Wisconsin State Journal
MADISON, Wis. (AP) _ Quanta Smith opens the door to Mrs. Tran’s classroom, and 9-year-old Kia spins around in her chair. It’s mom.

The Mendota Elementary School third-grade class scrambles to the floor in front of a rocking chair Smith assumes for story time. It’s her class for the moment.

“They are always on their best behavior when parents come in,” whispered teacher Desiree Tran as Smith read aloud “Be Boy Buzz” to an attentive audience. “I think it’s really nice to bridge that connection between school and home. When parents come in, I think that happens for them.”

As part of Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham’s school improvement process, the Madison School District expects all schools to build relationships with parents like Mendota has with Smith and to find ways to increase their involvement in the students’ academic work. Cheatham says it’s a crucial part of improving student success.

But educators say while it’s one of their top goals, figuring out how to increase parent involvement is not an easy thing _ especially as the district seeks to close a dramatic achievement gap.

Poverty, lack of transportation, a parent’s trust level of schools and single-parenting all can affect levels of involvement, officials say.

“How we define family is changing _ not just here in the Madison Metropolitan School District _ but just sort of generally in society, and we need to change our approach accordingly,” Cheatham told the Wisconsin State Journal ( “(One way) is to better acknowledge the assets that our families bring to us as well as some of the unique challenges our families face in supporting our students and being successful.”

Smith, a mother of four girls, knows where the books are kept in her daughter’s classroom, and she doesn’t need to ask where to find the school’s supply room. She stops to chat with nearly anyone who passes her in Mendota’s hallways.

She said much of the reason she was able to connect with the school quickly is Sonia Spencer, Mendota’s parent liaison _ one of four liaisons in the district.

“It didn’t take any time at all,” said Smith, 36.

Spencer’s days are meant for connecting parents with teachers. She sees her job as also helping parents provide a stable life for their children. She often runs parents to doctor’s appointments or job interviews on top of navigating what can sometimes be sensitive waters of parent-teacher relationships.

Sometimes, she said, it’s difficult to see parents who don’t know how to advocate for their children.

“It’s hard sometimes when you want to help someone and they don’t want the help,” she said. “The other challenge is when you have a disconnect between the teacher and a parent, when a parent feels like the teacher is not engaged or giving them the respect they deserve as a parent.”

Anne Henderson, a consultant for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, helped develop family engagement standards for the National PTA, from which Madison modeled its standards.

She said what makes a school inviting is communicating what’s happening in the classroom and why. She said going beyond things like fundraisers, and linking activities for families to academics is crucial to seeing family involvement produce better academic achievement. A teaching staff that reflects the school’s demographics helps, too, as does using culturally sensitive teaching strategies, she said.

“If families don’t feel they belong in the school, or the schools don’t invite them, they’ll stay away,” she said.

Shahanna Baldon, director of family and community engagement for the school district, said not relying on just one strategy or one definition of what engagement looks like is key _ especially given the diverse backgrounds of Madison’s families.

Danya Lanphear, a mother of an East High School student and a Marquette Elementary School student, said she’s happy the district is making formal efforts to engage parents.

“Some families, if they didn’t have a good experience in school themselves, they might feel uncomfortable communicating with teachers or the school,” she said. “And some families, if they are working more than one job, it can be difficult.”

East High School social studies teacher William Gibson said while schools are designed to be accessible, they are still institutions that can be intimidating to some parents. He also said schools are addressing this while having limited resources to do so.

“(Previously) schools opened their doors, kids came, grades were issued and it was up to parents to make it work for their kid,” he said. “And now, because urban schools are becoming more heterogeneous, now the schools are trying to provide those services as best they can, and we don’t have resources to do that. So, it’s another thing that to be successful, it needs to be rethought out.”

He said some parents have “cultural capital” to successfully navigate the school system and some do not because of a variety of issues, including level of education, poverty or having trouble working around the traditional school day because of their schedules.

East principal Mary Kelley said a solution is to bring teachers and school activities to the school’s neighborhoods.

“We need to make sure we are the liaison as a school for that neighborhood,” she said. “If parents aren’t going to come to us, we’re going to seek them out.”

Gompers Elementary School principal Sarah Chaja said as part of the school’s improvement plan, like at other schools, measuring family engagement is as much of a priority as reading and math achievement.

Chaja said the school asked parents to answer surveys about what they wanted or needed from the school. The result was improved communication between school and home, a homework policy that includes reading, math and writing, and after-school programs. School meetings also were moved from Tuesday nights to Saturday so more families can attend.

The efforts are meant to increase the number of parents involved and also to see involvement come from a group that better represents the student body’s demographics, she said.

She also has allocated money from her school’s budget to pay a parent facilitator who will, among other things, visit families’ homes.

“To me, parent involvement and parent engagement isn’t necessarily parent presence in the school,” Chaja said. “Every single parent wants their child to be successful. … What can we do together to make sure that happens?”

Corrina Frye, president of the parent-teacher organization at Chavez Elementary, said improving diversity is a top issue for parent organizations of West Side elementary schools that meet regularly.

“There have been some African-American parents, but very rarely in the last three years,” said Frye, who has a first- and a third-grader at Chavez. “The last few months we’ve been talking about achievement gap scores … we knew there would be a gap, but it’s surprisingly big. We’ve been talking about what can we do to flatten that out, and when we look around the room, we’re all white and all pretty much middle class.”

Frye said the PTO has started tutoring efforts for students and finding ways to get more books into children’s homes. The PTO considered starting an after-school academics club, but access to transportation is an issue for low-income families.

About 100 children, 87 percent from low-income families, take two buses to Chavez from an apartment complex about five miles east of the school. Often parents there have a tough time getting to the school, said the school’s social worker, Andrea Reifsnider.

Instead of expecting them to come to the school, she said this school year Chavez decided to bring the school to them.

Each month, Reifsnider and Joining Forces for Families organize a “family empowerment” event in a community room at the complex. The first one was a resource fair.

“My problem here is transportation,” said Rasha Saba, 36, mother of triplet 9-year-old boys at Chavez. Saba said she and her family moved to Madison from Aleppo, Syria, to get away from a city that is being destroyed by civil war. She doesn’t have a driver’s license. Through the resource fair, she said, she connected to a church and found a soccer program for her boys.

Fourteen families out of the 65 who live there showed up the first time. Twenty households showed up for an academics-focused meeting. The third will take place in May.

“We really see the student as a whole,” Reifsnider said. “When there are parents who have that passion to be involved in their kids’ school work it’s (beneficial) in so many other ways. That’s why the district is trying to strengthen that piece. A lot of these families have a lot going on … this says to them that they’re not alone.”