Promoting Family Involvement
Schools can take a number of steps to promote partnerships with families. These can ease teachers' responsibilities or give them better ways to relate to parents.
Recognize the disconnection
While many parents have strong feelings of support for the schools their children actually attend, with 70 percent of all public school parents giving their children's school a grade of A or B, there still is a strong feeling of disconnection with public education in general (Elam, Lowell, & Gallup 1994).
Many families feel that their interests are not fully taken into account by educators. At times, parents feel that educators talk down to them or speak in educational jargon they do not understand, while the majority of teachers feel that parents need to be more engaged in the education of their child (Peter D. Hart 1994).
Train teachers to work with parents
Schools and school systems seldom offer staff any formal training in collaborating with parents or in understanding the varieties of modern family life. However, both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are working to make such information and skills widely available.
Reduce distrust and cultural barriers
Often the first time a parent comes to school is when a child is in trouble. Schools can reduce distrust and cultural barriers between families and teachers by arranging contacts in neutral settings. These might include using resource centers, offering informal learning sessions, conducting home visits by family liaison personnel, and holding meetings off school grounds.
Since the first contact a parent has with his or her child's school is often negative, some districts are making sure the first contact with parents is a positive one.
Address language barriers
Reaching families whose first language is not English requires schools to make special accommodations. Translating materials into their first language can be useful for these parents, but written communications alone are not enough. Ideally, a resource person, perhaps another parent, would be available who could communicate with parents in their first language either face-to-face or by telephone. Interactive telephone voice-mail systems that have bilingual recordings for families also are useful.
Evaluate parents' needs
Schools can also bridge the distance between families and schools by surveying parents to find out their concerns and opinions about school. Surveys can be especially helpful to assess further changes needed after a school has implemented a program promoting parental involvement.
Accommodate families' work schedule
Many schools hold evening and weekend meetings and conferences before school to accommodate families' work schedules. By remaining open in the afternoons and evenings and on weekends, schools can promote various recreational and learning activities for parents, including adult education and parenthood training, and can create a safe haven against neighborhood crime.
Use technology to link parents to the classroom
As much as Americans are eager to get on the Information Highway, getting an old fashioned telephone into every classroom might be one of the most effective ways to improve communication between families and teachers (U.S. Department of Education 1994b). Schools are also using a number of new technologies to communicate with families and students after school hours. One widespread arrangement is a districtwide homework hotline to help guide students with assignments.
In addition, voice mail systems have been installed in several hundred schools across the country. Parents and students can call for taped messages from teachers describing classroom activities and daily homework assignments. Audiotapes and videotapes also are being used as alternatives to written communication for parents. These are especially helpful in reaching families who do not read.
Computers can help improve children's academic achievement and bring families and schools together. Many parent centers include computer classes for parents to improve their education and job skills. The number of families who use the Internet is also rapidly growing, and several aspects of Internet services are becoming dedicated to families.
Make school visits easier
Free transportation and child care can especially encourage families in low-income and unsafe neighborhoods to attend school functions. Native speakers of languages other than English, interpreters, and materials translated in their own language can help non-English-speaking parents participate in the schools more fully. A variety of techniques including letters, phone calls, and visits by program staff may be needed to recruit low-income parents and parents who lack confidence in dealing with the schools (Goodson, Schwartz, & Millsap 1991; Moles 1993).
Establish a home-school coordinator
A parent liaison or home-school coordinator can develop parental involvement programs without adding to the workload of teachers. Personal contacts, especially from people in the community, are important in encouraging hard-to-reach families, including immigrants, to participate (Goodson, Swartz, & Millsap 1991; Nicolau & Ramos 1990).
Many of the most effective parent-school partnership programs combine multiple strategies. In order to expand opportunities for school-family contacts, these schools have developed resource centers for parents in schools, home visiting programs, and mentoring programs (Davies, Burch, & Johnson 1991).
Encourage family learning
Traditional homework assignments can be converted into more interactive ones involving family members. For example, students might interview family members on historical events or their daily work.
Give parents a voice in school decisions
The parental involvement goal explicitly states, "Parents and families will help to ensure that schools are adequately supported and will hold schools and teachers to high standards of accountability." Many parents, especially those who have limited proficiency in English or who distrust the schools, may be reluctant to get involved to this extent. But this kind of participation is an important component of efforts to increase parental involvement.
Schools can give families the opportunity to support the improvement efforts of schools and teachers. In recent years, a number of school systems have established new governance arrangements.
Thus many schools are creating new arrangements for working with parents, finding ways to make communication with families more personal and compatible with their needs, drawing on new technologies, and using parents in new ways in the schools. But these new family-school partnerships need continuing support from other members of the society, including community organizations, businesses, and government at all levels.
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