Special Report

How Parents Can Help Improve Low Performing Schools

“Where are you going to send them to school?”

If your kids are beyond the 4th trimester/insensate blob stage, you have probably heard — or used — this ice-breaker countless times at the playground, at daycare or preschool pickup, or at your local kid-friendly brewpub.

I certainly did.

In 2004, my wife and I got a good deal on a house in North Park, a San Diego neighborhood that was hit hard in the 60s and 70s by the rise of the shopping mall, an influx of refugees and immigrants, and the resulting white flight, but it seemed to be rebounding. Like many of the new homeowners in the area, we removed the security bars from our windows and high-fived each other as we logged onto Zillow every day. Pretty soon, there were trendy restaurants and artisanal donut shops popping up next to the payday loan businesses and head shops.

san-diego-neighborhood-schools

When my wife became pregnant with twins 5 years later, we doubled down on the neighborhood with an 800-square-foot addition onto our 800-square-foot 1916 shotgun shack. We couldn’t afford a bigger home in the area and had no appetite for the suburbs. We were invested in our neighborhood, financially, and personally.

But we knew next to nothing about our neighborhood schools.

When those conversations started, I hemmed and hawed, waiting for my interlocutors to tell me where their kids were going. Some were trying to “choice into” a nearby school with a good reputation. Some were applying to charter schools with niche gimmicks like German immersion. Some planned on sending their kids to Catholic school. I even met a group of moms who wanted to start their own charter school. But no one I spoke to considered enrolling their children at Jefferson Elementary, the default zone school.

“No liberal parent would admit those demographics were unsettling, but I’ll cop to it: They were.”

I heard a few people describe Jefferson as “tough” or “ghetto,” but its problem wasn’t so much a bad reputation as a nonexistent one. Local parents didn’t bother to visit Jefferson, but wrote it off based on the limited information available online. That included middling test scores and a student population that was almost 80 percent Hispanic (with no other “numerically significant” ethnicities represented), 50 percent English Language Learners, and nearly 100 percent “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” No liberal parent would admit those demographics were unsettling, but I’ll cop to it: They were.

How To Improve Your Kids School

One meeting led to another, and eventually we formed a splinter group of idealists. Before going further, it’s worth addressing the elephant in the room: We knew we were perceived by some in our neighborhood as gentrifiers, poised to inflict collateral damage on the families already enrolled at the school. The ethnic makeup of our group was actually diverse; the vast majority were mixed race couples, with African Americans, Latinos, and Asians all represented. In fact, the only white couple in the group had adopted African American kids. Still, we were relatively new, of higher-than-average income, and — most damningly — there’s ample research proving that the forces of gentrification usually wreak havoc on neighborhood schools.

That left us in a damned-if-we-did and damned-if-we-didn’t situation. But here’s the thing: Almost all of that research is about what happens when gentrifying families opt out of their neighborhood schools. Our group of Concerned Hipster Parents wanted to do the exact opposite. And, if we did, surely Jefferson could become the kind of school that no parent would have any reservations sending their kids to, right?

Does Parental Involvement In Schools Make A Difference?
The people in our little group of Concerned Hipster Parents took it as an article of faith that our involvement would have a positive impact not only on our own children, but on the school in general. It turns out that idea isn’t as uncontroversial as you might think.

Parents-speaking-with-teacher

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.

“The people in our little group of Concerned Hipster Parents took it as an article of faith that our involvement would have a positive impact.”

The clickbait headlines their research generated (“Parental Involvement Doesn’t Help Kids in School” “Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework”) do a disservice to the considerable demographic nuance of the work. Their broad-strokes finding — that helping kids with homework doesn’t seem to improve their academic performance, for example — is confounding. And their finding that it works for certain students of certain ethnicities at certain stages, but not for others (and not for any of them over the long term) is downright baffling.

In fact, the only things that Robinson and Harris found broadly and consistently improved individual student performance were these: “Expecting your child to go to college; discussing activities children engage in at school; … and requesting a particular teacher for your child.”

Needless to say, those are boxes your average Concerned Hipster Parent already checks every morning before sending their kid out the door.

In a poll conducted by Phil Delta Kappa and Gallup, Americans give their local schools much higher marks than they give schools nationally.

In a poll conducted by Phil Delta Kappa and Gallup, Americans give their local schools much higher marks than they give schools nationally.

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 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, VA, has 2 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, of Falls Church, VA, has 2 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, DC, when their daughters were ages 4 and one. They didn’t give much thought to the reputation of the local school — it was Fairfax County, VA, 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,” he says. “We heard that test scores were terrible, that the school focused mainly on teaching English to immigrants, that there was extremely high student turnover, and that white kids felt ‘uncomfortable’ there.” Troutman is white, but his wife and their kids are Chinese.

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.

How to improve elementary school

Graham Road Elementary School

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. Troutman doesn’t feel that his involvement was remarkable, but by simply deploying some of his family’s resources and connections, he helped raise the school’s profile.

Since then, Graham Road has been, in Troutman’s words, “normalized.” The majority of the neighborhood families, whether renters or homeowners, send their children there, and it has been ranked in the top 10 percent of Fairfax County schools for the past several years.

“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 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.”

child-school-1st-grade

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. They were able to identify 5 primary factors that separated the schools that improved their test scores from the ones that stagnated or declined.

  • School leadership
  • Professional capacity
  • Student-centered learning climate
  • Instructional guidance
  • Parent-community ties

The results of the CCSR study are dramatic, according to Henderson: “Schools that were strong in the area of parent-community ties were 4 times as likely to improve as those that were weak in this area.”

likelihood-reading-improvements-chicago-study

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.

Phil Troutman certainly wouldn’t — he considers his own contributions to be pretty modest, and can point to the other 4 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 parent’s contributions are a little more … vigorous?

The School That Didn’t Know What Hit It

Pamela Grundy Shamrock Elementary

Pamela Grundy, of Charlotte, NC, has one son and works as a historian. Her son’s elementary school student body was 90 percent socioeconomically disadvantaged when he started.

Imagine a spectrum of parental involvement in schools. Most people fall on the “I usually try to make sure my kid goes to school” end. Phil Troutman is toward the middle, around “I pay attention to what’s happening at school and do what I can to help out.” Then, on the far end of the spectrum, labeled “I WILL TRANSFORM THIS SCHOOL INTO A PLACE ANY PARENT WOULD BE PROUD TO ENROLL THEIR CHILDREN,” is Pamela Grundy, of Charlotte, NC.

Shamrock Gardens Elementary School

Shamrock Gardens Elementary School

As a freewheeling, childless couple, Grundy and her husband didn’t concern themselves much with the reputation of the local schools in their affordable, central, and increasingly popular neighborhood where they bought a home. But once their only child, Parker, came along, they learned that Shamrock Gardens, the local elementary school, had not benefited much from the rising cachet or real estate values of their neighborhood.

“It was terrible,” she says of the school’s reputation, “and deservedly so. The performance was very low, the building was a disaster, the test scores were among the lowest in the district.” She allows that the school was a “pleasant” place — there wasn’t a lot of yelling or bullying — but teacher turnover was high and the teachers “didn’t pretend it was an intellectually or academically stimulating environment.”

“The school’s transformation has been dramatic — a new library, thriving gardens used for instruction, an active PTA, and a fully staffed school.”

She began volunteering at the school while her son was still in preschool, and soon realized that the teaching focus was mainly on raising standardized test scores. Grundy and her husband, graduates of prestigious high schools and universities, felt that the degree of academic rigor was “unacceptable.” Unlike virtually all of their middle-class neighbors, they decided that, instead of enrolling their kids elsewhere, they would work to bring the benefits they had experienced as students to the kids at Shamrock.

Parent-meeting-school-improvement

Grundy went into full-on political activist mode, working with the district to adjust the curriculum in an effort earn the school a “partial magnet” designation for gifted students. She canvassed the neighborhood to gauge interest, organized a letter-writing campaign, lobbied the school board, and convinced the superintendent to support the changes. Ultimately, the school board voted “yes” on the proposal.

The “partial” aspect of the new model was enormously important. Troutman and Grundy prove that gentrifying parents can positively impact their neighborhood schools; unfortunately, there’s more depressing research that suggests even that impact can be net negative over time. That’s because, when underperforming schools turn a corner, it can result in a deluge of gentrifying families who push incumbent families out. The “partial” program only allowed enrollment of a certain percentage of students from outside the zone.

parent-engagement-public-private
In addition to getting the partial magnet program in place, Grundy reanimated — and led — the defunct PTA chapter, which helped raise funds to provide the school with enrichment activities like after-school clubs and a gardening program.

Grundy first became involved in Shamrock Gardens more than 10 years ago. According to a 2014 UNC Charlotte Urban Institute study, Shamrock’s composite grade on the North Carolina “End-of-Year” tests went from 44 percent in the pre-Grundy era to 67 percent post-Grundy.

More importantly, the study’s author notes that “the school’s transformation has been dramatic — a new library, thriving gardens used for instruction, an active PTA, and a fully staffed school. Both white and black middle-class parents are enrolling their children for the first time in decades, particularly from the more affluent neighborhoods within the school attendance zone, therefore creating a more racially and socioeconomically diverse learning environment.”

Parents-volunteering-at-schools

Why Parents Are Only Part Of The Solution
Annenberg’s Henderson cautions that collaboration between parents and school is not a panacea. The other 4 factors identified in the CCSR study — strong leadership, professional capacity, student-centered learning climate, and instructional guidance — need to be interwoven.

Pamela Grundy’s level of engagement may have been unprecedented at Shamrock Gardens, but the school was open to the reforms she spearheaded, and she ultimately won the unequivocal support of the school board. In her and Phil Troutman’s case, the they found willing partners in the school’s administration and teachers.

So what happens when a parent tries to engage and winds up rebuffed?

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 2-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.”

That’s not a minor point. Improving any one of the CCSR’s 5 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, South Bend Indiana

Nick Downey, of South Bend IN, has 3 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, IN 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.”

kindergarten-kids-indiana

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 PTO meetings, but it was difficult to even find out when they were held. When he did figure it out, the meetings would be cancelled 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.

pto-meeting-fatherly

Rebuffed from engaging with the school, Downey instead focused on providing enrichment and educational experiences at home that he felt his son (and later his daughter) were missing out on at school. He got the impression that most of their classmates did not receive similar attention at home, and he felt that his energy would be better spent on his own kids than on a school he thought was practically hopeless.

“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.”

south-bend-school

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
So, let’s say the school in your zone, the one your kids could walk or ride bikes to, doesn’t seem so great based on the limited metrics available on the district website and the unreliable neighborhood chatter. How can you tell whether it’s on the verge of a turnaround — just waiting for some enthusiastic families to push it past the tipping point — 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.”

drug-free-school-zone

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. By his own admission, Downey was just passing through his South Bend neighborhood — it didn’t hold any particular appeal to him and his family.

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.

Meanwhile, Back At Jefferson Elementary
When my wife and I first toured our neighborhood school, it immediately passed Henderson’s smell test. The tour was led by an enthusiastic and energetic principal, the students were happy and engaged with the teachers, and the teachers welcomed us into lively classrooms. The daunting stats I found online were hard to remember when faced by a few hundred kids who clearly appeared to feel safe and cared for.

School-bus-girl

Along with a few other middle-class families, we enrolled our kids, and Our Concerned Hipster Parents splinter group went legit. We became a 501 (c)(3) non-profit foundation, which means we can raise funds and spend them as needed without dealing with the PTA (an excellent organization, to be sure, but not very nimble or open to ideas like throwing a homebrew competition as a school fundraiser).

I’m the chief bottle washer. (Seriously, one night I washed 100 donated water bottles by hand.)

My girls are about to start their third year at Jefferson. In that time I’ve morphed from a part-time stay-at-home-dad to a self-employed carpenter/writer. I’m busy but flexible, and while it would be a stretch to say I’ve become a Pamela Grundy-style force of nature, I do wear a lot of hats: I’m currently president of the foundation, social media/PR guy, grant writer, community outreach officer, volunteer organizer, jog-a-thon chair, and chief bottle washer. (Seriously, one night I washed 100 donated water bottles by hand.)

Exploring the big-picture implications of parental engagement in schools, and wading through contradictory research on what does and doesn’t work is necessarily reductive. In the same way that most teachers abhor one-size-fits-all solutions in the classroom because their kids come in all shapes and sizes, as a parent you can’t take an academic’s word for how your kid’s school is doing. You have to be there.

kid-school-yard-parents

Our foundation measures success in 2 ways: What does our fundraising provide the kids? And how has the enrollment been affected? On the former front, there are now after school clubs like Maker Club, Art Club, and LEGO Club; field trips to the ballet and symphony; and a fledgling gardening program.

As a parent you can’t take an academic’s word for how your kid’s school is doing. You have to be there.

On the latter front, after 3 years of relentless proselytizing, enrollment from within the school’s zone has risen from 39 percent of the student body to 50 percent. This may not seem like a huge increase, but considering that San Diego is a strong “school choice” area, where it’s relatively easy for parents to choose from a smorgasbord of magnet and charter schools, this is remarkable.

Borrello and Henderson would be quick to point out that our success was predicated on a constellation of other factors, especially in terms of leadership. The school’s relatively new principal doggedly demanded funding from the district to implement changes such as starting an International Baccalaureate curriculum. He lobbied for, and oversaw, a full facelift on the front of the school, which gave it some much-needed curb appeal. And he was solicitous and open to our involvement and ideas from the get-go.

The enrollment numbers and the buzz are gratifying, but they would be meaningless to me if my family wasn’t happy with the school.

It didn’t take long before the buzz about Jefferson was pervasive — not just in the neighborhood but throughout the district. When my kids were in preschool, white, middle-class parents either knew nothing about it, or thought it was “ghetto.” Three years later almost anyone you ask will say, “I hear there are great things happening there.”

The enrollment numbers and the buzz are gratifying, but they would be meaningless to me if my family wasn’t happy with the school. And the truth is, we couldn’t be happier. Our kids are learning the stuff they are supposed to be learning, and they love their teachers (as do my wife and I).

school-kids-playground

Perhaps most importantly, they spend their days with children from extremely different backgrounds than their own. Jefferson’s demographics have shifted a bit in the last 3 years; for instance, the percentage of white students has gone up from 6 to 9, and the percentage of students eligible for free/reduced-price meals has dropped from 100 to 82. It’s important that we pay continued attention to these numbers, but to date they don’t validate the anxieties that some anti-gentrification types have expressed about rich white people “taking over the school.”

This isn’t just a balm for a gentrifier’s guilt; research shows that socioeconomic and racial diversity in schools creates multiple positive outcomes for all students. It also means my kids are growing up with a perspective on how the real world works — and how their privilege works — that middle-class kids in a homogenous school settings would never experience.

After all, that’s why we didn’t want to move to the suburbs in the first place. That, and the artisanal donuts.

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