My 5-year-old daughter, Dina, eagerly climbs onto a jungle gym next to a school a few blocks from our home. We don’t know that much about the school—Dawes Elementary in Evanston—but that’s about to change.
This month, my daughter starts kindergarten at Dawes. That means my wife, Nancy, and I will also take on a new role: parents of a grade-school student.
It’s back-to-school time for parents, too. The most urgent assignment: to be an involved parent. If I’m not going to take an avid interest in my child’s education, who is?
There is always debate about what works in schools and what doesn’t—whether we are talking about how schools are governed, what standardized tests really measure or how schools can be made safer. What is not usually debated, though, is whether parents should be involved in their child’s education.
Parental involvement is often portrayed as a worthy endeavor—something that’s "good for you." Now, the bigger story may be that research confirms just how much of a difference it can actually make.
"It’s important for parents to understand that research is on their side," says Anne T. Henderson, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant with the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University, who has researched the relationship between families and schools around the country for more than two decades. "When parents are involved with their children, both at home and in school, their kids do better at school and the schools get better."
Henderson co-authored "A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement," published in 2002. This review of 51 studies contains what she calls "growing evidence" of the positive impact of parental involvement in schools. (It’s available on the Web at www.sedl.org/connections.)
"Schools with the best partnerships between the school and community are wide open to parents," Henderson says. "You almost can’t tell who are the parents and who are the educators."
I ask Henderson what common elements keep popping up in families—and schools—where parents are involved in their kids’ education. She suggests it’s not any one thing, such as whether parents read to their kids or go to meetings, but many factors that show how important education is to families. That can mean volunteering at school, helping kids establish a daily routine, expressing high expectations and more. It can also mean, she says, "asking kids questions about their day that can’t just be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ "
One problem, Henderson says, is that many schools still appear to embrace a dated model for parental involvement.
"A lot of schools are stuck with a 1950s idea in terms of parent involvement," she says. "They don’t get why more parents aren’t available. The answer, of course, is that so many of them are working."
Anna Weselak, who became president of the National PTA this summer, emphasizes that parents need not be overly concerned about when and whether their work schedule conflicts with the school day.
"It’s not necessarily what time you are available during school hours, but how you can contribute to your community and school within your day," says Weselak, who lives in Lombard and has three grown children.
Carole Levine, director of state/field support for Communities in Schools, a national program that links schools and communities, adds that principals and teachers "in all schools will say they that they really want families to be involved. When they say that, it’s important for families to go deeper," says Levine, who lives in Evanston and also has three grown children. "Ask people in the school what they mean. Ask them about how the school is structured and how you can reach people. If I call and need to get through to my child’s teacher, how does that happen? And will they call me back?"
I figure I’ll need to do some homework if I’m going to learn what I need to know while my kids are in school. Students have classes; teachers are trained professionals. Where can parents go to learn about key issues such as how to understand a school budget or whether a standardized test really measures their child’s ability?
For one, parents can talk to each other. There’s also a growing movement of people and organizations in Illinois and around the country that puts families first, and recognizes that parents need tools, information and support just as students and teachers do.
One such resource on the national level, the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education (www.ncpie.org), can lead parents to many sources of useful information. Another resource is the Illinois Family Partnership Network (http://18.104.22.168/web/4/1/0/0.htm), which aims to increase family leadership through better programs and policies throughout our state.
I have spent a fair amount of time over the last couple of decades visiting schools and interviewing parents, teachers and school officials as a reporter covering education issues. No matter how many questions I’ve asked about education, though, I’ve had the relatively safe position of "observer" to fall back on. Now I’m a participant.
Perhaps more than ever, I realize that my wife and I are hardly alone. On the contrary: There’s a dad with his kids on the playground. There’s a group of parents in the hallway and another in a classroom. And a couple of moms who are parking their cars in front. We introduce ourselves. And I recall what a longtime Chicago advocate for children once said to me about the sometimes fractious challenge of collaborating with other people and groups: "It’s a team sport."
Of course, it’s always good to keep in mind the goals of one’s education "team."
That’s what my family tries to do when we sit down to dinner.
"How was school today?" I ask Dina. "Can you tell us something new that you learned?"
Dan Baron is an Evanston writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org