In the Classroom

Expert: A lot of school efforts to involve parents are bogus

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
University of Oregon professor and author Edward Olivios speaks to packed house about effective parent engagement at the 37 Place Community Center on the East side of Indianapolis Thursday.

Schools love to say they value parents, but what they consider “involvement” can be so phony it ultimately hurts the parent-school relationship.

That’s what Edward Olivos, an author and researcher who studies parent engagement, told a gathering of about 100 people tonight at the 37 Place Community Center on the East side of Indianapolis.

Parental involvement, Olivos said, is prescribed, sanctioned and — for schools — safe. It includes activities parents are expected to help with, like homework, volunteering and fundraising.

Parents are most effective, he said, when they are advocates for their children, for sensible policies and for solving real problems.

But parents who take that approach can be flat out scary to schools, Olivos said.

“Once parents take on advocacy, they are going to take a lot of people to town,” he said. “But that’s OK. Those are discussions we need to have, questions like, ‘why are these kids always suspended?’ There has to be a collaboration between teachers, parents and the administrators.”

Olivos is a Mexican-American, former first-grade teacher who grew up in San Diego. Now a professor at the University of Oregon, he is an expert in bilingual education and his book “The Power of Parents” explores the cultural barriers that block parents from playing a more effective role in public schools.

His book is the key text for a semester-long IUPUI education class taught by Gina Borgioli Yoder in which teachers and aspiring teachers study ways to better engage parents in schools. Yoder designed the course with help from Annela Teemant and John Loflin.

Loflin and Jose Evans are the co-founders of the Black and Latino Policy Institute, which arranged the event.

“We know its an issue here,” Loflin said of parent engagement in Indianapolis. “How should parents be involved, and who gets to decide?”

Olivios reads a passage about parent engagement from a book at Thursday's event.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Olivos reads a passage about parent engagement from a book at Thursday’s event.

Olivos told of working in schools where teachers were baffled why parents didn’t show up for parent-teacher conferences but came out in large numbers for potluck dinners.

That caused teachers to make false assumptions: that parents didn’t care, didn’t value education or didn’t grasp how formal education worked.

But Olivos said sometimes the parents just valued different aspects of education.

He gave the example of telling parents in conferences that their children were failing. But their priorities were different. What they wanted to know about their kids was: were they behaving? Were they being respectful?

“I just told them their kids are going to fail,” Olivos said, recalling his own confusion. “And all the questions are, how is my kid behaving?”

But to many Hispanic parents, he learned, the idea of an “educated” person was strongly bound to the notion of being respectful to others.

“Parents were doing a lot of their work,” Olivos said, “but in a frame that was different than we were expecting.”

Donielle Jones, a Central Elementary School third-grade teacher in Pike Township, said her eyes were opened in Yoder’s class.

“I was like, ‘yeah, I involve my parents,’” Jones said. “But then I learned that is not empowerment. I’m not engaging them in a conversation. I was very rigid. I was saying, ‘it’s third grade and this is how it is.’”

Jones, who is African-American, said she realized who she was even contributed to the confusion. She grew up in a middle class family and while she could relate to the experience of being African-American, as many of her students were, she didn’t always understand the challenges they faced in high-poverty homes.

“I cannot impose my values and my upbringing onto my students,” she said.

Olivos gave the parents in attendance this advice: force your schools to deal with the real issues in their communities and families, and help others do the same.

“To be on equal footing with institutions you need to know the rules they play by,” he said. “One thing we tell people is document. Write things down. Create a narrative. And teach someone else. So when your child goes on, there will be someone to follow.”

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

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