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Article of Interest - Parental Involvement

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Bridges4Kids LogoThe Parent Gap Part 1: Pulling in Separate Directions
by Tim Simmons and Susan Ebbs, Raleigh News & Observer, September 29, 2002
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  Soon 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 a solution.

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 differences.

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 the other.

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 key findings:

* 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 gap.

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 students.

Despite such contrasts, the most difficult subject for many teachers to discuss is the relationship between race and achievement.

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 he means.

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 again.

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 know.

"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 when asked."

She paused briefly before making one last point.

"I know they weren't all poor."

Different priorities

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 teacher.

"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 town.

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 of parents.

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 does.

"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 who do."

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 boys.

"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 first place."

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 that much."

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 problems arise.

"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 become skeptical.

"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 day.

"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 hello."

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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 there.

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 parents.

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 Washington Elementary,

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 they're thinking?"

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 soft drinks.

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."

PTAs' promise

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 classrooms.

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 diversity."

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 low-income parents.

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, too."

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 discipline.

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 have.

"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 the hook.

"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 becomes debilitating."

In schools with good communication, there is usually a leader who sends clear and frequent signals to parents that they are welcome.

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 failing.

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 parents either.

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.


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