Parent Gap Part 1: Pulling in Separate Directions
by Tim Simmons and Susan Ebbs, Raleigh News & Observer,
September 29, 2002
For more articles like this
after her daughter died and Brenda Joyner found herself raising
three grandchildren, the Durham retiree couldn't help but notice
something unusual about other black parents in the public
schools. In short, they weren't around much.
"I just don't see a lot of African-American parents involved in
the schools," said Joyner, 51. "I wonder if they really see the
importance of it."
An abundance of research shows that parents play a critical role
in the classroom success or failure of their children.
And as North Carolina schools continue to struggle with a
persistent achievement gap between black and white students,
attention is beginning to turn toward the role that parents
might play in that problem -- and how they might become part of
Many teachers and black parents blame each other for the lagging
performance of the children, but research and interviews by The
News & Observer show that the failure is more often a shared
responsibility -- and that the gap remains stubbornly wide
because of it.
At the national level, new research shows that regardless of
family income, African-American children begin kindergarten with
weaker skills than their white classmates. But instead of
closing the gap, the kindergarten experience magnifies academic
At the state level, an analysis of school data shows that many
African-American students spend much more time watching
television and less time doing homework and reading than
children of other races and ethnic groups -- and their academic
performance suffers as a result.
Educators know it is parents who lay the groundwork for a
student's success -- with what they do at home and with what
they do to build a strong home-school relationship. At home, for
example, they can instill a love for reading in preschoolers and
set high standards all the way through high school. And they can
cultivate a healthy alliance with teachers.
But relationships between black parents and classroom teachers,
when they exist at all, are often characterized by distrust and
low expectations on both sides.
Both agree that black student achievement could improve
dramatically if parents and teachers worked together. But as
separate groups, neither seems willing to bend to accommodate
During the past six months, The N&O interviewed almost 100
parents, teachers and education leaders about the relationships
between black parents and the public schools. It also examined
test scores and survey data that measure links among
achievement, parental attitudes and the ways in which parents
govern their children's time outside the classroom. Among the
* REGARDLESS OF INCOME, African-American children nationwide are
entering kindergarten less prepared than their white classmates,
according to information collected by the U.S. Department of
Education. The differences are often small at first, but the
average scores for black children are always lower.
* INSTEAD OF CLOSING THE GAP, the first year of schooling for
those children aggravated their academic differences. Research
published this year from the School of Social Work at UNC-Chapel
Hill shows the gap in some areas grew with startling speed.
* BY THIRD GRADE, a computer analysis of test scores shows, the
gap in North Carolina is well-established. It changes little at
any grade level after that.
* ACCORDING TO ANNUAL SURVEYS of more than 500,000 North
Carolina students, black students of all income levels watch
more television, do less homework and spend less free time
reading than children of any other ethnic group. Almost 40
percent of African-American students watch four hours of
television or more every day.
Three years ago, when the achievement gap was identified as one
of the state's most pressing problems, less than half of all
black students scored at grade level on statewide tests. Today,
that figure stands at 57 percent. Teachers credit some of that
progress to increased parent involvement, but a more obvious
cause is the enormous pressure placed on principals, teachers
and students to improve test scores.
In reality, parent involvement is so vaguely defined by schools
that many parents still confuse it with attendance at a fall
carnival or a willingness to watch their child perform on stage.
Requests to buckle down on homework or limit TV are mostly heard
by parents who already understand the value of such advice.
"We say we want parent involvement, but what we need is a
parent's influence," said Robert Bridges, a retired Wake County
schools superintendent who has spent much of his career working
to improve minority achievement. "That's the key, and we're
often not getting that.
"There is a serious and consistent disconnect with many minority
families," Bridges said. "Both sides just accept it. It's not a
poor relationship. There just isn't a relationship."
The breakdown in communication, Bridges said, is often at the
root of both academic failures and behavior problems.
While 57 percent of the state's African-American students scored
at grade level on the state's reading and math tests in spring
2002, the comparable figure for white children was 84 percent.
Middle-class children scored higher than poor children among all
races, but higher family incomes still didn't close the racial
Black children are also more likely than white students to be
suspended or expelled for their behavior, and far more likely to
end up in special-education classes that handle disruptive
Despite such contrasts, the most difficult subject for many
teachers to discuss is the relationship between race and
Science long ago refuted the idea that race is linked in any way
to intelligence. But it's a racist notion that nonetheless
persists in society. That may be why teachers don't talk about
the issue much, often choosing the safer and more comfortable
discussion about the hardships of poverty.
But daily poverty is mostly an abstraction among North Carolina
teachers. Most were reared in middle-class homes. Almost 85
percent are white.
Besides, children routinely break the stereotypes assigned to
them. Black children from poor families succeed. Wealthy white
children fail for lack of effort and attention. Left unsaid is
that these children are the exceptions.
"I've known very poor children who succeed, so you need to be
careful not to cut things too finely," said Birchie Warren, an
African-American father of two students at Southeast Raleigh
High School. "But you also need to face the facts. Race has
something to do with the way we communicate, and it's not
helping the process."
Debbie Pethel has never met Birchie Warren, but she knows what
Pethel is a math teacher at East Millbrook Middle School in
Raleigh. Last May, as the school year neared an end, she stood
before a group of seventh-grade students who had failed the
state math exam on their first try and were scheduled to take it
She was surprised at first to see that all the students were
girls. Even though she expected many to be minority students,
she was also surprised to see that all the girls were black. But
she wasn't the least surprised at something only a teacher would
"These were the kids whose parents I never saw," she said. "They
were the ones who didn't sign the papers that went home or
return phone calls. They were the ones who didn't send things in
She paused briefly before making one last point.
"I know they weren't all poor."
A Preyer Distinguished Professor at the UNC-CH School of Social
Work, Oscar Barbarin has long known that race matters in school
relationships. But after more than two decades of research on
minority education issues, he still finds people reluctant to
accept his findings.
Much of his current research involves survey data from the Early
Childhood Longitudinal Study, a project involving 22,000 parents
nationwide conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. The
study began tracking the children in the fall of 1998 by asking
parents a variety of questions designed to better understand
families and their attitudes about education.
While the data has generated a number of reports about the
effects of poverty in the classroom and the performance of
children by race, Barbarin is one of just a few researchers to
study the families when sorted by race and income combined.
He found that regardless of family income, black parents placed
less importance than other ethnic groups on the ability of their
children to master letters and numbers in preschool. Such skills
are important, the parents said, but it mattered more to them
that their children find the classroom friendly and accepting.
"There appears to be more of a belief among black parents that
once their child acclimates to the classroom, they can catch up
quickly if they are behind," Barbarin said.
The children in the study did catch up on the simplest of skills
such as recognizing numbers or sounding out letters one at a
time. But by the end of kindergarten, a clear gap emerged along
lines of race when the children were asked to add, subtract or
identify the sound of a letter at the end of a word -- skills
that mark a child's readiness to tackle first-grade challenges.
"The research doesn't tell us if those differences were the
result of something the parents did, something the teachers did
or a bit of both," Barbarin said. "But you can see the children
arrived with a small deficit that grew noticeably larger by the
end of the year."
Parents need to know this, Barbarin said. And they should know
about studies that show a good relationship with teachers can
help children overcome the most challenging problems.
But Barbarin's work is not the kind most parents would run
across by accident. In place of detailed surveys and studied
analysis, many parents judge their schools at the gut level --
and their judgment might not even involve the classroom or the
"To be truthful, I hated this school at first," said Deborah
Pulley of Raleigh, who raises two nieces and two nephews -- two
of whom attend Poe Elementary School in the southeast part of
The problem, Pulley explained, was not a teacher request or a
racial slight, but a decision by the school to have her
5-year-old nephew walk home at the end of the day. That meant he
had to cross a major road that was clearly too busy for such a
young child. Pulley wanted him to ride the bus home, and she
couldn't seem to get the issue resolved right away.
Her approach to schooling was common among single mothers with
limited income. She made sure the children had food, shelter and
as much love as she could provide. She expected the school to
educate them and keep them safe.
As far as she was concerned, Poe wasn't keeping its end of the
deal when her nephew was allowed to cross a busy street by
himself. She was in no mood to forgive other mistakes or even
discuss classroom issues. She suspected the children might
benefit if she were more involved, but she just didn't want to
tangle over anything else.
Then she reluctantly joined a program that year called Families
and Schools Together. She had no intention of liking the
program, even though the children loved it right away.
Eventually, she started looking forward to the weekly gatherings
At some point, she started to feel at home in the school. Her
children now have a safety net they lacked before, and they are
steady performers in the classroom. Still, Pulley isn't about to
criticize others who haven't come to see the schools as she
"I didn't feel like I belonged, so I didn't know how things
worked," she said. "The PTA? I wouldn't think about it.
Volunteer? I didn't do it. I might have come for a teacher
conference, but like a field trip? That's why the teacher goes
along. I don't think like that now, but I know a lot of parents
A lingering distrust
Most African-American parents older than 40 can tell you
precisely what year they were integrated into white schools. It
meant the end of classroom cliques, the beginning of long bus
rides and entry into a foreign world. Even those who succeeded
in their new classrooms quickly learned to keep their guard up.
The experience, parents say, helps explain why even
middle-class, college-educated black parents can harbor a
lingering distrust of schools.
"We all say children are resilient," said Warren, the parent
from Southeast Raleigh High. "Well, yes, but there are some
things I will never forget as a result of that experience. So
what's carrying over now is, I'm feeling that same compelling
need to protect my kids."
The goal, Warren said, is to funnel that need into some sort of
positive relationship with teachers and other parents. But it
will never be the same school relationship that middle-class
white parents know and understand.
Where white parents might disagree with a teacher and expect to
resolve their differences, black parents can't help but wonder
how race will affect the problems they want to address. That's
particularly true when the problems involve the behavior of
"Let's lay it on the line," said Ike Wheeler, a father of four
who has been active at every Wake County school his children
have attended. "Most of the teachers are white females, and they
seem to have a low tolerance for working with black males. You
have to be careful or your kid will be brushed to the corner."
As a former PTA board member, Wheeler has his own beliefs about
why this happens. He understands that teachers have schedules to
keep and lessons to cover, and that parents, principals and
students all want more time than teachers have to give.
"School today is run like a business," Wheeler said. "There's no
personal touch. I'm not saying the teachers don't care. They're
just too busy to reach out when a kid falls behind. And that's
especially true when you didn't expect a kid to succeed in the
Distrust is so strong that parents will sometimes seek a second
opinion about their child from a black teacher, based solely on
the teacher's race.
"I wish my son had more black teachers," said Cedonia Edwards, a
lab technician in Research Triangle Park whose son is a
sixth-grader in Chapel Hill. "It doesn't always help, but it
bothers me that almost all his teachers are white. It seems some
teachers don't want to teach black kids -- and my son needs to
know that. I don't hide that from him. Society hasn't changed
Edwards realizes that being so blunt with her son might poison
the often fragile beginnings of any teacher-student
relationship. She hopes to overcome that by demanding that her
son apply himself. She checks his homework each evening. She
controls the television. She pulled him off his basketball team
last year after he tried to get himself out of a little jam by
lying to his teacher.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. She has learned over
the years to trust neither her son nor the teachers when
"Of course kids will tell you everything is fine when it's not,"
Edwards said. "But I've had teachers, too, who say one thing and
do another. If a parent doesn't stay involved and stand up for
their kid, he's gonna get lost."
When nothing changes
Teachers hear complaints and promises every day -- so many times
from so many parents that even relatively young teachers quickly
"Most of my parents would be on board if I called them in and
told them we needed to set something up to help their child,"
said Bob Lindquist, a seventh-grade math teacher at Carrington
Middle School in Durham. "But I don't know how many would follow
through. We have a lot of parents who talk a good game, but the
next day at school nothing has changed."
When nothing changes at school, teachers assume the message
isn't sinking in at home. Sometimes, they don't even know from
week to week what kind of home they are trying to reach.
Throughout the Triangle, as well as the rest of the state, more
than 80 percent of school-age white children live in two-parent
homes. Historically, the two-parent family is precisely the
household structure that schools were designed to reach. It also
describes the childhood families of most teachers.
But in North Carolina, only 47 percent of all African-American
students live in two-parent homes. That means the typical family
in places such as Durham County -- where minorities make up more
than half the district's enrollment -- is not at all typical
from the school's perspective.
In the vast majority of cases, the single parent raising the
child is the mother.
"If they are very young parents -- let's say parents who are
less than 20 -- then somewhere during the year the kids are
going to end up spending time with grandma," said Valerie
Souchek, a fifth-grade teacher at Southwest Elementary School in
Durham. "You can almost count on it."
The bigger problems, Souchek explained, occur when single moms
are forced to split their children's care among grandparents,
aunts, other family members and friends.
When that happens, teachers never know exactly who, if anyone,
is paying attention to the progress reports and class
announcements that leave the school. As children get older, they
quickly learn to take advantage of their parents' inattention.
"Sometimes a parent will complain that they were never told
something, even though I am looking at a test their child
brought home and they signed it," Souchek said. "They don't even
realize they signed it."
Parents who aren't paying attention are almost certain to miss
the warning signs that their child is in trouble.
Teachers say it's normal for parents to spend less time at
school as their children grow older. What concerns them are
parents who never develop a sense of when their child is
struggling, when to request a teacher conference or even when to
respond to a personal call or note.
"The majority of parents wait until their child is failing
before they do anything," said Flonie Moore, who teaches math at
Smithfield-Selma High School in Johnston County. "I mean really
failing, like 50s or less for week after week after week."
Teachers say it's unreasonable to expect them to initiate every
parent conversation, especially in middle school and high
school, where they often work with more than 100 students every
"I can't even make phone contact with all my parents over the
course of a year," said Sandy Perkinson, who teaches seniors at
Smithfield-Selma High. "We all have students who we know are
lost, but we just don't have time to reach them."
Sometimes it occurs to Perkinson to pull some of those students
aside during the chaos of a class change and ask them if they
have any goals beyond high school. She wonders how they managed
to meander through 13 years of education without their parents
and the schools ever knowing each other.
Then the bell rings, the hallway empties and everyone disappears
into a nearby classroom.
"There are all kinds of teaching duties that have to be done,"
Perkinson said. "We generally don't call parents just to say
back to the top ~
back to Breaking News
~ back to
The Parent Gap Part 2: Building Partnerships
by Tim Simmons, Raleigh News & Observer, October 2, 2002
North Carolina teachers know all about the achievement gap that
divides black and white students in the classroom. They know
closing the gap will require better relationships with
African-American parents. What they don't know is how to get
Despite a nearly universal recognition that parents play a
critical role in a student's success, few schools have been able
to build true working partnerships with a majority of black
So the task of bridging the gap has fallen, mostly by default,
to a patchwork of parent involvement programs that barely begin
to meet the need.
Dozens of such programs are scattered throughout the state, each
serving 10 or 15 families at a time. But last year more than
300,000 students -- roughly one of every four children in North
Carolina -- fell below grade level. At least half of those
students were black.
"There isn't a program out there that will reach everyone," said
Jean Sculati, a guidance counselor at Washington Elementary
school in Raleigh. "But we won't reach anyone if we don't try."
Most parents who participate say their children are better off
for the experience. But data on such programs are thin, and many
don't last long enough to establish a track record.
Teachers rarely take part, so most programs are run by
volunteers, social workers or other intermediaries who are a
step removed from the classroom. Most offer advice about
homework, turning off the television and keeping regular
schedules, but it's often a soft sell to a reluctant crowd.
"These programs aren't going to solve your problems, but they
make you feel more comfortable at the school," said Tujuana
Bracero, an African-American and mother of three children at
North Carolina's top school officials have talked about a more
extensive effort to encourage parent involvement, including a
statewide campaign. Discussions have included ideas for
community outreach in various neighborhoods and public service
announcements similar to those warning against teen pregnancy or
underage drinking. But the state's unending budget crisis is
likely to stymie large efforts.
Other ideas have surfaced as the state struggles with its
promise to close the racial achievement gap. Playing off of a
national push to get parents more involved, North Carolina PTA
officials would like to see local units spend more time
improving communication between the home and school.
Several school officials, including Wake schools Superintendent
Bill McNeal, also have been urging teachers to make better use
of routine events such as open houses and teacher conferences to
get to know parents.
But most school outreach efforts remain sporadic and largely
dependent on the commitment or enthusiasm of a single principal
or teacher. Even in elementary schools, where parent involvement
is given a higher priority, teachers and principals cannot
entice some parents to come to the classroom.
"I don't know why they don't come," said Robin Herridge,
principal of Selma Elementary School in Johnston County. "These
are the parents we rarely talk with. How can we know what
While teachers are often frustrated over parent involvement, it
is frequently other parents who provide the harshest criticism.
"If a parent doesn't want to get involved, it's hard to get them
to come even if you look them in the eye and ask," said Bracero,
the Washington Elementary mother. "I don't think they are
involved in their kids in general. I wouldn't say they don't
care, but they don't want to make the time."
Ruben Wall Jr. of Durham offers a gentler assessment of parents.
A former elementary school teacher in Chapel Hill, he suspects
that many balk because they don't care to be subjected to
lectures on parenting.
Wall runs a program called Phenomenal Fathers, which he started
informally six years ago when he was searching for ways to get
fathers in his classroom. He decided his best bet was to simply
invite them to spend time with their children over snacks and
School administrators weren't sure what to make of the idea at
first, especially when the fun began to resemble a cross between
birthday parties and a Super Bowl gathering. But fathers were
coming to his classroom after work. Many were African-American.
Then Wall made a small mistake. He decided the fathers needed
some parental training.
"I guess it was my education training," he said. "I couldn't
resist. They made it clear they didn't want training. They just
wanted some place to spend time with their kids."
Today, Phenomenal Fathers is a group of about 125 dads, most of
them black, from five Durham schools. Low-income and middle
class, they meet for breakfast at McDonald's, take in a Durham
Bulls game or help spruce up school grounds. Sometimes they talk
about school issues. Many times they don't.
"I'm taking my cue from them," Wall said. "It's not a
relationship if one party is always telling the other what they
have to do."
If building trust seems time-consuming, Linda Love warns parents
that it's only the beginning of the process when it comes to
working with schools.
A researcher at N.C. Central University, Love runs a program
called the Achievement School. It offers free after-school care
for the children of Oxford Manor public housing in Durham if
their parents agree to enroll in evening classes. The program is
paid for with a mix of public money, corporate contributions and
in-kind donations such as new computers.
For some parents, the school is where they learn basic literacy
skills. For others it means working on a GED. Love thinks
better-educated parents are also parents who will be more
involved in their children's schooling.
But the bargain is often a tough one for her students to keep.
Poor attendance is the reason most of them dropped out of high
school to start with. When the school first opened last fall, it
attracted about a dozen people, including three teenagers who
hoped to earn their GED, a smattering of people in their 20s and
30s and one grandmother.
By the end of spring, a half-dozen people remained to take part
in a small graduation ceremony. Love is a realist who wasn't
expecting miracles in the school's first year. So she's
encouraged to see new parents this fall and pleased with those
from last year who have kept their focus.
"We say we need to meet parents wherever they are," Love said.
"Well, this is what it means. It's a long road."
For more than 80 years, the North Carolina Congress of Parents
and Teachers -- better known as the PTA -- has run one of the
largest school partnerships in the state.
But much like the schools themselves, PTAs have a difficult time
recruiting active minority parents. More than 30 years after
segregated black PTAs were merged into the white units, the
image of the association remains one of mostly middle-class,
white mothers who organize fund-raisers and volunteer in
PTA leaders at the national level would like to change the
group's focus from money-raising to parent involvement. But for
many schools, that will mean closing a huge divide among
parents, state PTA President Tannis F. Nelson said.
"When the time comes to deliver, it is often easier to turn to
your little circle of friends to get things done," Nelson said.
"It's not much different than the way we run our churches or our
civic groups. It's a practical approach, but it doesn't promote
The annual cycle of fund-raisers, the lack of minorities and the
image of a local PTA as handmaiden for a school's administration
often foster the same miscommunication with minority parents
that plagues classroom teachers.
"Parents will sometimes hear the same message from teachers and
walk away with a different impression on what was said. Where
one group hears advice, the other hears criticism," said Hannah
McManus, PTA president at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School
in Chapel Hill.
But the misperceptions work both ways, said Clarie White, state
PTA vice president and director of a program that works with
White recalled how she was asked to help improve relations at a
school in Fayetteville where the principal felt parents were
unresponsive and lazy. The school had even sent a bus to pick
parents up for meetings, but no one would come.
"When I went out and talked to the parents, it turned out that
one of the mothers was angry at one of the teachers, and there
was no way her friends were getting on a bus sent by that
school," White said. "They weren't lazy. They were just mad."
They also weren't talking, which was why the principal assumed
they did not care.
"After all," White said, "he had his proof. He sent a bus, and
it came back empty."
Getting tangled in thorny issues involving race is one obvious
reason why local PTAs tend to stick to raising money and
assembling volunteer lists, Nelson said.
But she thinks PTAs could help close the achievement gap if they
ran parent mentoring programs in which one parent with a child
already in a school was assigned to a new parent to help answer
simple and sometimes mundane questions.
"Parents of all backgrounds need to have a reason to interact
with each other," Nelson said. "You need to break it down to
personal relationships. Everyone needs to feel like they are
supposed to be here. They need to feel like this is their house,
Relationships are key
McNeal, Wake County's school superintendent, thinks there are
ways teachers can gain the trust of parents without
significantly increasing their workload. In particular, he says,
there is one phrase that simply can't be beat.
"Parents notice if their child says, 'The teacher likes me,' "
McNeal said. "The child is the school's best ambassador."
A former teacher who grew up in the segregated schools of
Durham, McNeal is quick to explain that this does not mean a
teacher gives up respect or authority. It means a teacher has
made a child feel wanted and instilled a desire to succeed.
The interplay can be as simple as showing interest. Black
students will notice whether a teacher who gets excited about
the annual State-Carolina football game also knows what the
Aggie-Eagle Classic is about. The same is true of ACC basketball
and the CIAA.
When teachers meet parents during open house, one might drone on
for 30 minutes about supplies, reading lists, rules and
Another might thank parents for the chance to teach their
children, offer a brief overview and let parents' questions
guide her comments. Then she'll leave time to talk with parents
individually about any special interests their children might
"I can guarantee you parents will line up to talk with that
teacher," McNeal said. "She spent the same amount of time at
open house, but her parents walk away believing she really cares
about their children."
Such brief interactions don't create relationships, but they set
"We are in the business of relationships," McNeal said. "If the
relationship is good, then each will allow the other side some
mistakes. If the relationship is bad, they don't allow mistakes.
In fact, they capitalize on it and embellish it to where it
In schools with good communication, there is usually a leader
who sends clear and frequent signals to parents that they are
That's why Jim Key, principal at Carrington Middle School in
Durham, can be found directing traffic in the car pool lanes
just about every day, waving to parents and exchanging
pleasantries. It's why parents hear his voice when the phone
rings with automated school announcements delivered to every
home. It's why he makes it his business to be in public places
where he wants parents to approach him.
Key does this because he knows many impressions are based on
fleeting moments. A chance meeting after a student performance
or a 15-minute conference in the course of 180 days is as much
contact as many parents have with teachers, especially in middle
and high school.
So Key uses daily routines to help convey a message that he's
accessible. He used the same approach to build parent
involvement at Eno Valley Elementary School before moving to the
adjacent campus at Carrington.
"Here in a middle school, I don't know every parent of every
student," Key said. "But every parent should feel as though they
know me. They should feel as though they can walk into my office
at any time to talk about their child."
Key's point is underscored by parents when they are asked to
describe their children's schools. Even parents who never step
inside a school make a point of describing teachers as open and
available or mostly uninterested.
Without exception, parents will mention any teacher who takes
the time to visit their child at home. But such visits are rare
and teachers uniformly resist the idea. Many aren't even able to
reach all their parents by phone.
"If there were time, I don't think there is a teacher here who
would mind going on a home visit," said Carla Allen, a counselor
at East Millbrook Middle School in Raleigh. "But there is never
time. It's usually the social worker who goes."
A visit from the social worker typically means a child is
When a child begins the first day of kindergarten, few parents
ever expect to see the social worker. Kindergarten teachers
routinely say they can reach any parent at almost any time.
But as children grow older, routines become habits and schooling
becomes work -- and many parents find they are just distant
observers. They aren't bad parents, but they aren't involved
Some reawaken to the fact that their children are growing up and
need them. Others wait to be called on by the school counselor
or a volunteer from one of parent involvement programs scattered
throughout the state. If parents pass up the chance, those who
run the programs go to the next family on their list.
There are thousands of parents to choose from.
back to the top ~
back to Breaking News
~ back to