Eye on the Notebook: Parental involvement must start in the home



by Christopher Paslay


To help The Philadelphia Public School Notebook bring quality and equality to all public schools, I am posting a regular forum here on Chalk and Talk called Eye on The Notebook.  Its purpose is to provide The Notebook with constructive feedback from teachers who work day-to-day in real classrooms and experience the district’s problems firsthand.  Although The Notebook analyzes a wide variety of educational issues, too often their conclusions are limited in scope and perspective. 


Eye on The Notebook will attempt to bring a more grounded analysis of issues that face our city’s public schools.  I will dissect selected Notebook articles and add depth to their findings.  In tandem with The Notebook, this blog hopes to uncover the true root causes of problems concerning the Philadelphia School District and offer practical, realistic solutions.




In their recent editorial, “Building parent power,” the Notebook calls for parent leaders across the city “to come together and lay the foundation for a stronger network of organizations giving voice to their concerns.”


The Notebook praises organizations like ACORN and Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project for their advocacy work in education, and for “developing new leaders and activists, helping parents deepen their understanding of issues, and challenging District leaders to make improvements.”


In my experience as an educator, there are two kinds of parental involvement: personal and political.


Personal involvement is where parents become actively engaged in being good parents: teaching their children how to communicate and solve problems nonviolently; focusing on nutrition and setting a reasonable curfew; instilling in their sons and daughters work ethic and an appreciation for the value of education, etc.


Political involvement is where parents become activists and organize for political reform: they challenge district leaders to change policies, and network to make their voices and concerns heard.


The Notebook’s editorial “Building parent power” places its focus on the latter and ignores the former (as they do so often). They call for parents to become politically active in the Philadelphia school system, but fail to demand that moms and dads get personally involved in the educations of their sons and daughters at a home level.        


As the saying goes, It takes a village to raise a child.  Parents are an integral part of the District, not simply because we can use their power to protest for educational reform, but so we can use their influence with their own children to make our city’s youth better students and citizens.         


There are approximately 167,000 students in Philadelphia public schools.  If we multiply this number by two (one mother and one father), than there are about 334,000 parents in the city.  Unfortunately, with the exception of the 200 or so parents who regularly show up at 440 North Broad shaking their fists at SRC meetings, or those motivated few who attend school functions and are members of home and school associations, too many moms and dads in the city are nonexistent when it comes to their child’s schooling.


If we truly want to build “parent power,” must start by doing so in the home.  Every one of us must crawl before we can walk.  According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we must satisfy physiological and safety needs—as well as the need for love and belonging—before we can satisfy the need for esteem.  In other words, moms and dads must parent first—then they can get up on their political soapbox and advocate for reform.


Philadelphia’s recent Parent Leadership Academy is a case in point.  A pilot effort by the Philadelphia School District and the William Penn Foundation, PLA was formed to empower parents and promote them as leaders in their children’s education and schools. 


Although PLA made some progress and was a valuable learning experience, in the end, the program was dropped because it didn’t develop according to expectations. 


In a recent report published by Research For Action entitled “Parent Leadership Academy: A Parent-Led, District-Hosted Partnership for Parent Engagement,” researchers concluded that ultimately PLA “was not a sufficient lever for changing the District’s relationship with parents.”   


One reason PLA failed was because parents couldn’t move beyond the historic distrust of district officials, and continued to complain that the climate was not “parent friendly”.  There was also tension between PLA board members and those involved in the Philadelphia Home and School Council.


There have been questions raised as to why a similar program in Kentucky—called the Center for Parental Leadership (one of the programs on which PLA was based)—remains a reigning success, and why PLA ultimately ended in failure.  The answer rests with Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: Parents in KY, unlike many in Philadelphia, have established workable relationships at a base level—with their own families and communities—and thus possess the tools and credibility necessary to take that next step toward educational activism.


So what are the solutions?  How do we get parents of Philadelphia public school children involved at the home level so they can ultimately achieve that next step and get active in the district?                


According to the findings by Research For Action, providing educational programs for parents can help them get more involved with their child’s schooling.  “Increases in educational attainment for younger and less educated mothers are related to gains in children’s achievement, particularly reading skills,” the report explained.  It also found that the more educated parents are, the more they are able to provide help with homework, and become academic role models for their children. 


In addition, neighborhood school-based sites are more effective in drawing parents than nonneighborhood school-based sites. Basically, participation by parents is highest at a site with a strong connection to the surrounding community.


Finally, moving beyond school walls is a promising strategy for reaching parents. Instead of schools inviting parents to come to them, there should be a more community-based focus, and the District should “reach parents where they are.’” 


Parental involvement is a two-tier process.  Parents must get involved at the home level in order to build the skills necessary to get active in the district.  To quote Barack Obama in the final presidential debate at Hofstra University, “Parents are going to have to show more responsibility. They’ve got to turn off the TV set, put away the video games, and, finally, start instilling that thirst for knowledge that our students need.” 


10 Reasons Why Philadelphia Parents Don’t Attend Teacher Conferences

by Christopher Paslay


Parental involvement in Philadelphia public schools is notoriously low.  Over the past decade, less than 10% of my students’ mothers and fathers have shown up for school functions such as Back to School Night and Report Card Night. 


Colleagues of mine from other parts of the city report the same problem: The majority of mothers and fathers do not show up for school functions. 


According to information published in the Winter 2006-07 edition of The Philadelphia Public School Notebook: Focus on Parent Involvement, here are 10 reasons why parents of Philadelphia public school children don’t attend teacher conference:          


10.  Some parents can’t read letters sent by schools inviting them to attend conferences.


9.  Parents do not receive information far enough in advance to adjust their schedules.


8.  Parents do not have the time because they have multiple outside responsibilities.


7.  Cultural barriers make it difficult for some parents to be involved.     


6.  Schools are not clear in terms of how much and in what ways they want parents involved.


5.  Some parents are not involved at school but are involved through informal conversations or discussions in the home. 


4.  Schools are not “welcoming” enough to parents; parents feel uncomfortable or intimidated approaching the teacher.


3.  Some parents don’t understand English. 


2.  Principals do not set the right “tone” for parents to get involved in school.         


1.  Some parents do not know where their child’s school is located.   


Excuses or legitimate issues?  Maybe it’s a little bit of both.  Either way, the district and moms and dads must find some common ground so teachers can truly make parents their partners.

The Philadelphia Student Union Answers the Call

by Christopher Paslay


Chalk up another victory for the Philadelphia Student Union.  On Thursday they held a rally on the steps of Masterman High School that gleaned the attention of the Inquirer, Philadelphia’s biggest newspaper.  Now this prodigious group of Philly teens strikes again with an impressive response to yesterday’s blog, “To Members of the Philadelphia Student Union: You Must Speak Out Against Truancy”.


Dan Jones wrote the official comment, and it was very well crafted indeed (I am a high school English teacher so I read student writing with a critical eye).  The thing that impressed me the most was the timeliness of it: his response came not even four hours after I posted the blog entry.  That’s great journalism. 


Well done, Dan.  Again, it’s refreshing to see students taking stock in their educations.  Not only that, but getting active in the community in a positive way.  To be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about the PSU, but Dan certainly enlightened me.  And I give the PSU website two thumbs up!


To keep the lines of communication open (because that’s what this is all about anyway, right?), I’d like to further discuss two points Dan made in his response to yesterday’s blog. 


The first is that Dan faults the “system” for the lack of parental and community involvement in education in Philadelphia.  He stated, “we argue that these things are not the fault of the people, but rather of a broken system that is failing everyone . . .”


This is where I disagree.  There is no such thing as “the system,” some detached entity that exists in a vacuum.  People ARE the system—parents, teachers, students, etc.  If we work, than the system works.  Just as members of the PSU have distinguished themselves with their activism and thirst for knowledge, so must parents and community; I do not accept the arbitrary excuse of a broken “system”.


The second idea I’d like to discuss is the PSU’s idea that parents must choose between work and their child’s education (as stated on their website).  As the old saying goes, a mother doesn’t divide her love between her children, she multiplies it.  The same goes for education: Moms and dads must extend their days (by getting up a half hour earlier perhaps) in order to MAKE time in their schedules to help their children with school.


Thank you again Dan for your insightful comments.  I am thoroughly impressed with you and the PSU.  I hope I can establish a dialogue with all of you, and I’ll visit your website often.