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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