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Everyone's kids do better when parents are engaged and involved at school. There's a lot of reasons for this – involved parents are more likely to work as partners with their child's teachers, more likely to talk up the school to others and more willing to give of their time to improve their student's educational experience.
But urban schools face some extra challenges to parent involvement. For one, many parents struggle enough just to provide basic necessities that the energy to get involved in school isn't there. Also, parents may work several jobs and nontraditional schedules, lack reliable transportation or not be able to take on the financial burden of parent teacher association dues or activity fees.
The National PTA (Parent Teacher Association) is trying to overcome the barriers to participating in cities with their Every Child in Focus Campaign. Each month, it addresses another issue with suggestions for schools to make involvement easier for every type of family.
"We're trying to bring on those parents to get them more engaged," says Otha Thornton, National PTA president. "We look at different ways of communication, and we are continuing to try to reach out."
It's also tried a lot of tactics to make schools more welcoming to men, Thornton adds, including staging an event with a NASCAR driver dropping off school supplies at a back-to-school event. After all, parent involvement has a more far-reaching effect than on just that one child, he notes. For example, parent involvement can make a real difference in the quality of a school system, which then brings up property values.
As challenging as it can be to find a way to volunteer, Detroit parents are stepping up to make their children's school a better place. Here's how they do it.
Incorporate your job
Deirdre Young is director of multicultural programs at University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry. She also runs a program called Dental Imprint that teaches young people in grades 7-12 about careers in dentistry and how they can get there – and then brings them onto UDM's dental campus for a day of activities. She had started doing this on her own time, but approached her bosses at UDM to see if she could start doing it as part of her job. "They were interested in increasing the pipeline for disadvantaged youth or minorities," Young says. "We wanted to focus our efforts to increase the population of dentists in Detroit and serving in underserved communities." Thanks to a federal grant, they are in 10 schools now, all within the city limits.
She suggests anyone who can help young people get started on a career path try to get their company's blessing to do so. Many companies want to offer externships or find other ways to recruit underrepresented young people as a way to cast the widest possible net for talent, she says, and are receptive to ideas parents might have.
Young says this is very meaningful to her because she is a product of Detroit Public Schools, and showing young people just like her the path to a career she has enjoyed and succeeded at is a real pleasure. "It's really exciting to go back to my district and to be of service to a group that was of service to me," she says.
Use your skills
Waldorf School in Detroit assigns parent volunteers as class captains to get the word out about volunteer opportunities. One of those volunteers is Chris Reilly. He's helped with several construction projects around the school, including tearing out the old science labs and replacing the tops of desks.
For him, it's a way to show gratitude to the school's sole maintenance worker by helping make his job easier – and to give back to the school itself because, like many students' families here, they pay tuition based on their income instead of the full price.
"It doesn't matter if it's public or private; there's just never enough money to compensate the people that work with our children on a level commensurate with the level of work they do and the importance of the job that they do," he says. "It's a way of putting gratitude into action."
He says there's also a sense of pride in walking his kids into school every day and seeing something he fixed. And volunteering has created a network of fellow dads – there's a group of six or seven fathers who get together for dinner every month.
"In the end, it tells kids that I value education because they saw that I volunteer," he says.
Spread the word
One of the truisms of raising a family in the city is that whenever two or more Detroit parents are gathered, we talk about schools – where you child goes, where other kids you know go, and have you heard anything about this new charter opening up down the street? In a city where education choices can be difficult, parents know networking and information is crucial. And for schools, the best ambassador is a parent who loves your school and wants to tell the world.
When a school is yet to open, those ambassadors become even more crucial, as there is no track record to point to. Yolanda Nichelle's daughter attends the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, which opened this fall after a multi-year planning process. She was very excited about the school, and did everything from moving desks to promoting it through her social networks.
"I have been really searching for an alternative to education for my daughter for the last two years," she says. "We've been ready for Boggs – when I knew it was opening this fall, I said 'Whatever needs to be done, I am willing to do.'"
The leadership of The Boggs School also made a strong point of asking parents how they wanted to be involved, versus dictating what they needed, Nichelle says. "They were really interested in fostering a sense of community and helping parents feel a sense of ownership over the schools."
It's done that for her, Nichelle says, and she'd advise parents who want to help to approach their child's teacher first, explain their unique situation, and ask how best they can pitch in. "I think that's the best place to start, and it can be as simple as sorting crayons."
Connect to the community
Anita Sevier's children graduated from Gesu Catholic Elementary School several years ago and now include one successful adult, one college student and one high schooler. But she remains a vital part of the school community (one teacher jokingly suggests there should be a statue of her on the playground) because of her work coordinating the school's work-study program with University of Detroit Mercy. While she's now in a paid position that's grown to meet the federal work-study program requirements, Sevier started as a volunteer who recognized the need for help for her children's teachers and decided to step up in a way that would help the whole school – not just her own children.
"I could come in and volunteer in my children's classrooms, or I could organize a program to get in and help," she says. "The better an education any child could get, the better off we all are."
Now, college students do everything from working as teacher's aides to assisting in the office, and it's really helped the teachers focus on their students without being distracted by their other duties.
She also was tapped to create a playground at the school, which ended up being a large, beautiful park with shade trees, accessible play structures and tables and benches where families can gather. Sevier has a degree in urban planning and put that to work in helping create what is now known as Gesu Community Green.
She advises other parents who want to make a difference to come in with low expectations and not expect anything special for their work. "Go in with suggestions that do not require the staff to do any extra work, because they are all tapped out. Go in with a very open mind and a giving heart."
Let your child lead
Sometimes it's your child who asks you to step up. That was true for Catherine Baloh, whose daughter attends Most Holy Trinity School. Baloh is an avid knitter and taught her daughter, who then asked her mom to teach her friends. She was already a very involved volunteer, running the school's PTO and taking a shift for lunch duty, but decided to take on the class.
The knitting club proved to be wildly popular. "It was a lot more challenging than I expected to teach a bunch of girls," she says. Until she figured out the key to keeping them in their chairs and focusing on the knitting: Snacks. "Creative problem solving was required," she says.
Volunteering has proved to be a good way to get the real scoop on what's going on in the school, as well. "Because I did lunch, also, you get to know the other kids (not just in your kid's class, but all the other classes) and watch how they interact, so you know what kids have different issues," she says.
Make room for dads
When his child started at Chrysler Elementary School, Louis Jackson Jr. realized there were only two men in the whole school community – a custodian and a science teacher who since has moved on. He wanted to form a dad's club for mentorship at the school and to help students see dads in a different light, he says.
But the club also stepped up and solved a very real problem with traffic entering the driveway every day at drop-off and pickup. A groups of dads set up what they call concierge service.
"We have cones set up in front of the building and we open the car doors, greet your kids and give them words of encouragement for the day and send them into school," he says.
The dad's club also holds fundraisers during the years. Also, at the end of the year in May, they give outgoing fifth graders gift cards and certificates to recognize their achievements and help them get set on the right path for middle school.
His son is a student at the school, but he takes his role as a male role model for all the children at the school very seriously.
"I treat every kid here like they are my own," he says. "I would risk my life for these kids because I want them to have better opportunities than I had."
Many kids don't have fathers who are involved, and having the attention and care of the men in the Dad's Club makes them understand they are worth caring about. "It makes them proud of being Chrysler students and gives them a certain pride because they have a group of men who really care about them," he says.