by Jane Heaphy, executive director of Learning Leaders
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's goal of increasing parental involvement in schools is exciting! This is what we have been waiting to hear.
Families have a vital role to play in our schools' success. Research shows that parents who understand the school system and know how to support education at home can contribute hugely to a child's development. That's why Learning Leaders builds family-school relationships, provides interactive workshops and trains parents to volunteer in NYC public schools.
While there is increased recognition of family involvement as a key factor in children's success, more effort is needed to bring in parents. The city's recent education budget cuts and the introduction of Common Core Standards make this more important than ever. A renewed focus on families would help our students and I look forward to hearing the next chancellor's plans.
"Family engagement" can take various forms: from volunteering at school, to reading to your children every night, to being part of the political process. Our programs deal with all of these. Parents have long worked in schools as helping hands, but our partner schools recognize the win-win of family volunteers, where schools get support, and parents learn new skills they can use with their own children. We hear from parents that their volunteer experience gave them the confidence to run for School Leadership teams, PTA boards and Community Education Councils.
Parents who attend our workshops tell us they appreciate learning simple and creative techniques to help them support their kids' education.
PS 30 in Staten Island, a Learning Leaders partner for six years, is a shining example of how effective engagement can benefit students. The school has 35 volunteers providing one-to-one reading tutoring, art class assistance, library support and more. It has hosted workshops on topics from developing children's math skills to preparing children for middle school. As a result of PS 30's efforts, there is a deep sense of community in the school.
PS 94, a huge, high-poverty school in the Bronx, is another great example of how parents can help at school. In addition to providing learning opportunities for parents through Learning Leaders workshops, and involving them as volunteers, parents' language skills are used to help build a more inclusive community. Bilingual parents welcome Spanish and Bengali speaking parents to the school and assist in translating at events.
These schools demonstrate how we can make parents part of the solution.
Despite much wonderful work going on, it remains a challenge to get many families and schools on board. The new chancellor should not underestimate the investment and resources required.
Families face many barriers to becoming involved. Many parents work multiple jobs. Others are left out in a digital communication divide. A lot of parents feel unwelcome at school, or struggle with their own negative school experiences; many face language barriers. Schools have their own barriers to engaging parents.
While there is no quick fix, Learning Leaders works with schools to develop creative efforts to engage families, breaking down obstacles step by step. Good communication is vital; parents need structured opportunities to help and to know their contributions are valued. Once the school community starts to notice the positive effects of the family engagement programs, it encourages more families to join in.
My message to a new DOE administration: Embrace parents as partners. If you make an ongoing commitment and provide needed resources you'll find that our community is up to the task.
Jane Heaphy is executive director of Learning Leaders, a non-profit dedicated to engaging NYC's families and communities to support student success in the public schools.