Jan Arnow


Chapter 5


Parents and Teachers as Partners


Most educators will agree that the difference between a good

school and a great school is the degree to which parents are

involved. Some of the benefits to children whose parents

are active in their schools are well documented: better

attendance, reduced drop-out rates and improved school

achievement in general. And there are additional effects

of parental involvement which are just as gratifying that go

beyond those experienced by their children. Research has

shown that when parents become involved in their children's

education, they themselves become more active in their

communities, and even the children's teachers become more

proficient, creative and motivated in regard to their work.


Of course, many schools which express interest in having

parents participate ask them to simply lend a helping hand

but stay out of academic decisions concerning administration,

curriculum and instruction. As such, the roles of those

parents are limited to field trip chaperones, fundraisers for

computers or band uniforms, or people who rubber stamp

decisions already made by the school or district. For years,

parents have accepted these fairly insignificant roles

unquestioningly, believing that teachers and school

administrators were the only people qualified to make

educational choices for their children.


But the true impact of the family's role as a valuable resource

in the education of their children is just now being recognized.

Researchers and administrators are now saying that sharing

power with parents and giving them a real voice in schools

gives children more than just a boost in their academic well-

being. Parental involvement is now seen as a key factor in

issues ranging from building substantial school-to-community

relationships, to successful integration of a multicultural

perspective, to curbing the rise of school violence.


Barriers to Parent Participation

Why, then, does the level of parent involvement in the

public schools remain very low, despite the verity of the

statement that children need the educational attention of their

parents? There are many factors that have caused the level

of parent involvement to lag behind the recognition of its need:


* Regardless of the recent research and literature attesting

to the benefits, parent involvement remains a low priority

for corporations which employ parents, social service

agencies which are struggling to meet survival

demands, and even the federal government: the

U.S. Department of Education has no office with a

primary mission of ensuring that parents are included in

substantial ways in their children's education.


* Many teachers do not know how to maintain their

authority and role as experts while still involving parents,

and are therefore reluctant to collaborate with them. Still

others who do want to involve parents simply don't know

how to do so.


* Parents themselves have to be educated to understand

what is needed. The field of education has

changed tremendously in the past decade, school

reforms are under way throughout the country, and

new information on public education is proliferating.

Unlike teachers and administrators who have

unions and professional organizations to help keep them

up-to-date on current education issues, parents get very

little support in that regard, leaving them to fend for



* Parents from low income or language minority groups

often have cultural perspectives and expectations which

impede, or even preclude collaboration with the

school. To begin with, many of these families have

traditionally been marginalized which has fostered

feelings of inadequacy, failure, and poor self-worth.

Some of these parents have, themselves, had bad

experiences with schools as youngsters and feel

intimidated when confronted with bureaucratic systems

which they don't understand and which they feel don't

value their diversity. The situation is exacerbated by

some parents' inability to communicate with the school

due to low proficiency in English; long working hours and

time constraints; transportation difficulties; child care

needs; and other economic and emotional issues.


* Unless they have had training to help them work with low

income and language minority parents, teachers may

misread their reserve, non-confrontational manner and

non-involvement to mean that they don't care about the

education of their children. However, these parents

have the same hopes and dreams for their children as

everyone else. High aspirations for children exist among

both high and low socioeconomic status parents, and

among all cultures. Many simply do not know how to

navigate the system, or are culturally disinclined to do so.


* Further barriers are erected with language minority

parents if the materials distributed to them are written only

in English. Because most school-based programs for

communicating with families have been designed to

accommodate the needs of middle and upper class

mainstream families, this oversight commonly limits the

opportunities for non-mainstream families to be involved

in their children's education. Families from culturally and

linguistically diverse backgrounds already constitute a

majority in many of our urban school districts, and their

population is growing exponentially. This one issue

alone -- not offering parent materials in more than one

language -- effectively eliminates more than one third of

our potential parent partners.


Redefining the Concept

Parent involvement in the 90's is badly in need of

redefinition if we are to move into the next century with

significantly improved chances for all of our children.

Both sides of the equation -- "parent" and "involvement"

-- need serious reengineering.


The Changing Family

As the students in our classrooms become more

diverse in terms of their cultures, languages, living styles

and socioeconomic status, educators will have to put aside

their outdated stereotypic views of the American family.

When asked to describe the all-American family, most people

still refer to an intact unit consisting of two children (a boy

and a girl), a mother who either stays home or works only

part-time, and a gainfully employed father, all living together

in a single family dwelling in a middle class neighborhood.

Not only is this inaccurate, but it exists less and less

frequently in America:


* Only 7 percent of mothers in two-parent homes stay home

with the children while the father goes to work, and this

number is decreasing;


* Today's households are also headed by single parents,

co-habiting parents, gay parents and families headed by

relatives other than parents;


* Blended families, another common type of family unit,

look very much like what most people consider a

"regular" family, but the resemblance ends there. In a

blended family, divorced parents with children remarry

and combine their households. Instead of a common

history there are two histories, along with two sets of

expectations and two structures.


* Fiscal capability is also important in understanding the

changing family scene. Research indicates that by the

turn of the century, fully one third of all families with

children will be living in poverty.


* Another outdated myth is that of the isolated majority

white family. In the near future, white children in middle

class neighborhoods are more likely than not to have

African American, Hispanic and Asian children as

neighborhood playmates.


* It is not uncommon for children to live in several different

types of these families before becoming an adult.


Even though research has proven parent involvement valuable

and we are beginning to accept that fact, many educators still

cling to the hackneyed, overworked image of the Cleavers as

our national standard for the American family. It is time to f

ind ways of working collaboratively with what is, in fact, our

new national majority: diverse family systems.


The Concept of Involvement

Given the changing family structure, and the increasing

demands on families' time and energy outside of school,

it is no wonder that schools say that they have not improved

their parent involvement. Most strategies to get parents

involved in the schools have been designed to serve a

family system that exists in decreasing numbers. Once

educators recognize that there is a continuum of support

levels, and are comfortable about affirming parents at

whatever level on that continuum they might be positioned,

participation levels in the school will begin to rise.


At the least involved, yet still valuable level are those parents

who don't come to the school but do respond to information

they receive from the school about their children's education.

Although this is minimal participation, many schools don't

even meet the parents' needs at this level! All parents, even

those from low income and language minority families, need to

know what and how their children are being taught, what the

homework policies are, who to contact if they want to speak

to someone about their children, what the grading procedure

is, and other basic information about the school.


At the next level, parents begin to serve as helpers,

supporting their children and the school by making sure

their children have a quiet place to study, reinforcing good

study habits at home, talking to their children about their

school day, reading each day to the younger children, and

communicating more regularly with the teachers.


At the third level, parents become regular participants at

school functions such as concerts, sports events and open

houses. They also come to school to assist the teacher or

staff at this level. Children begin to feel more motivated to

achieve when their parents show interest in the school

simply by showing up, and their presence in the school

can give teachers additional opportunities to talk to them

about their children in informal ways, conveying information

both about potential areas of improvement and news of



At the fourth level, parents become politically active in the

school. They affect the operation and program of the school

itself by sharing power with the administration and making

substantive and binding decisions about school operations

and programs ranging from selection of texts and materials

to hiring and firing the principal.


It is important to realize that parents usually feel more

comfortable progressing through the continuum rather than

jumping, or being pulled, from one of the early levels to

political action. It is also critical to affirm parents at whatever

level they choose to operate. Overlooking or neglecting these

two guidelines will seriously reduce any chances of increasing

significant parent involvement in the school.


Despite the diversity of the family structure in this country,

there is still an important role for parents in the schools and

in the educational process of their children. The success

of any parent involvement effort depends on how well it

matches the needs and interests of individual families.

Knowing who the parents are, including what their needs

and capabilities might be, is a necessary first step in

increasing their level of involvement in the school.

Establishing a personal rapport between someone from the

school, having as many options for involvement as

possible, and not requiring high levels of commitment and

participation, either explicitly or implicitly, are all very

effective means of getting parents to become interested

in supporting the work of the school.


More than forty million parents have children in schools

in America. Real school improvement -- including top-notch

education for all children -- will not take place without

effective involvement of at least a high percentage of that

group. As parents, we are the owners of the public school

system and bear a responsibility to participate in it. As

educators, we will be fighting an uphill battle without

their participation. And as citizens and consumers we need

to understand the importance of parent involvement and

support parent-school partnerships as though the future of

our communities depends on it, because it does.





* The schools are yours -- your taxes pay the bills. Go

to school when you have an opportunity and get to know

your children's teachers. Observe what happens in the

classroom. Talk with the teacher, counselor, administrators a

nd your children to learn about their needs.


* Set high expectations, and let your children's school

know what you expect of them. Work in partnership

with the educators to help them achieve your goals.


* As much as you can, volunteer your time to the school.

If you have a particular skill that you are willing to share --

accounting, clerical, child development, art, or administrative,

for example -- apply the skill to help the school. Recruit

other parents and concerned citizens to help, too.


* Negotiate and establish rules about when, where and how

homework will be completed. Make sure your children have

access to reference material either at home or at the library

and that someone is available to help with specific problems.

Check their homework when they are finished. And always

expect your children to finish their homework.


* Attend as many school concerts, open houses, student

performances or sports activities as you can in which your

children participate. Even if they are not involved in a

particular event, go with them to watch their friends participate.


* Engage the place where you work to support the school.

See about instituting flexible leave and child care policies so

that the employees can support their children's learning.


* Find out what your employer is doing to support your local

school system. Encourage them to set up school/business

partnerships, opportunities for work/study programs, and

other initiatives.


* Become actively politically in your children's school and/or

district leadership through parent councils, committees under

the auspices of the school administration, attending school

board meetings, and so on. Encourage others to do the same.


* Work through your state and federal elected officials to

ensure adequate financing for education. Since the strength

and vitality of your community depends a great deal on the

quality of your schools, they should have a vested interest in

supporting your requests.


* Whether or not you have children in school, become a

child's mentor. This will be enormously helpful to those

children who lack role models or attentive adults in their lives.

As a mentor you can provide advice, encouragement,

information, support and an example of someone who

supports education.


* Research what other communities have done to help their

schools. Some of these ideas might work for your school.



* Take a good look at how your school does or does not

welcome parents into the education process.


* Let parents know that they are significant educators of

their children. Give them a sense of their importance in the

education of their children.


* Set up a special lounge/resource room in the school for

use by parents. It need not be elaborate, but could have

access to coffee, comfortable chairs or sofas, a lending library

of parent aids, and a display of social service agency



* To help parents assist their children at home with their academic

habits, create a handbook of simple guidelines. It could contain

tips and techniques dealing with formats for reports, study hints, symptoms

of test or math anxiety, checklists for editing homework, information about

stages of growth in child development, and so on. You might

want to make it a monthly additions to the guidebook that

parents can collect in a notebook. With just a little extra work,

the same material could be updated and used year after year.


* Suggest to parents that they keep dialog journals -- booklets

that pass back and forth between you and the parents. Their

first entry could be notes jotted down about their child's

likes, dislikes, habits, or anything related to their child that

they feel would be important to let you know. The child

carries the journal to you, you respond accordingly, and

send it back to the parents. Or, you can initiate dialog

with parents by sending the first entry. These make

wonderful communication tools especially during the weeks

when everyone is too busy to make face-to-face appointments.


* Many parents are truly concerned and interested in their

children's education, but may have survival problems that

must be addressed first. If you are aware of specifics of

these difficulties, work with the school counselor in assisting

the family to get the resources they need.


* Let parents know that they are wanted and needed, and

don't hesitate to ask for hands-on help from them. They

will be more willing to lend a hand if you are specific about

the help you need, and you tell them the reasons that you need it.


* All families have strengths. Successful parent involvement

programs recognize them and let the parents know that their

strengths are valued.


* Cultural differences are both valid and valuable. Learn

about the cultures of your students' families. Then find ways

of building that information into your classroom environment.


* When working with language minority students, parent

involvement becomes more relevant when it includes the

extended families and the communities to which the children

belong. Tap into this rich resource -- aunts, uncles, grandparents,

cousins, etc. Don't overlook any adult in the child's circle

when thinking about "family."


* All individuals and families benefit from feeling empowered,

especially at-risk families who often feel powerless and out

of control.


* Successful parent involvement programs follow one basic

rule: they make it easy for parents to be involved. Offer

services when needed like translation, babysitting and

transportation to facilitate the attendance of parents at

school-related meetings and activities. Distribute materials

in the language of your student population. Have the

meetings in places other than the school. Vary the times

of the meetings and events so that all parents can come

at least some of the time. Do not charge fees.


* The most difficult part of building a partnership with

families is getting them to the first meeting. Impersonal

efforts are largely fruitless. The best approach is as

close to one-on-one as you can make it. Direct

conversations with the parents in their primary language,

either in person or on the phone, personalize the invitation.

Direct communication will also help you understand

the extent to which they might need help in order to

attend the meeting.


* To retain their involvement, every meeting should

respond to a specific need or concern of theirs, not

just address the school's general agenda.


* Make sure you are totally committed to the idea of

parents being a part of your school and classroom, or

don't get involved. Half-hearted attempts are worse

than not trying at all.


* Don't give up if the initial response is not a monumental.

Many parents had bad experiences when they were

students and it takes time for them to overcome their

discomfort at being so directly involved in their

children's education.


NOTE: The text above is from the recent book, Teaching Peace: How to Raise Children to Live in Harmony -- Without Fear, Without Prejudice, Without Violence_ by Jan Arnow (Perigee/Berkley, © 1995 Jan Arnow, ISBN #0-399-52155-0, $12.00). In each chapter there are additional charts, quotes and sidebar sections that have not been uploaded. If you are interested in seeing these additions, please contact the author directly (email: jarnow@iglou.com); (snail mail: 2025 Maryland Avenue, Louisville, KY, 40205); (telephone: 502-454-0607); or buy the book! 

This is copywritten material. Please do not distribute without the author's permission.

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