While Some Parents Volunteer Too Much, Others Feel Excluded

The New York Times Motherlode blog

CreditTyler Hicks/The New York Time

This past September, just as I’ve done every September for the last few years, I signed up for the PTA. But this year, I told myself things would be different. I would go to every single meeting.

The first meeting came and went, and although a reminder was written down (in pen!) on my calendar and flashed across my Galaxy screen twice, I didn’t make it.

I blamed my crazy schedule and all the busyness that manages to consume me: work, projects, deadlines, traffic that I seem to live in, frazzled evening trips to the grocery store because a week’s worth of dinner was not planned. But I can’t use those excuses anymore. I want to be more involved, and it is important that I carve out time to participate and volunteer at both my 8-year-old and my 4-year-old’s schools.

The stereotype of the over-involved parents may be true of a few, but it isn’t true of me, or of many parents. Plenty of us have a hard time getting involved. For me, it’s time constraints. For others, it’s language barriers, or perceived racial or class barriers. Parents of color or immigrant parents whose children attend predominantly white schools are often reluctant to get involved. Lower-income parents may believe that they have nothing to bring to the table.

Joe Brewster and his wife, Michèle Stephenson, parents who released the 2013 critically acclaimed documentary “American Promise,” about two middle-class black families (one theirs) raising and educating their sons, don’t buy my time-constraint defense. “No parent had a crazier work schedule than me,” Mr. Brewster said. “I’m a doctor; I worked 12 hours a day when my oldest son was a young child. But guess what? I knew the importance of my son’s education. My father worked the graveyard shift and could barely read, but he understood on some level that he had to go to a PTA meeting and he went. So I don’t accept the hectic schedule excuse. Figure a way to get there.”

What helps, Mr. Brewster said, is a welcoming environment for all parents. How can schools encourage parents who want to be more involved, but perceive barriers? Otha Thornton, president of the National PTA, said it’s a top priority of the National PTA to help school communities embrace diversity and inclusion and ensure that all families feel invited and welcomed and are equipped with the tools to support their children and improve the school.

“Schools should ensure that all families in the school community feel welcomed and valued, are knowledgeable of opportunities to get involved and are empowered to advocate for and support their children,” Mr. Thornton said. “Schools also should demonstrate the importance of family involvement and the value of their involvement to student success and school improvement.”

The same parents who are reluctant to volunteer can believe that their help isn’t valuable to their child at home. This is particularly true of parents with less education, or those who face language barriers. School must work to encourage those parents to do what they feel they can. “Involvement is not limited to attending meetings or participating at school,” Mr. Thornton said. “It encompasses setting goals with children and fostering achievement of those goals, and looking in children’s backpacks every day and frequently viewing the parent portal, or whichever tool their school uses, developing a relationship with children’s teachers, and keeping in touch with them often.”

To that end, Ms. Stephenson and Mr. Brewster have established thePromise Clubs, small groups of parents, caregivers and educators committed to making a difference in their children’s and students’ academic lives. The couple has organized their share of parent meetings in their community and knows what it takes to get parents more involved. They suggest that heavily involved parents step up to get the less involved or hesitant parents more active. “In the same ways that youth look to their peers for guidance, support and trust, parents do the same,” Ms. Stephenson said. “We listen to other peers and parents before we listen to experts. So we need to learn how to maximize networking and support that can help bring more participation. Those who are more involved can reach out and create connection with those less involved to create some form of trust or understanding to get information.”

Mr. Thornton points enthusiastically to more than 40 years of research showing that regardless of a family’s income or socioeconomic background, family engagement in education is essential for student success and school improvement. “Students whose families are involved attend school more regularly, earn better grades, enroll in higher-level programs, and have higher graduation rates.”

Enough said. I’ll be at the next PTA meeting. And once I’m involved, I’ll look around and see who isn’t represented — and reach out to invite them next time.

Read more about the PTA and parent involvement on Motherlode: When Elite Parents Dominate Volunteers, Children Lose; Not a ‘PTA Mom’; Heading the PTA, and Challenging the School Board in Colorado and Amid Million Dollar PTAs, a School Fights to Keep Its Library.

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