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Parental involvement is a key variable in education equation

Joe Vitalo has seen it all:

The mother who doesn't notice her daughter's shorts are shorter than her underwear.

The father who lets his son stay up until 3 a.m. playing video games when the school bus comes at 6.

And the many parents who don't leave a working phone number for emergencies.

"I tell new teachers, 'You need patience,' " said Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. "And the one group that takes the most patience is not the students, it's the parents."

A lot of teachers, whether they'll admit it or not, are wondering why parents get a pass when new laws hold teachers accountable for their students' progress.

So much blame is being tossed around that there was a move in Tallahassee to have teachers grade parents. Did the children do their homework? Were they on time? Did they have supplies?

"Teachers were telling us: 'We can only do so much in the classroom,' " said Republican lawmaker Kelli Stargel, who sponsored the bill. "We have no control over what happens with these kids at home.' "

The bill died in committee. But Stargel pledged to bring it back, and with it the prospect of teachers and parents torn between the urge to blame and the need to cooperate.

"You couldn't pay me enough money to teach right now," said Mary Gallagher, a former teacher now raising her own five children in northwest Hillsborough.

"These poor teachers, they have to be mom and dad, nurse and psychologist. And we've become a society where no one wants to take responsibility."

In east Hillsborough, first-grade teacher Emilsa Guillot says she has learned to keep it simple for parents: "They should read every day."

'It's a fine line'

But is that enough? And what constitutes proper parent involvement?

Some scholars say it's futile to micromanage children past grade school. Others say there is a right way and a wrong way to help with homework. Or they tout the benefits of extracurricular activities that not all families can afford.

Most agree it helps when parents spend at least some time at school. But some suggest that after school, it's better to help coach basketball, or take the family on an outing, than agonize over Junior's research paper.

Monitor your child's homework, the parent report card bill said.

If only it were that simple.

Researchers at the University of Illinois in 2007 studied how and why parents get involved in homework. "More is not always better," said the title of their paper.

A group at Duke University gave a similar message in 2008.

Both studies found that although homework is important, efforts can backfire if a parent is tired or frustrated, completes assignments for the child, or reinforces a child's belief that he is incompetent.

Help should not be controlling, but "autonomy-supportive," they wrote. Translation: Children should do their own work. Parents should praise them for what they do, not how smart they are.

"It's a fine line," Gallagher said. "Some kids say, 'I don't get it' just to have their parents do it."

Too often, the Duke group wrote, homework time discourages the child, especially if he is struggling, or the parent does not feel up to the task.

Parents' own school memories can also affect their children's confidence.

"They might not have had a successful experience in school," said Christi Buell, principal of Sulphur Springs Elementary in Tampa. "We have to go back and recreate that hope for them."

Three years ago Buell and her staff mounted a campaign to bring parents into the school, which serves a low-income community ravaged by foreclosures.

Teachers handed out dinners. They greeted mothers at the entrance. Student performances were followed by curriculum nights and then parenting sessions.

Already they are seeing results at the twice F-rated school. Nearly every fourth-grader passed the writing FCAT last term, a milestone Buell celebrated with a breakfast banquet.

"They really reach out to the neighborhood," said Princess Powell, 27 and a former Sulphur Springs student. "They have an open-door policy. You can sit in the class with your child."

Powell left high school in 10th grade and holds a GED. She wants her four children to go to college.

Fellow Sulphur Springs parent Jeannette Hicks, 40, also hopes to do more for her son, third-grader Jarvis Robinson, than her own mother, who was single and worked long hours, did for her.

Hicks volunteers in Jarvis' class. She's part of a parent leadership group. When she isn't at night school, she reads with Jarvis — sometimes newspaper cartoons, other times Dr. Seuss.

"I want him to be the best that he can be," she said.

Math coach Shanna Uhe, who also coordinates parent outreach, contends that most parents "truly want the best for their kids and a lot of times it's just having the right resources."

Often, however, schools come across as a cold and intimidating.

Scholars at the University of North Carolina wrote in 2006 that low-income parents often lack confidence to interact with school officials.

So they stay away. And "teachers may interpret their lack of involvement as a general lack of interest in their children's education."

Held to a contract

The flip side of the uninvolved parent is the parent who insists on being involved. That's what happened in Pinellas County, where the fundamental movement is now in a dozen schools serving children of all ages.

Parents sign contracts that require them to go to meetings, support school rules and review their children's nightly homework.

"If it's sloppy, I will say, 'Can you go back and make it neater? Can you make complete sentences?' " said Teresa Daiker, a mother of two who is active in an advocacy group for the fundamental schools.

If a parent slips up, or the child cannot meet the school's stringent behavioral requirements, the child can be removed.

As the movement has grown, some have worried it will drain the highest-achieving and most involved parents from the traditional schools, and that it is inherently elitist.

Nonsense, said Daiker.

"We have poor kids and rich kids, middle-class kids and kids from divorced families," she said. "I think these are just parents who want the best for their child."

It's hard to find a parent who doesn't. But daily life can interfere.

"A lot of the parents send their kids to school, go off to work and a lot of the little things get forgotten because we're all so busy," said Kathi Roberts of Hudson, a single mother of three.

Roberts volunteers for the PTA and drives her kids to and from school even though they could ride a bus.

"I can't always do everything," she said. "But I will find one way every single day to connect with my kids, whether it is to sit down with my littlest one and read a book with her, or if it's going to my son's school early and help out with something and be there to pick him up."

Guillot, the first-grade teacher, sends out a monthly calender with the hope that working parents will schedule time off for an occasional classroom event.

"The children, they are absolutely beaming when their parents participate," she said.

Social capital

Aside from what a parent does, there is the matter of who a parent is.

Some are better able than others to send their children to music and dance lessons, or enroll them in scouting and league sports.

Through these activities, children acquire "social capital" and "cultural capital." They learn to make eye contact with adults, perform for an audience and negotiate for what they need at school. And they relate more easily with their teachers, who are typically middle class as well.

In a 2009 study of race, class and academic achievement, a team from Virginia Commonwealth University found children raised with these experiences are more successful in school.

Buell, at Sulphur Springs, is aware of the importance of social capital. Her school and others use grant funding and community partnerships to try to lessen those class distinctions.

Next door to the Sulphur Springs school, the YMCA serves children after school for free. Ballet class, scouts and soccer, theater, choir and character development are all offered.

"Things that our students might not otherwise be able to participate in, we're now able to bring that to the school setting," Buell said.

In Hernando, Vitalo contends that as much of a factor as economics might be, there are plenty of things parents can do — or might not do — regardless of income. He knows the recession has placed added stress on working parents that cuts into their time and energy.

"But I've seen kids coming from affluent homes who get no attention at all, and the only attention they receive is from school."

He wasn't a fan of Stargel's report card bill. "Finger-pointing is not going to help anybody here," he said.

"But I don't care what resources you have, you can definitely make sure your kid gets a good night's sleep." And you can keep in contact with the school, he said.

"We're not asking you to teach your child. Just show your child that you are interested in their wellbeing."

Do your best

It could be argued that top-ranked graduates reflect the most effective parenting styles.

But valedictorians and salutatorians describe a striking variety of upbringings.

Responding to a survey of Tampa Bay area students who graduated at or near the top of their class, students described parents who were easygoing and parents who were exacting.

No one mentioned breakfast. Several of the 48 hailed their parents as role models. Most often, they said their parents simply told them to do their best.

"They encouraged me to seize every opportunity available because they themselves did not have those chances," said 2006 Bloomingdale High School valedictorian Roger Nehaul, one of several who were children of immigrants.

Their parents, they said, were visible. Yes, they went to parent-teacher conferences. But it mattered more when they showed up at ball games and music recitals.

"My parents were at everything," said Courtney Cohen, 2008 salutatorian of Pasco's Gulf High School.

"Every banquet, every sporting event, every late-night study hour, I could count on them to be there and it meant a lot to have their support."

Parental involvement is a key variable in education equation 08/20/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 21, 2011 12:00am]

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