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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Create a Program That Gets Parents Involved

Regardless of their educational background, parents can help get their children off to college.
By Lisa Morehouse

This how-to article accompanies the feature "Immigrant High School Students Aim for College."

Credit: Gregory Phelps

The Hidalgo Independent School District rallies parents -- many of whom are originally from Mexico and primarily speak Spanish -- to help their children succeed in school and move on to college. They achieve this goal by teaching necessary skills to parents, like how to negotiate the U.S. school system and how to speak workplace English.

The key, says the district's superintendent Eduardo Cancino, is to treat all parents as essential, whatever their educational or language background. "In our community, parents have a high level of respect for educators," Cancino says. "But we work hard to convince them that we need their help. The wisdom of their lives is worth more than any degree." Cancino offers the following pointers about creating parent partnerships:

Have a Vision

The district maintains a three-tiered vision of parent partnership. Parent involvement includes basic volunteering, with parents coming into schools to support day-to-day activities. Another level is parent engagement, in which families become part of site-based decision-making processes. Ultimately, Cancino says, they're working toward parent empowerment, by which parents have a real voice in how higher education, school financing, and their children's future careers work.

Know Your Audience

"Parent engagement doesn't come in a can," says Cancino. "You have to know your community and what's going to make them comfortable." In Latino culture, he says, there's a tradition of comadres (literally "co-mothers," or close family friends) coming together to drink coffee, cook, and chat. Each school in the district boasts parent centers modeled after this idea, with kitchens, sewing machines, and space to talk. "It's a place where parents can be secure," Cancino says. "We say, 'This is your place, this is your kitchen, this is your home away from home.'" Parent involvement in the school develops naturally when they're connected to these centers, such as in building much-needed biliteracy by reading to students in Spanish in dual-language classes, preparing college-information bulletin boards, and working with other parents new to the district on long-term planning for their child's college readiness.

Focus on Building Parents' Skills

At each campus, parent liaisons not only encourage other parents to volunteer but also provide them with the know-how to navigate the often-unfamiliar landscape of U.S. schools and support their children in life and academics.

The district provides information more formally, too, by holding frequent workshops on topics such as conflict resolution, nutrition, student assessment, and financial aid for college.

Parents can also join the four-year Parental Career Pathways Academy, a partnership between the district and South Texas College. Participants take two years of English-language acquisition, and then they can continue with either occupational skills courses or GED and college-entrance exam-preparation classes, giving them a variety of opportunities for postsecondary education.

Be Practical, and Avoid Letting Logistics Get in the Way

Hidalgo focuses on working around obstacles to get things done. When principals asked if they could add stoves to parent centers, the district simply asked schools to relocate the centers to the edges of campus so that adding ventilation would be easier. When the district started the parent academy, it struggled with finding the best class times for working parents. South Texas College, which provides the instructor and the facilities, agreed to multiple sessions, in the morning and evening. And when the district ran into obstacles with transporting parents to the college, it found an empty classroom on one of the elementary campuses and offered the classes there, where parents had easier access.

Prioritize Parent Partnerships in Your Budgets

The cost of the Parent Career Pathways Academy is covered by South Texas College and a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, with the district providing facilities and any needed transportation. For other parent involvement programs, the district pays out of its general fund. "It's not easy," Cancino says, "but it's an investment we make."

Lisa Morehouse, a former teacher, is now a public-radio journalist and an education consultant.