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How parents can help schools succeed

Posted May 13, 2013, at 1:09 p.m.

The grades given to Maine schools by Gov. Paul LePage bring to the forefront issues that have been present for some time about disparity among Maine schools. The criteria of the grading system is narrowly conceived, at best, but no one seems surprised that the grades generally align with socioeconomic conditions of communities. The more a family is struggling to look after the basics of life, the more hurdles children face as they go through school.

Low income or an unstable family life does not guarantee lower grades, and good grades aren’t guaranteed by being at the other end of the socioeconomic picture, but it sure puts a thumb on the scales.

Schools start with the ability of students as they arrive at school every day, which makes the connections between home and school critical to student success. Schools must be open to parents’ participation and parents must understand and fulfill their critical role. Some schools and parents are already doing a great job at this. Others need help.

Studies repeatedly document the value of parents being constructively engaged in their children’s academic careers. Simple “dinner time” conversations — talking about topics of interest to the child, asking about things studied and discussing what programs and courses to take at school — have a measurable effect on academic achievement. Research published in 2008 showed these conversations at home had an effect on academics equal to $1,000 in additional per-pupil expenditures.

Work by the Harvard Family Research Project went further and showed a significant change in student achievement at high-poverty schools by implementing comprehensive parent-engagement strategies that included:

— Involving parents in decision making at the school, such as in discussions about student eligibility for programs, changing types of programs offered, responding to budget issues, raising parent understanding of laws and regulations affecting school actions.

— Aligning policies and procedures regarding homework and parent-teacher conferences with best practices.

— Explicitly discussing the roles of parents, teachers and students around learning standards and homework policies.

— Aligning reading at home with state standards and in-class instruction.

— Educating parents about the importance of home reading and good study habits.

— Conducting outreach through home visits by school staff, family nights and a family resource library.

National Standards for Family-School Partnerships were developed by the National Parent Teacher Association as a tool for empowering people to work together for student success. The six standards include ensuring families feel welcome at school, effective communication between school and home, supporting student success, speaking up for all children, sharing power and collaborating with the community. These standards are solidly supported by research as effective ways to increase student achievement.

Shaming schools is the wrong approach to improving education. Instead, thoughtfulness and constructive, honest conversations are called for to help students. Families and schools need to work together to improve educational outcomes. Neither families nor schools can solve this problem alone. Community members can affect the education of the students at their schools, not just with tax dollars but by getting involved.

It will be a challenge to increase parent engagement, but it’s a challenge that must be accepted. Administrators and teachers are already responsible for a long list of things. Although they’re key people, they can’t take on increasing parent engagement by themselves. The state can play a role by providing training and support for teachers and administrators on ways to bring parents into the conversation. The governor can use his bully pulpit to help impress on parents and community members their responsibility to work together to support education more effectively.

Parent engagement is clearly a cost-effective investment, and it doesn’t depend on the status of the community. We don’t need to start from scratch to increase school-family collaboration. Research points the way, and organizations such as parent-teacher associations offer guidance.

Virginia Mott of Lakeville is president of the Maine Parent Teacher Association.

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