Summary: Parent volunteers in schools can provide the critical attention needed to alter the academic trajectory of at risk kids. The daunting organizational tasks required, however, are often beyond the funding capabilities of schools themselves. One neighborhood association in Chicago has filled the breach.
The making of truly community schools, particularly on the elementary level, in which parents are frequent contributors in the classroom and are well melded into the fabric of their kids’ school, has long been a goal of particularly urban school districts throughout the US. Studies have long identified a benefit to student test scores in those schools that have managed the feat, as testified in another of the Seattle Times’ useful Education Lab articles, by Linda Shaw, this time focused on Chicago’s Logan Square Neighborhood Association and the schools in which that community organization manages targeted parent volunteerism in local schools.
While the benefits of parent volunteerism in the Chicago example include the proverbial parental eye on student wayward tendencies and the sense of growth in the volunteers themselves, which can only have a role model influence on the sons and daughters, the more profound effect has evolved from the pairing of laboring students with parent cum mentors in a consistent relationship geared toward academic progress. This, to a degree that a single teacher simply cannot manage herself with twenty five or even thirty students in an elementary classroom.
Contemporary studies of the schools involved have confirmed that the more intensive relationships the parents have provided have led to improved math and reading scores for the kids involved.
To promote such relationships is to get at the heart of remedy for struggles in schools of our at risk populations. Cheaper than instructional aides, and equally committed, it is a wonder than more communities have not found ways to utilize parents in a similarly intensive fashion.
Parents have long raised money for specific needs of their schools, particularly in suburban precincts, often targeted toward the art, music, or sports programs that have been axed as a consequence of misguided budget battles. But the integration of parent energies and perspective into the classroom itself has been an elusive goal for a number of reasons.
In my own urbanizing suburban high school, for example, the integration of parent volunteers into the classroom on any meaningful level properly would take time and resources our school simply didn’t have. In an environment where resources and time were required in testing schemes and academic improvement regimens required by state and federal authorities there was no room at the inn.
Moreover, many of the parents that we would have wanted to attract, from our growing Latino constituency for example, either themselves struggled with English or lacked extended formal education of their own, and so felt themselves outsiders, foreigners, to their own kids’ school. Fledgling outreach efforts in Spanish, such as those of a fellow counselor and administrator around issues of college application, were appreciated by parents, but fell short of the kind of a fundamental entry into the school culture attained in this particular Chicago example.
The difference in Chicago is the presence since 1964of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, a multipurpose community organization (ghost of Saul Alinsky?) that has in recent years been spotlighted for its success in partnership with Chicago schools to bridge just these gaps in relationship between school and parent community, and ultimately to provide critical relationships in learning between adult community and students at risk.
Parenthetically, the vitality of the LSNA over time, and with its apparent birth in the Civil Rights movement, raises interesting speculation about the link between political empowerment realized and ensuing grass roots solutions to local problems.
Persistent outreach to parents that seems not to take “no” for an answer is the first step. For the awkwardness of immigrant parents in entering the school house, training on school culture is the beginning overture, together with empowering messages about the importance of the leadership and partnership the parents can provide the school.
Moreover, the Association goes beyond the immediate school volunteer level to urge parents to pursue their own future, which has often proven catalyst for parent volunteers to themselves train formally as educators, some of whom now work in the same schools they once entered so tentatively as a parent. Such telling alumni commitment one assumes further deepens the culture of volunteerism in the school, and in turn provides role models with whom newly recruited parents can identify.
I like particularly the sophisticated Logan Square Association notion that teachers will learn as much from parents as parents will learn from the teachers. In my experience, one seldom teaches another anything of significance without learning something in return. In the Chicago instance, this respect of the parent community in the face of their own self dismissal is I think truly transformative.
With abundant anecdotal evidence, and research support that goes back years and still accumulating, why is it that such successful parent volunteer programming has not blossomed more widely? As Shaw in her article notes, “The program involves a lot of organizational work — recruiting and training parents, arranging for background checks, mediating conflicts that arise and raising money to cover the parents’ stipends, their training and to hire a part-time coordinator for each school.” In short, there is a whole organizational apparatus exterior to the school that supports this useful work – it does not appear solely out of good intentions and wishful thinking – and has given pause to some communities seeking to replicate the Logan Square program. Not every community has a vigorous neighborhood association that can play the administrative role.
Foundations and government agencies and the schools themselves have funded the Logan Square program, which begs the question, why are not legislatures, themselves under fire for the struggles of their state’s schools, more eager to loosen the purse strings for such programs that provide a benefit for a fraction of the cost of other initiatives? To its credit, the Illinois legislature has ticketed one million dollars to expand the program. Though it is difficult from Shaw’s article to tell the cost of the Logan Square program in each school it affects, it does appear to be well under the cost of one teacher, salary and benefits. Such a deal for 15 to 20 parent mentors who spend ten hours a week each to connect with kids whose future desperately needs their attention.