Congress recently introduced legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, formerly known as No Child Left Behind – but it’s parents whose children attend schools in low-income communities that are now being left behind.
Despite a decade of new research demonstrating that parent and community engagement is essential for improving education in low-income communities, the bill includes no new funding to help parents increase their involvement in school reform efforts.
The original Department of Education blueprint for the bill recommended doubling the funds available to support parent involvement in low-income schools, but the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions reduced it back to the original amount.
Low-income parents seldom have a voice in the heated debate about how schools should be run. That’s changing, not because of congressional action, but thanks to a surge in community organizing at schools nationwide. These efforts build parent participation in schools and bring parents and teachers together to improve schools and strengthen communities.
Unlike the divisiveness often found in policy debates, these organizing groups work hard to bring parents, community, and educators together to improve schools. Finding common ground is hard, but it results in sustainable outcomes, because everyone contributes and takes ownership.
For example, several years ago Latino migrants moved into Chicago’s Northwest side neighborhood in large numbers; when the city’s Logan Square Neighborhood Association started education organizing, the new Latino parents said they felt excluded and distrustful of public schools — schools that were full of non-Latino teachers, who lived outside the neighborhood.
For their part, many teachers thought the Latino parents didn’t care about the education of their children; they viewed the parents as part of the problem, rather than possible contributors to the school.
When the neighborhood association began talking with parents, however, many of the Latina mothers said they wanted to become more engaged with their children’s schools, but didn’t know how. They lacked knowledge about the educational system, and many had low levels of education themselves.
Following community organizing principles, the association approached these parents as potential leaders. With participation from local school principals, the association brought Latina mothers together as a group in a “parent mentor” program where they could learn how to become involved in schools in a supportive environment and build their knowledge and confidence.
The program placed these parent mentors in classrooms two hours a day, where they helped teachers by preparing materials, giving students individual attention, and organizing classroom activities.
At first, teachers were skeptical and worried that parent mentors would be “spying” on them. But the mentors showed they could provide real help and they built relationships with the teachers; today, there are not enough mentors for all the teachers who want one.
With the support of the association, the parents became mentors for other parents, helping them to get involved as well. Over the past 15 years, parent mentors have spearheaded efforts to open community learning centers and libraries, and launched a tutoring project and a home visitation program, among other initiatives.
As a result of the neighborhood association’s efforts, more than 1,400 parents have been trained as parent mentors. Teachers benefit from concrete classroom assistance, are more connected to students and their families, and are better able to meet their needs.
Debate about the reauthorization act has focused almost solely on external accountability, such as test scores imposed on schools. Our research shows the value of investing in family engagement so parents can help schools improve, delivering accountability through relationships with teachers and principals. Community organizing builds the capacity of parents to have a meaningful and long-term role in school reform.