even though they were moving their son into a district with a worse reputation, they felt “very confident that he would have a good experience, and grow every day.”

At the new school, they found widespread behavior and classroom management problems that Downey felt sharply detracted from the learning environment. Much of the class time was dedicated to a basic “good citizen” program called CORE (Civility, Order, Respect, Excellence), which Downey feels didn’t really reach the students it targeted.

He felt that his energy would be better spent on his own kids than on a school he thought was practically hopeless.

Despite the limitations of his work schedule, Downey tried to get involved in the school. He wanted to attend PTA meetings, but it was difficult to even find out when they were held. When he did figure it out, the meetings would be canceled as often as not. When he offered to volunteer in the classroom or on field trips, he was met with confusion. The school didn’t have an established protocol for parent volunteers. And, in some instances, he was actively discouraged from doing so.

“At the end of the day,” Downey says, “the level of energy that I have to commit to helping my kids is finite, and it gets to be overwhelming to try to spread it across a whole school. We had the chance to buy a house in a better school district, and so we took it.”

Downey expresses no regrets about moving his family to a different district. And his kids, who had become as frustrated with their school as their parents, are excited about the move too.

How to Figure Out the Kind of School You’re Dealing With

How can you tell whether the school in your zone is on the verge of a turnaround or bogged down in a toxic educational tar pit? According to Henderson, there are ways to gauge school dynamics that are less measurable than academic performance. These are things like the attitudes of the teachers and administrators toward the families at the school (and vice versa), and the degree of engagement with the local community.

“Ask if you can tour the school. If they say no, it’s either a ‘Fortress School’ or a ‘Come-If-We-Call’ school.”

“You can just feel the school’s culture when you walk in,” she says. “Is it a lively, vibrant atmosphere where the kids are happy and the adults are smiling? Are the front office staff friendly and inviting with parents? Or is there a 4-foot tall desk separating them from the silent parents and students on the other side? Are there signs all over that say ‘No Trespassing,’ ‘Drug-Free Zone,’ ‘Don’t Get Pregnant’? That tells kids what kind of expectations the adults have for them. Ask if you can tour the school. If they say no, it’s either a ‘Fortress School’ or a ‘Come-If-We-Call’ school.”

The other easy-to-identify characteristic of a school you can work with is whether or not the onus of engagement rests only with the parents. The administration should have networks in place to help families build relationships with the school.

Based on all these criteria, the school Nick Downey fled might best be described as having a “Come-to-the-Fortress-If-We-Call” vibe.

But when it comes to parental engagement with a local school, commitment goes both ways. In researching this article, I found the parents who successfully engaged with their schools consistently shared one key trait: a strong investment in their neighborhood.

Borrello points to a specific kind of involvement that he’s seen bear fruit time and again when middle-class, educated parents with resources and connections engage with schools: “They can be ‘parent ambassadors,’ ” he says. “Whether they’re acting as coordinators, parent leaders, connecting with parents in particular communities and cultures … that’s building bridges to parent involvement. That’s leveraging relationships other than the relationships the school may have.”

That kind of grassroots organizing is only sustainable if you’re as engaged with your community as you hope to be with your school. Without it, the math on whether your family should stay or go will always add up in favor of finding a place where you think you’ll be happier.

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