Parents Pitching In

In Sacramento, the school district is getting moms and dads involved, which helps their kids—and the schools.

Thinking of college: Susana Bravo (second from left) and her husband, Rodolfo Salazar, with her children, Ian and Lizzet, at either end.
Courtesy of Susana Bravo
Ted Hesson
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Ted Hesson
Jan. 27, 2016, 11:30 a.m.

When Judy Mont­gomery’s daugh­ter star­ted kinder­garten in 1984, she did what came nat­ur­ally: She joined a par­ent coun­cil at her Sac­ra­mento school. “I just star­ted vo­lun­teer­ing and tak­ing on lead­er­ship roles,” she said. “It’s what my mom did. I was raised with that—it’s what you did.”

As she guided her three chil­dren through the Cali­for­nia cap­it­al’s pub­lic schools, she pro­gressed from a vo­lun­teer to a part-time par­ent­al ad­vis­ory role that al­lowed her to serve as a li­ais­on between par­ents and the school dis­trict. Her in­volve­ment be­came more than a hobby: When she needed a job in 1996, she be­came a sev­enth-grade teach­er. After sev­en years in front of a classroom, she be­came an ad­min­is­trat­or and, in 2012, the prin­cip­al of Mat­suyama Ele­ment­ary School, where half of the stu­dents come from poor fam­il­ies.

Her unique ex­per­i­ence—from con­cerned par­ent to teach­er to prin­cip­al—made her ap­pre­ci­ate the im­port­ance of par­ent­al in­volve­ment to a school’s suc­cess. So, last fall, she jumped at the chance to join the school dis­trict’s Par­ent Lead­er­ship Path­ways pro­gram, which shows par­ents and care­givers how they can play a more act­ive role in their child’s edu­ca­tion. This is es­pe­cially use­ful at the Mat­suyama school, with a his­tory as a less di­verse, more af­flu­ent stu­dent body that can make it harder for new, non­white par­ents to feel at home.

The Sac­ra­mento City Uni­fied School Dis­trict star­ted the pro­gram in 2010 as a way to bet­ter serve par­ents while en­list­ing them as part­ners, as part of a stra­tegic plan that stressed fam­ily en­gage­ment. This was a chal­len­ging task in this ra­cially and eth­nic­ally di­verse city, where the av­er­age fam­ily earns $20,000 a year less than statewide. Among the dis­trict’s 43,000 stu­dents, 71 per­cent are poor enough to qual­i­fy for a sub­sid­ized lunch. Many stu­dents come from fam­il­ies of im­mig­rants; 38 per­cent speak a lan­guage oth­er than Eng­lish at home, primar­ily Span­ish but also Hmong, Vi­et­namese, Rus­si­an, Chinese, and more than three dozen oth­er tongues. The pro­gram of­fers par­ents a crash course of sorts, cov­er­ing everything from us­ing so­cial me­dia to nav­ig­at­ing Cali­for­nia’s sys­tem of pub­lic high­er edu­ca­tion, in 30 weekly, two-hour-long ses­sions.

“Schools can’t run without par­ents,” par­ent-turned-prin­cip­al Mont­gomery said—and the schol­ar­ship backs her up. Stud­ies have shown con­sist­ently that chil­dren with par­ents who are more in­volved per­form bet­ter aca­dem­ic­ally. Wil­li­am Jeynes, an edu­ca­tion pro­fess­or at Cali­for­nia State Uni­versity (Long Beach), looked at 77 stud­ies in­volving more than 300,000 stu­dents as part of a meta-ana­lys­is pub­lished by the Har­vard Fam­ily Re­search Pro­ject. He found that chil­dren with more-en­gaged par­ents per­formed “sub­stan­tially high­er” in school, scor­ing sev­en-tenths of a grade bet­ter than their peers with less-in­volved par­ents. That’s the dif­fer­ence between a B+ and an A.

From the stand­point of child de­vel­op­ment, par­ent­al in­volve­ment mat­ters for sev­er­al reas­ons, ac­cord­ing to Nancy Hill, a de­vel­op­ment­al psy­cho­lo­gist and pro­fess­or of edu­ca­tion at the Har­vard Gradu­ate School of Edu­ca­tion. First and fore­most, par­ents or care­givers rep­res­ent a sta­bil­iz­ing force in a child’s life. Bey­ond that, by vo­lun­teer­ing at a school, par­tic­u­larly at the ele­ment­ary level, par­ents can find out how the school func­tions and make im­port­ant con­tacts with­in the build­ing. They can also watch their child in the classroom and gauge her or his style of learn­ing. When par­ents un­der­stand what’s hap­pen­ing at school, they can ap­ply the same ex­pect­a­tions and rules at home—a “com­mon lan­guage,” in Hill’s words.

For many par­ents and care­givers, spend­ing time at school isn’t easy. Someone work­ing two jobs might be hard-pressed to de­vote an even­ing a week to school activ­it­ies. Par­ents who don’t speak Eng­lish may feel in­tim­id­ated or simply un­able to com­mu­nic­ate with the school staff. In some Lat­in Amer­ic­an cul­tures, Hill noted, a par­ent who ex­presses con­cern to a teach­er might be con­sidered rude.

Re­gard­less of these im­ped­i­ments, it’s im­port­ant that schools try to get par­ents in­volved, ex­perts say, and in a way that re­flects the di­versity of the stu­dent body. Too of­ten, the same par­ents vo­lun­teer for everything, Hill said—“and then you have sys­tem­at­ic­ally left out en­tire voices, or even some­times en­tire sub­pop­u­la­tions.”

The Sac­ra­mento cur­riculum for par­ents is split in­to three courses—“Emer­ging,” “Learn­ing,” and “Lead­ing”—each re­quir­ing par­ents to at­tend weekly ses­sions for 10 weeks. The first level be­gins with some ba­sic yet vi­tal con­cepts such as main­tain­ing open com­mu­nic­a­tion between par­ents and chil­dren. The middle course ex­plains the Com­mon Core stand­ards, which Cali­for­nia ad­op­ted in 2010, and how to keep tabs on­line on their child’s per­form­ance, among oth­er top­ics. The last course pre­pares par­ents for lead­er­ship roles in the dis­trict, teach­ing them how to en­list the sup­port of oth­er par­ents and to or­gan­ize pro­jects in their school. Par­ents also learn how to fa­cil­it­ate a meet­ing, ana­lyze data, and un­der­stand the nu­ances of group dy­nam­ics.

The goal of the fi­nal set of classes is to dis­cov­er com­munity lead­ers who can help the schools and their ad­min­is­tra­tion. School of­fi­cials hope to en­cour­age par­ents to “build that con­fid­ence so that they can run for some sort of po­s­i­tion,” said Tu Moua-Car­roz, an as­sist­ant su­per­in­tend­ent who over­sees the ef­fort. Some of the roughly 400 par­ents who en­roll in the pro­gram each year will wind up on a school site coun­cil or in a lead­er­ship role in a Par­ent Teach­er As­so­ci­ation or a sim­il­ar group. The courses can also serve as a place for im­mig­rants to prac­tice their Eng­lish.

Susana Bravo, a 46-year-old Mex­ic­an im­mig­rant with two chil­dren in the Sac­ra­mento pub­lic school sys­tem, raves about the pro­gram, which she com­pleted last spring. She knew little of how the Amer­ic­an edu­ca­tion sys­tem func­tioned when she moved from Guadala­jara to Sac­ra­mento in 2004. After com­plet­ing all three tiers of the train­ing, she says she feels more com­fort­able speak­ing in pub­lic and now has bet­ter re­la­tion­ships with her chil­dren’s teach­ers. On­line, she learned how to enter the dis­trict’s stu­dent-per­form­ance portal, In­fin­ite Cam­pus, so she could stay a step ahead of her chil­dren. A side be­ne­fit of the train­ing ses­sions is meet­ing oth­er par­ents, so she knows people who might pick up her chil­dren in an emer­gency.

Bravo’s son and daugh­ter, Ian and Lizz­et, are in the sev­enth and eighth grade, re­spect­ively, but thanks to the pro­gram, she’s already think­ing about col­lege. The cur­riculum in­cludes a trip to a cam­pus in each of the state’s three sys­tems of pub­lic high­er edu­ca­tion—the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia, Cali­for­nia State Uni­versity, and the com­munity col­leges. Ian, who has a learn­ing dis­ab­il­ity, hadn’t been in­ter­ested in go­ing to col­lege, but a vis­it to Cali­for­nia State’s Sac­ra­mento cam­pus changed his out­look. “He really liked it when he vis­ited the classrooms,” his moth­er re­called. “When he saw that the teach­ers spoke Span­ish, he told me, ‘Mom, I can see my­self be­ing here.’”

Par­ent Lead­er­ship Path­ways also provides re­sources, such as work­shops on fin­an­cial aid and fin­an­cial lit­er­acy, that ex­plain how she can help pay for her chil­dren’s edu­ca­tion. Her daugh­ter wants to go to col­lege too, but Bravo wor­ries about how to af­ford it. “The pro­gram has helped us un­der­stand that there are ways to get help,” she said, “that we’re not alone.”

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