• by  López del Bosque, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2000 • 

On September 19, at the age of 93, my wonderful mother passed away after having suffered a stroke a year and a half before. The next day, I had the arduous task of presenting her eulogy. I really wanted to focus on her contributions to the community, to the church and to us as her children.

At one time, our school did not provide information in Spanish or make any effort to communicate with non-English-speaking parents. For these parents, including my mother, making an appearance at school was totally unheard of. Those who did were greeted with negative attitudes.

I am certain that my mother could have taught the school much, since she was well educated in her native Mexico. Given that she also lived a very traditional life as a wife and mother, finding the time to participate in school functions was almost impossible.

My mother’s participation in our education and in helping the school encompassed such things as making sure we had a good night’s rest, that we had a good breakfast prior to going to school, that we were clean, and that we had our homework and all our books. These things were expected not only by my mother, but also by my father. My parents’ indirect participation in school was never acknowledged or considered by the school staff.

Perspectives on Parent Involvement

There are schools out there that still question the validity of parent involvement. The challenge we face is dealing with the mindsets and expectations of many school personnel who claim parents do not want to get involved. They consider parent involvement as a means to tell parents what they “should” know rather than asking parents what they need or want.

Too often, the assumption is that parents do not know anything and cannot do anything right or worthwhile. This assumption is based on a deficit view of parents. Some schools are even proud of how bad their parent involvement problem is and have lists of reasons it is not the school’s fault.

For many parents, particularly minority parents, dealing with schools means going back to an institution that failed them, treated them as second class citizens and had low expectations of their potential. This – coupled with other obvious obstacles such as unfriendly office personnel, a negative atmosphere, staff who are openly hostile, and parent meetings that are scheduled at inappropriate times – can make many parents want to stay away from schools, despite their commitment to their children’s education.

On the other hand, there are schools that welcome parents with open arms and genuinely go out of their way to make parents an integral part of the school and educational learning process. The atmosphere in the front ofice is open and friendly. School personnel already understand that parents are valuable and can make a difference in children’s learning. It is no longer a setting where parents are asked only to help with the occasional bake sales, festivals, and punch and cookie receptions. It is now about parents in leadership roles.

Today, as I work with parents, it is obvious that, although they may not be participating in a traditional way with their children’s school, they care about their children as much as my lovely mother did. I see visions of my mother and father in the audience as I work with these parents. They do care, they want the best for their children, and they have things they need to tell us to provide for those children. What I have experienced is that, in many cases, schools have things they want parents to do and learn to make their jobs easier, but seldom have schools taken the time to listen to parents to see what they need. What parents feel they need and what the educational system needs can be two different things. A combination, however, leaves a window open for validation of the parents and provides them an opportunity to take charge of or buy in to parent participation activities.

 Parent Leadership Development

Currently, I am working with two districts where we are implementing IDRA’s parent leadership program. This program provides parents an opportunity to become leaders within their schools, communities, religious settings and other important parts of their lives. The major premise of this process is acknowledgment, validation and valuing of parents because they are or can be

  • the first teachers of the children,
  • resources to the school,
  • decision makers within the school, and
  • trainers of other parents.

In one of these school districts in Texas where we have been implementing the program since 1998, we started the program with Spanish-speaking parents only and have continued during this school year with Spanish- and English-speaking parents. Although most parents do not speak both languages, they are able to communicate and even meet without outside facilitation in order to plan for events. The process they used in planning ways to get more parents involved was used again to develop the plans for the events they would be setting up for the year.

This year, as a group, these parents planned the open house program for the school. As they developed the plan to set up committees for disbursing information, making phone calls, collecting door prizes, bringing food, registering participants, and other duties, the parents were able to put into practice their roles as leaders in planning and working among themselves. They were also able to work together to hold a garage sale to raise money for the teachers and the students.

According to the parents participating in the leadership program, they now feel there is more communication among parents, better organization for planning as well as learning how to plan effectively, the opportunity to become more involed in the education of their children, the opportunity to unite two different cultures, and better opportunities to work together and learn from one another.

Another outcome of the parent leadership program is the realization among school personnel that there are many parents who are really interested in participating and available to help for their own children and for other children as well. Participants in the parent leadership program will soon be connected with a statewide parent network and will attend some of the state and national conferences where they will have an opportunity to participate and to present.

Some of the sessions planned by the parent leadership program participants were better attended than others. This gave me an opportunity to discuss an aspect of leadership that includes evaluating how a plan did or did not work. The group discussed reasons parents may not have come to the meetings without criticizing or judging them for the lack of participation. I was also able to reinforce that a major responsibility of being a leader is to listen and that judging parents who were not able to attend meetings or functions only hinders the process of getting them involved.

At a middle school in a large Texas city, we are using the parent leadership program to develop leaders for the school as well as to be an integral part of the accelerated schools model. Through “assets mapping,” parents explore the positive traits of the school, the community and themselves. As a result, parents look at how they will help to resolve some of the discipline problems of the school through their involvement with students.

The parents have also set up committees to do everything from making reminder calls to transporting parents to the meetings. Another exciting initiative the parents have taken on is creating a calendar of events – including the parent meetings – that are happening in the school. They are also drafting a short note form in English and Spanish that can be sent with their children to school as another way of finding out the status of their children’s education. The note includes sections where the teachers can select areas that the particular student may need work on – such as conduct or being tardy. The form also gives the teacher a chance to make additional comments. The purpose of the note is to have the parents and teachers see that there are ways for parents to offer assistance to teachers.

Many of the wonderful parents who I work with have children in three levels of school: elementary, middle and high school. The leadership program teaches these parents skills they can use regardless of their children’s age. Some of the parents are preparing to be trainers of other parents. The dimension of parents being trainers-of-trainers contributes even more to the schools.

The participants who go through the parent leadership training have the opportunity to train others, to make contacts through a network of major national and state conferences, and to develop the skills it takes to recruit more parents into the leadership training process.

It has been four months since I lost my mother. As I said in my eulogy, she was and always will be my first teacher. Did she have the skills of a teacher? The answer is yes, because she did the best with what she had and with what she knew. More than anything, she had the expectation that we would succeed. She must have done something right since, in 1948, one of my older sisters earned a scholarship to Mary Hardin-Baylor University. Back then, many women (especially Hispanic women) did not go to college.

Many good teachers saw my potential and taught me and worked with me so that I believed in myself. I am ever so appreciative of this. But my dear and wonderful mother taught me beyond believing that I could succeed. She taught me to know I could succeed, so I now see the difference between believing and knowing.

So, what can we do to get our parents involved? Recognizing that parents want to get involved and that they have skills schools need, is a good start. Understanding that they are wonderful resources and can enhance their children’s learning, that they can make a difference, is a good start. But, it must be backed with concrete plans and actions that are mutually beneficial – and ultimately successful for the children. The challenge of getting parents involved in their children’s education is one you will never regret taking.

Rogelio López del Bosque, Ed.D., is the marketing coordinator in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2000, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2000 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.]