In recent decades, the term “helicopter parent” has come to refer to a parent so involved in every aspect of his or her child’s life that the parent seems to be perpetually hovering.
And while experts in education believe there can be too much of a good thing, substantial research shows that appropriate levels and types of parental involvement are just that — a good thing. The more, the better.
“Every school has a level of parental involvement where you have parents who are very active, giving of their time and their other resources,” said J.W. Carpenter, executive director of the Birmingham Education Foundation, also known as ED. “You see some schools that have a lot more than others, especially some of the elementary schools.
“Then,” he said. “I don’t talk to any school where they wouldn’t want more parental involvement.”
A New Wave of Evidence, a 2002 report from Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, found that “When schools, families and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer and like school more.”
Summarized on a National Education Association website, the 2002 report looked at research on parental involvement for the previous decade. It found that students with involved parents (regardless of income or background) are more likely to:
- Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs
- Be promoted, pass their classes and earn credits
- Attend school regularly
- Have better social skills, show improved behavior and adapt well to school
- Graduate and go on to postsecondary education
Given that, it might not be surprising that African-American parents in a recent survey found that the “lack of parental involvement” is the biggest issue affecting black students’ quality of education.
That finding emerges in a new national survey of African-Americans on factors in their quality of life. The survey, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) and Ebony magazine, polled 1,005 African Americans on their mood and on issues related to income, housing, healthcare, relationships, race and education.
Responses to education-related questions made up a large part of the summary of survey findings. When asked to identify the biggest issues in education, about a fifth of respondents said, “lack of parental involvement,” making it the most frequently cited concern. Other concerns included “overcrowded classrooms” (17 percent), “funding differences among school districts” (17 percent), “quality of teachers” (16 percent), and “students with behavioral issues or special needs” (10 percent).
Of those respondents with school-age children or grandchildren, only 37 percent said the nation was “making progress” in efforts to provide “a quality education.” About a third said the country is “losing ground” in education and 28 percent said that there has been no appreciable change in educational quality.
Conducted in February, the survey results were released after the launch of two new Obama Administration initiatives on behalf of young people of color. In January, President Obama appointed leaders in education, philanthropy and law to serve on a commission for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. The president is also seeking support from foundations and businesses for “My Brother’s Keeper,” a campaign he announced on Feb. 27 to improve the education and life prospects of young Latino and African-American males.
WKKF is one of 10 major foundations that have agreed to work with the White House to support the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. However, education has been a priority for WKKF throughout its 83-year history, said Carla Thompson, vice president of program strategy at the foundation.
Referring to the survey results that cite “lack of parental involvement” as the biggest education issue, Thompson said, “That doesn’t surprise me, [because] everyone has a stake in education and a vested interest in education.”
Thompson said African-American focus groups told WKKF last year that education ranked second only to job security as the most important issue to blacks overall. In response, the foundation in August made a request for grant proposals for “innovative” initiatives to engage families in education.
“We received more than 1,200 applications, which broke all Kellogg [application] records,” said Thompson. “Family involvement is a foundational element of quality education.”
Jamelle Prewitt, president of the PTSA at Carver High School in Birmingham, believes in being involved. She has one son, Jacob, graduating soon, following in the footsteps of his older brother Joshua. She’s been involved in their schooling since they were in elementary school.
“I feel that it is important,” she said. “It allows your kids to see that you are willing to invest in their well-being and their education when you take time out to spend with them to see what they need and what they want. I also feel that you gain respect from their peers as well as teachers seeing that you are willing to help, whether it is your child or other children.”
Prewitt said that when her kids started at Arthur Elementary in the Roebuck area, she walked into a very parent-friendly environment. “They had a very strong PTA. They did everything; they did reading; they did homework, field trips galore. … We were like a little family inside of the school,” she said. “It was the same way when my youngest went to WJ Christian.”
Prewitt said that in subsequent years, however, she has noticed a drop off in parental involvement, seemingly coinciding to the kids getting older. And she said she has seen some schools where “there was no parental involvement. I mean, none at all. I mean just drop their kids off and that’s it.”
Parents had a variety of reasons, Prewitt said. Some said they themselves were busy because they had gone back to school. Others said they were taking care of an adult parent. Still others said they were intimidated going to their kids’ schools because their children knew more about the subjects being studied than they did.
None of that seemed to be a valid excuse to Prewitt, who had to juggle a full-time job, being a wife and mother, and at one point taking care of her ailing father while staying involved in her sons’ education. “I don’t think that any parents, regardless of their situation, should not spend time in their school,” she said. “Even if it’s just for an hour.” She sacrificed sleep — for a time she worked an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift — to spend time with her kids.
In Birmingham, ED, a nonprofit focused on education in the city schools, found that there are some best practices at play.
“The schools that do the best work on parental involvement, they’re doing consistent outreach,” Carpenter said. “They are consistently communicating, and they know their parents and understand their schedules to make sure that they are giving parents an opportunity to serve that is convenient for them and is directly benefiting their kids.
“I think where we see schools (not just in Birmingham, all over Alabama, all over the country) not do as good a job with parental involvement is where they are not communicating consistently — when they don’t know their parents, where they’re not giving the parents good reasons to get involved in the schools.”
Carpenter called to mind two good examples, while emphasizing that they may not be the only ones in the Birmingham City Schools. “One is at Wilkerson Middle School, and Constance Burnes is the principal there. They have achieved some very good results, especially when it comes to reading. And what Constance Burnes does, in terms of getting in touch with parents, is exactly what I’m talking about. She is consistently communicating through a lot of different venues.”
By that, Carpenter means, “letters home, email, phone calls. If a student is not there, Ms. Burnes will get in a car and drive to the house. She’ll have events at the school. … People sometimes ask, ‘What’s the best way to get in touch with parents?’ The best way is every way,” Carpenter said. “You have to be redundant. Some of our parents, just like those in the working world, are better with email, or better with phone or better with text, and you have to try all of them. That’s why you have to get to know your parents to make sure that you are reaching them in a way that’s convenient for them.”
On top of that, he said, Ms. Burnes “is consistently making sure they feel welcome at the school. She is consistently highlighting student achievement when her parents show up. There is a reason that they’re showing up to see kids doing neat stuff, whether it’s academically, whether it’s athletically, whether it’s extracurricularly.
“And I think another good example is Michael Wilson at Glen Iris,” Carpenter added. “One thing, in addition to all of those things I cited for Ms. Burnes, Michael Wilson has a significant population — somewhere in the neighborhood, I think, of 25 percent of students — who are English language-learners. And he’s made sure he’s brought on staff members who speak Spanish. He’s made sure that all of his parents feel included at that school even if some of them struggle with English, and I think that’s an important step, creating that inclusive environment at the school level making sure that you’re working with the parents to put them in a position to be successful.
“That school is a welcoming environment for everyone. It is consistently open. It’s open on the weekends. It’s open after school. There are constantly events going on there. And he spends a lot of the time at the school himself.”
Wilson does significant outreach in the Latino community to help overcome cultural barriers to parental involvement, Carpenter said. “He is getting to know the parents, getting to know the families, the communities and reaching out to people who know the communities well to build the relationships necessary to create that inclusive environment. So much of the time it’s going [to] meet your parents where they’re at — going to their communities. Sometimes going to their homes, sometimes to their churches, their community centers, really getting to know them and making sure everyone’s on the same page when it comes to what’s best for the kids.
“I think Constance Burnes and Michael Wilson are just two examples of principals who do that really well, and when the principals do it well, the teachers do it well, the school does it well, and the school, I think, is better off for it,” Carpenter said.
Every student in any school has someone in the family “who cares deeply about him,” Carpenter believes. “A mom, a dad, an aunt, an uncle, a grandmother a grandfather — and that person wants what’s best for that child. But not everyone is able to get involved in the same way.”
To illustrate, Carpenter pointed to his own history. “Just in my own personal life, my father worked 60-70 hours a week, where my mom stayed at home. Obviously it was a lot easier for her to stay involved than it was for my father, and now that we have the advent of families where both parents work, it’s harder for them to get involved,” he said.
“So I think for parents it’s their responsibility to get involved. It’s their responsibility to love their kids. It’s their responsibility to have high standards for their kid. It’s their responsibility to stay informed about what the kid is up to at the school. But they may need a partner in the school to keep them informed, to communicate with them, to give them opportunities to not just get information but to work within the schools and leverage their strengths, and I think that there are times when…both sides are doing that, when you have that strong communication, you see success.”
But in any system, as you go up, as the kids get older, it’s harder to get parents involved, Carpenter pointed out. “High schools are going to struggle more than the middle schools, [which] are going to struggle more than the elementary schools. And I think that this is something that we’re seeing nationwide — schools trying to take it on so they can get the kind of parent involvement that elementary schools get. But it’s harder.”
Birmingham Education Foundation last fall hosted “Parent Fest” in partnership with the Birmingham City Schools and the Birmingham PTAs.
“It was an event where parents could come to Boutwell [Auditorium] and not only could they see their kids shine — the culinary arts program at Jackson-Olin did all the catering, and we had the Huffman Jazz Ensemble, the Jackson-Olin choir performing — but they could go there and there was something for everyone. So if they wanted to learn something about the new pre-K app that could help their student at home come up with activities that are aligned with the curriculum for their kids to do, they could learn about that. If they had older students and they wanted to learn about opportunities for ACT tutoring and scholarships, that was there as well, and all in between,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter explained that the goal was “to work with the schools in the system, with the PTAs, to create an event where parents could come and it was really, really valuable for them regardless of how old their kids were, regardless of their situation. They could come in and get something out of it.”
One of the organization’s primary roles, Carpenter said, is listening to parents. “So every month we get together with parents…and listen to them, and we hear about them, and we figure out what is going well and where are their challenges, and we have helped them highlight the strengths but also overcome the different challenges they may face in communication with the school or services they need for their student. And we do the same thing with schools and the teachers.
“We’re in a big listening mode right now because so much of the time the real problem is [that] no one is listening to parents,” Carpenter said. “No one is listening to teachers. People are not listening to the folks on the ground, and that’s where a lot of the information is. And what we find is a lot of the things that we can do to solve the problem are pretty easy once you’re listening to the people who are on the ground every day doing the work for the kids.”
If communication is the key to getting parents involved in schools, misinformation, speculation and misconceptions create an opposing, negative effect, Carpenter said. “We make a lot of judgments about family members, make a lot of judgments about parents, and sweeping ones at that, and those judgments are usually not positive about how much they care, about how much they’re involved about what they should be doing. And I find that those sweeping judgments are often made by people who have never met any parents from the Birmingham City Schools, who’ve never spent any time in the Birmingham City Schools, and I think that kind of attitude is one that prevents maximizing involvement.”
Betsy Rogers, the department chair of curriculum and instruction at the Orlean Bullard Beeson School of Education at Samford University, worked 28 years in poorer schools in Jefferson County Schools, in Leeds and, particularly, Brighton. She said that the conventional wisdom about parental involvement is not universally true.
“In higher poverty,” Rogers explained, “there may be less parent participation, but you can’t always say that about every school. Every school has a different culture or personality. … Brighton was a very high poverty school, one of the highest poverty levels in Jefferson County School District. Sometimes parents are working two or three jobs trying to survive; coming and helping and volunteering in schools is just not an option for them.
“I hate when people go, ‘The parents of children in poverty don’t care,’” Rogers said. “Because I don’t think that’s it at all. I think sometimes they’re just trying to survive, and that survival issue may mean working odd hours, multiple jobs, or just not having the resources to work with them.”
And while parental involvement usually increases a child’s chances to succeed, Rogers said she has seen exceptional cases. “It is a critical piece to a child’s success, but I have seen children be very successful at school when that support is limited at home because teachers and schools adjust to that child’s needs.”
Still, Prewitt said, it would be a mistake for parents to think that the school can or should handle the education of the child without their help. “I think they feel that everything the student needs is inside the school,” she said. “But the school always needs help.”