• by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • June – July 2008 •
A Snapshot of a Dialogue
The Setting: High School Library. Students, parents and teachers grouped around a table at an evening school meeting are asked to answer a question as part of their introductions. The questions, in English and Spanish, are to be answered by each in turn as the group self monitors the conversation allowing everyone to share during the allotted time. The opening questions are:
Student: What is a talent or skill you have (something you are good at doing) that most students and teachers are not aware of?
Parent: What is something you have done as a parent in rearing your child that you are proud of or that you think you have done well?
Teacher: What is something you have done as a teacher that you are proud of or that you think you have done well?
After three rounds of questions, each group has a parent-student pair report to the group at large. Because some of the parents do not speak English and some of the teachers do not speak Spanish, students and bilingual adults translate back and forth ensuring everyone understands.
Results: Witness dialogues among parents, teachers and students as authentic consultation in the spirit of school accountability. Observe NCLB in action – alive, real and personally fulfilling. Parents, teachers and students giving each other quality time.
Parent-student-teacher dialogues like this can provide an accountability forum for a high school campus that has not been making adequate yearly progress. The catalyst is the campus report that highlights the student scores revealing that the school is not achieving adequate progress. The goal is to create a greater consciousness among all with important implications for everyone.
In these dialogues, the students report on their classroom experiences, whether succeeding or not, in the targeted subjects. The parents discuss their role and challenges while seeking advice on how to support their children. The teachers give insight into how their job feels and how they are attempting to teach under the current pressures and focus.
No one is blamed or attacked. No quick answers are sought, nor is anyone expected to defend their position. It is an organized conversation where each can hear the other out. The meeting is the confluence of three important goals: effective outreach, new parent leadership and participatory meetings.
Sending Information to Families – To What End?
Federal law requires schools that receive Title I money (for serving low-income students) to communicate with families about the status of their students. A school that is not achieving adequate yearly progress is required to inform parents of the status of student achievement.
But sending a letter by mail, with a student or by e-mail is not up to the challenge. Holding a meeting solely to inform parents of the status is better but still insufficient. Lecturing the students or berating teachers is inappropriate and counter-productive. Commonly used, seemingly efficient, modes of communication checked off as “done” in the checklist of requirements, rarely achieve the intended outcome of having informed families who can do something about helping their children. The usual ways information is transmitted to parents does little good, and student achievement and school success do not accelerate and improve.
Reaching Out Effectively – Informed Families with Actionable Data
Effective outreach must be a more personal matter, a more qualitative, labor-intensive process and approach. This kind of outreach follows a unique path. Effective outreach is personal and includes phone calls and one-on-one conversations with parents when they are bringing students to school or are on campus for any reason.
Using selective home visits as a means of establishing direct communication, building trust, inviting and mapping the assets and strengths that exist in the school community are all opportunities to listen to families’ opinions about the school and their children’s education.
This approach seems slow and not able to reach most of the families in a school community, yet there are benefits that generate larger numbers. One such benefit is new, revisited, parent leadership.
Re-defining Parent Leadership
Beyond informing families about the academic status of the school and inviting them to school events, effective outreach is a search for potential parent leaders. The criteria for identifying leaders differ from most common models. Rather than seeking a traditional volunteer or even an assertive one, this new kind of outreach worker looks for an interest in engaging other families.
The potential parent leader wants to talk with, invite and bring other parents to participate in activities that focus on the academic achievement of all students. This kind of parent leader is deeply compassionate of peers, understands child-rearing responsibilities and wants to support other families in connecting with schools. This leader wants families to become strong allies in support of academic excellence for all children.
These leaders’ “merit badges” attest to the time and effort they have put in to creating a school-community that supports excellent neighborhood public schools. Rather than holding bake sales for stage curtains, for example, they organize campaigns to create a public will to fund all schools fully so that all children have the schools and resources that they deserve. These parent leaders make the labor-intensive, qualitative outreach by school personnel cost-effective because they increase the family connections geometrically and multiply the number of parents-inviting-parents exponentially.
The outreach worker – or Title I liaison – is measured by the quality of the relationships established with families and how skillfully he or she has supported family networks in extending circles.
Parallel to effective outreach, the liaison is concerned with the processes of the meeting. The information must be presented in a manner and language that the families comprehend. The style of the meeting becomes participatory and allows for peer sharing and problem-solving.
The organizer makes sure that the information is relevant and that participants leave energized and wanting to tell other families about the meeting, the information, etc. Food and door prizes for meetings are low on the list of priorities. Participation, dialogue and problem-solving are high.
Language of the Meeting
Meetings are conducted bilingually or multi-lingually if possible, depending on the language groups available and the human resources. Separating people by language group or using translation equipment is a signal that the information presented is the most important piece of the meeting. But while switching languages back and forth (code-switching) feels messy and participants get anxious when they do not understand some of the language use, it is preferable to the other options. The goal of the meetings should be for families, students and educators to communicate across language groups, and the students and bilingual adults are the bridges to attain this. It is not true that a meeting will last twice as long if there is ongoing translation. Even if that were true, it is better to cover half the content and to have a closer community of families emerge from the meeting than to simply make sure that the information has been transmitted clearly in the languages present, regardless of how meaningful it is to the participants.
Outcomes of Parent-Student-Teacher Dialogues
All participants benefit from these meetings. During a meeting, parents benefit from talking, listening and being heard by students and teachers. Students are listened to as equals by adults. Teachers and educators present their successes and their challenges. Administrators are provided with dialogues of their school community akin to a doctor taking the pulse of a patient.
Eventually these can become Study Circles as modeled by Everyday Democracy. The Montgomery County Public Schools and PTA have used this approach to great benefit. The IDRA Newsletter Plus online has more information.
Beyond the dialogues, the ripples in the natural networks of the participants extend the impact. Students tell other students about the conversations. Parents take the information to their neighbors and replicate these conversations in their homes, places of worship and neighborhood haunts. Teachers learn more about what helps and hinders students’ learning, forming alliances with families for children’s success and seeking other ways to help students learn. Administrators identify key needs in teaching and learning. Supplemental educational services are looked at more carefully, and professional development for teachers is informed by the feedback from the dialogues.
Just as busy parents need to find quality time to spend with their children, people in the school and community must spend quality time with each other. It bears repeating: effective outreach, re-defined parent leadership and participatory meetings can help all children succeed.
Grayson, K., and A. Montemayor. “Community Conversations about Math Learning and Teaching,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 2008).
Montemayor, A. “Student and Parent Math Conversations,” IDRA Classnotes Podcast, Episode 33 (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 29, 2008).
Montemayor, A. “Latino Parent Engagement in High School Math,” IDRA Classnotes Podcast, Episode 31 (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 3, 2008).
Montemayor, A. “Engagement Sounds Sparks and Movements,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 2007).
Quinonez, B. “Working to Address Racial and Ethnic Barriers in Schools: Schools Work to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Barriers,” The Sentinel (Montgomery County, Maryland, May 7, 2008).
Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed, is an IDRA senior education associate and director of the Texas IDRA Parent Information and Resource Center. He also serves on the national board of PTA and on the national board of Parents for Public Schools. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2008, IDRA. The following article originally appeared in the June – July 2008 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]