Friday, July 17, 2009

Essay #2: Challenges to Parental School Involvement in Multicultural Communities

One of the most-discussed issues within modern education circles is parental involvement in schools. Teachers want to get their students’ families more involved; parents want to know how to do so, given many perceived obstacles; and students want to know their parents care about their achievement. However, involving parents in the school community is not an easy task. Teachers and parents differ on what it means to be involved, and parents perceive roadblocks in their involvement. To compound this problem, most school systems lack concrete implementation of organizational goals when it comes to families in the learning community (Zarate, 2007). This essay looks at parental involvement within the Latino community, since this group provided many examples of how cultural differences can inhibit and challenge parent-teacher-student communication.

Generally speaking, Latino parents tend to view their school participation as mostly concerning life involvement, although – to a lesser degree – parents also see academic involvement as important. Life involvement refers to nurturing a child’s moral development, monitoring his/her peer groups, and ensuring his/her safety. Academic involvement, of course, refers to attendance of parent-teacher conferences, asking questions, monitoring homework, and holding their children to high academic standards. Latino parents see themselves educating their children in a joint endeavor with their classroom teachers (Zarate, 2007).

While those expectations theoretically place parents as very active members of the learning community, they often face challenges that limit connectivity to their children’s learning. One limitation identified by Zarate (2007) is interactivity in student homework. Since several parents in the author’s study were not high school graduates they did not feel equipped to assist their children as a result. Also, many of the parents spoke Spanish fluently and English very little, so perceived a communication hindrance.

Another limitation to parent participation the school community involves work demands. Many Latino parents in Zarate’s (2007) study were hourly workers who would need to sacrifice time and money if they were to attend school events during the day. Fear of job loss was a huge factor related to this challenge.

While these limitations are presented within the context of one culture group, they do exist in many other culture and socioeconomic groups. The obstacles mentioned above tend to frustrate many educators, because they tend to view potential involvement (i.e. parent-teacher conferences, open houses, and back-to-school nights) as essential for parents. Therefore, a conflict exists. Zarate (2007) provides examples that amplify this conflict. She tells about three incidents in which educators treat parents of honors students better than parents of other students because of their abilities to attend afternoon school events and to contribute more financially to schools. So the level of parents’ concern for their children’s education was wrongly being judged based on uncontrollable circumstances.

Parents and teachers become further frustrated by the above struggle when students’ expectations of their parents enter the equation. In her study, Zarate (2007) also spoke with the children of the Latino parents, previously interviewed, to learn how the students want their parents involved in their education. Some common expectations include: 1) following up about the students’ school day, 2) giving encouragement, and 3) providing discipline and structure. These comments closely track with the ideals their parents appear to hold, but are often unable to fulfill. What is to be done about this situation?

I want to suggest how middle ground can be found in this dilemma. First, Zarate (2007) mentions implementing training classes, where educators provide curricular, language, and communication skills that parents need to keep up with their children’s classwork. Second, schools should employ translators that can aid in parent-teacher conferences and similar meetings. Third, schools need to plan events and activities during times most convenient for parents. Finally, Zarate urges schools and districts to implement measurable standards that explicitly mention what it means to be actively involved in education. I personally view all four suggestions as very crucial to building a functioning learning community.

Regarding measurable standards for involvement, there appears to be a lapse between the district level and the state level. This lapse is apparent through information provided by Agronick, Clark, O’Donnell, and Stueve (2009). The authors claim, “The basic tenets for parent engagement are laid forth in the NCLB Act and Title I registration.” For example, the Connecticut State Board of Education in 2006 called for the development and provision of programs that address parental literacy skills and student safety within schools. Further, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) in 2001 created "Parental Involvement Policies for Schools and School Districts," which acknowledges parental need for guidance in learning how to best help their children, and, “encourages schools and districts to communicate such strategies.” NYSED also attempts to hold districts accountable to parental involvement programs by requiring them to report progress results. According to Zarate (2007), generally speaking, these requirements are being overlooked. My question is this: How effective are the state and federal agencies in maintaining accountability with districts? Unfortunately, my research leaves this question unanswered.

In reflecting on parent-teacher communication breakdown in multicultural environments, and based on research, my bias tends to lie within the parents’ point of view. Parents should not be judged as unconcerned or apathetic about their children’s academic achievement simply because their life constraints differ from those of schools or of other cultures. Further, I tend to adopt the Latino point of view mentioned earlier in that parents and teachers should work together to holistically raise children—with the parents’ primary focus being life involvement and students’ primary focus being academic achievement. As such, I believe it indeed does take a village to raise a child, and that providing academic guidance is my role in the village. To gain a better sense of my students’ challenges and strengths, I need to consider factors outside of the classroom. Communication with parents and other family members is crucial in that case. In order to do so, schools and teachers need to provide realistic opportunities for parents to participate in the conversation.

REFERENCES

Agronick, G., Clark, A., O’Donnell, L., Stueve, A. (2009). Parent involvement strategies in urban middle and high schools in the Northeast and Island region. Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands Region. (ERIC Document, ED505024). Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/

Zarate, M. E. (2007). Understanding Latino parental involvement in education: Perceptions, expectations, and recommendations. Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. (ERIC Document, ED502065). Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/

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