September Challenges:  Building the parent-school team

This article was first published in the Island Word in 2005.  Since then, we’ve seen our local schools working hard to engage parents, and visa versa.  There is still too little money in schools, and parents still have too little time left after making ends meet financially for their families.  There is still a philosophical gap between the mandate of schools to educate minds, and the needs of children to be nurtured as whole human beings, all day long at school and at home.  But there is a wealth of creativity and good will in our schools, and the resourcefulness of individual teachers, principals, EA’s and others in and out of the school system never ceases to inspire us.

We believe that is the job of the whole society to raise its children; to surround parents and teachers with support and encouragement rather than to delegate and forget our shared responsibility for the young.  This collective attitude is a tough sell in these times:  calls for lower taxes seem to trump calls for better schools and government-supported after-school programs.  Nevertheless, we are unapologetic supporting the old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child.”  The challenge before us is to reinvent the “village” for the post-modern era:  keeping its attributes of collective support and belonging, while embracing the vivacity and creative potential of an urban, multicultural and global society. 

School is starting again. The children come through the path by our house twice each day. With their backpacks of school supplies, in their reds and blues or their purples and pinks, the children’s bright shiny faces look like picture books themselves. Each September starts with a heart-rending blend of sorrow for the end of freedom and hopes for the new year.

For parents and for teachers, there is surely a time when each new shining face is a miracle, a one-of-a-kind treasure. Yet, in the year-in, year-out hardships of making do with inadequate resources, the miracle wears thin for some kids. Labeled “lazy” or “from dysfunctional families”, these children fall through the cracks, losing their individuality and becoming the statistics of failure: the bottom quarter of the distribution of Provincial Test scores. In disappointment, parents and teachers can retreat into mutual blame—the parents didn’t care, the school failed, the child shut down.

We’ve asked both parents and teachers how things are going in the parent-school partnership for children, and the reports are unsettling. Teachers spoke of a reality that many parents have not caught up with; they simply do not have the resources to meet the individual needs of real children. Programs like school bands and sports teams have been cut back to where they depend upon parent fees and constant fundraising. Yet children show up more with more needs than ever beyond the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. How, teachers ask, can they make up for parents who are not home?

And parents spoke of a reality that teachers are not equipped to deal with; today’s families depend on schools to provide not just teaching, but care to children whose houses are empty all day and whose parents will return exhausted at six. How, they ask, can they be expected to supplement the job of the school, on top of everything else they do? And, if they can’t keep up with the expanding role of parents as advocates, fundraisers, home-based tutors and school volunteers, will their kids suffer? Both spoke of their frustration with a one-size-fits-all, industrialized model of education, and with inadequate resources to do the job.

We asked Deanna Howell, a support worker at Glacier View School, and Serena’s classroom students who are themselves parents, how the parent-school partnership could improve. Then we dug into our own experiences as parent and step-parent, therapist and educational consultant. Here is what we came up with:

For parents.

1. Read the student planner every single day. See that assignments get completed and returned, and that school events get written on your home calendar.

2. Show up. Come to the parent-teacher interviews. Return calls. Stop by when you can after school. Be a familiar face.

3. Use email to communicate if you have trouble meeting the teacher in person.

4. Ask for clarification. Before you react to your child’s horror story, ask for the teacher’s version. Remember that children want to look good; that’s their job. It’s also their job to try to bamboozle you and rule the grown-ups through divide and conquer! Do get more than one version of the story.

5. Deal with your own issues about school, away from school. Everybody has their own memories of school, and many of us carry memories of shame from our own childhoods. Pluck up your courage; talk to someone; do anything it takes to keep your own bad experiences from interfering with your child’s education. Then go to your child’s school ready to be in the present. You belong there in your child’s corner.

6. Let teachers be individuals, and encourage your children to learn from all kinds of people. Judge lightly, and support what is good about your children’s mentors.

For teachers and school personnel

1. Remember how much courage it takes for parents to come to school. If parents were as comfortable with school as you are, they would all have become teachers! Some parents are literally shaking in their shoes when they arrive. Treat them well, and welcome them.

2. Ask questions, and respect a parent’s expertise about his or her own child. Be ready to take in, as well as to give out, information and advice.

3. Before you accept a child’s story that his or her parents “don’t care”, “don’t read notes”, or “won’t let me do my homework”, get the parent’s story (see point 4, under “parents”).

4. Respect family time. Don’t have important events and projects depend upon a parent’s daytime availability. Don’t over-assign homework. Most families have precious little family time to relax together and to pass along all of the practical skills and values that schools don’t teach (like making pancakes and cleaning up the kitchen).

5. Democratize opportunities for extra-curricular involvement. De-emphasize or scrap expensive trips and Cadillac opportunities that require families to pay large expenses. Re-invest in accessible activities in the home community, including sports, arts, public speaking, and volunteerism.

6. Don’t pre-judge families. They come in all shapes and sizes, with all kinds of challenges and strengths; just like children do. Try to understand, appreciate, and reach out to them.

For politicians and policy-makers

1. Make schools into a multi-purpose front line of services. Schools really are the “village” that it takes to raise a child. They are safety nets for whole families. Think broadly, and have the courage to dedicate enough money to restore and re-create a school-centered community for families.

2. Restore funding for extra-curricular activities that are accessible to everyone, including music (provide instruments to rent at reduced cost or free to needy students), sports (provide the uniforms, the “School Letters”, the facilities and equipment), performing and visual arts, public speaking and debate.

3. Follow through with promises of child-care, including high quality, affordable after-school programs. Add nutrition (healthy breakfast, lunch and snack programs) and health services (school-based nurses).

4. Encourage schools to do individualized planning for children. Don’t gate-keep with rigid criteria for special programs. Don’t rely on diagnostic labels that stigmatize some children as “disabled”; instead, seek to understand, accept, and teach children with a wide variety of learning styles, within the classroom whenever possible.