The first key to helping parents help their children is to talk about educational aspirations. School communities must create a "college going culture" if they want children to go to college. Children who believe they can and will go to college from a very young age are more likely to do so. Elementary schools can rename their grade levels for the the year that class will graduate from college. By doing so, the young scholars will understand their educational career will equal high school plus four. Individual classrooms can be named after colleges and universities and teachers can proudly display their diplomas on the walls. I have spent a great deal of time talking with young students and have been amazed at how little they understand about post-secondary education. When you start talking to these kids about it, they are excited and want to learn more. Parents who have not gone to college need the same type of information so they can continue these conversations at home. You would be surprised how powerful it is just to say to a parent, "I expect your child to graduate from college." Many have simply never considered this.
Elementary schools should include field trips to college campuses. Many colleges and universities have museums and activities that are fun for young scholars, and provide a great way for children to experience campuses. Teachers can then have the children share their observations and perspectives on their college trips with their parents.
Connect through Homework
A great access point for parents is through their children's homework. Many teachers focus homework on moving academic skills along. However, research shows this is sometimes counterproductive. You can learn more about the benefits and downfalls of homework in The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn. Instead of focusing homework on academic skill development, teachers can use it to connect parents to what their children are learning in school. For young children this may mean reading for a few minutes together. Schools can consider providing access to digital books that can do the reading with them if they have a lot of parents with limited reading skills. A good example of this is Myon Reader. As children get older, teachers can include parent interview or "share" topics in their students' homework to encourage conversation at home about learning.
Attendance is Key
New Jersey now includes elementary student attendance (reported as chronic absenteeism) on school report cards as an indicator of college and career readiness. We know very early which children are at risk of dropping out of high school. Those with chronic absenteeism are much less likely to find success in school. However, there is very little intervention at this age. Elementary schools should provide support to parents who have difficulty getting children to school. If this can be reversed early, these children has a much better chance in middle and high school.
Be Clear About Roles
If you attend parent-teacher conferences, particularly for kids who are struggling, you will hear teachers explain to parents how they can help teach the child at home. Parents with limited academic skills cannot possibly do this. In fact, many parents with excellent skills themselves complain they are not capable of assisting children with homework as early as second grade. This is particularly true in math. We seem to change instructional strategies with each generation, so parents become baffled by the "new" math. Parents really should not be asked to assist children with homework. Homework should never be so challenging that children require extensive help. Parents should simply provide the time and place and ensure it gets done. If children have difficulty with assignments, they should be encouraged to contact their peers and talk with the teacher the following day.
High School Requirements
Parents need to be well educated about requirements for high school graduation by grade seven. Guidance counselors, school leaders and teachers should coordinate their parent outreach efforts to help parents understand this. This can be done on websites, through social media, at parent-teacher conferences, through homework assignments, and individual outreach. This should be the common thread throughout all outreach efforts in middle school, with tracking to ensure that EVERY parent understands what is required in high school. Schools typically don't have these conversations with parents until after 9th grade, when it is too late. Generally students who are at risk have already dropped out by then.
By the time a student enters high school, s/he should already understand s/he can and will go to college, have visited several colleges, and understand the academic requirements to get there. This would make a world of difference, particularly in low-income communities where students are likely to be the first in their families to go to college.
Effective Parental Involvement
Yes, parents need to be involved in order to ensure student success. But it is not their job to come to school and help us. It is our job to reach out to them with support and education so they can:
1. Get their children to school on time every day, ready to learn.
2. Expect their children to graduate from high school and college.
3. Read with their children.
4. Talk to their children about what they are learning in school.
5. Provide a time and place for homework to get done - but they should not be expected to assist with homework.
6. Understand the requirements to graduate from high school.
7. Understand what is required to get into college.
So forget the PTA, bake sales and school events. This is the parental involvement we need.