A universal truth in education is that regardless of their race or ethnicity or income, students whose parents are involved in their learning tend to perform better academically, graduate on time and move on to college or professional schools at higher rates than those whose parents are not involved.
Emma Banks, principal of Inlet Grove Community High School, has embraced this truth and is making parental involvement part of standard operations.
Inlet Grove is a charter school in a low-income neighborhood. It has 700 students. Minority enrollment is 94 percent, and 66 percent of the total enrollment is economically disadvantaged. Banks said that roughly 115 of Inlet Grove's students are Level 1 readers on the FCAT. The highest level is 5.
So many Level 1 readers is unacceptable, Banks said. And she is doing something about it: Parents of the students with low scores are required to attend Saturday reading classes at the school, and they must bring their children with them.
Banks said she and her staff want parents to learn strategies and skills that will enable them to assist their children at home. Inlet Grove teachers, staff members and volunteers will be available. Parents will be required to read assigned books and other material to learn how to analyze evidence and other conventions of reading so they can help their children.
"I don't want you to take this as a negative," she told the Palm Beach Post. "Take it as a positive thing that someone cares enough about your child to come on a Saturday to help you learn strategies to help your child pass the reading test."
Banks said for parents with transportation problems, volunteers will provide rides. No child care? The principal will find babysitters, and she will babysit if necessary.
I attended the first meeting of the parents' classes on Oct. 12. Forty parents and their children showed up. Banks said she is certain the number will increase as the program matures. I asked her what besides the low FCAT scores motivated her to establish the parent program.
"I was tired of going to meetings and hearing people saying our minority students don't have the basic skills necessary for them to be successful in school," she said. "When I hear that one of the hardest things is to get parents involved in their children's lives, I know I have to act. If you're coming from a low-economic family, children will not get exposed to the finer things in life while they are in school unless someone else provides it for them.
"All parents, regardless of how uneducated they are, want the very best for their children. Some don't know how to get those resources for their children. I want to show that Inlet Grove is a family. When one hurts, we all hurt. When we see that children aren't reading at grade level, I had to take action with not only the child but the entire family. Some parents have said to me, 'Dr. Banks, I can't read, but I want my child to learn to read.' This statement hurts. I knew I had to do more. I don't have money to pay some of the volunteers. Their commitment in coming out to help means so much to Inlet Grove."
What happens when parents refuse to participate in the Saturday classes? Banks said she asks the parents to come to her office to explain. If a weekend job is the problem, for example, she will find a way for them to attend a weekday session.
And for parents who persistently refuse to participate?
"I remind parents that one of the agreements for your child to enter Inlet Grove is that you would participate in your child's learning," Banks said. "If you don't, your child will return to his or her home school at the end of the semester."
Banks has the support of Palm Beach County schools superintendent Wayne Gent. Like Banks, he understands the singular importance of parental involvement.