Numerous studies have shown that low-income parents tend to participate less in their children’s educational experience than parents with higher incomes. For more than 50 years, the U.S. government has been trying to change that by offering funding to increase parent involvement in low-income schools. In Colorado, one school district began implementing programs to address the issue after learning it was not in compliance with federal requirements – programs that continue today even as federal legislation evolves.
Since 1965, with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA), Congress has tied parent involvement to federal education funding. This trend continued with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 and then the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. While states and counties grapple with changing federal requirements, outreach coordinators in Thompson School District in Loveland, Colo., are primarily focused on building strong, personal relationships with parents and giving them input and leadership opportunities in their local parent-engagement programs.
Low-income parents face demographic and psychological barriers to participating in their child’s education, as well as language and cultural barriers, according to the American Counseling Association.
However, these barriers are not insurmountable. A 2013 literature review by the research institute MDRC.org concludes: “Parents from diverse backgrounds, when given direction, can become more engaged with their children.” This review looked at learning activities at home, family involvement in schools, school outreach to engage families and supportive parenting activities.
In the Thompson School District, two schools in particular have used federal funding to engage parents in creative ways. At Truscott Elementary, Spanish-speaking parents started a “Café Con Leche” group to socialize and plan ways to help at school. At Winona Elementary, in the same district, “Padres en Acción” formed to provide training for parents, enabling them to tutor children at home and to serve as tutors inside the school.
Federal parent-involvement funds help to increase parent engagement. One direct way is by outreach staff that help parents support their children’s learning. In 2002, when Congress passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) bill, each school district receiving NCLB funds was required to use up to 1 percent of its federal funds for activities, materials and resources that improved parent involvement.
Under the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA), accountability for those dollars will change from federal hands to state and local hands. Opinions differ on the merits of this change, but the most important thing, according to Michelle Myers, the family outreach liaison at Truscott and Winona Elementary schools in Loveland, is that outreach must be positive and personal to strengthen parent partnerships.
Getting into Compliance
In the first years of NCLB, federal reviewers found that Colorado and other states’ schools were not complying with parent notification and participation requirements. The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) provided support and guidance to help local districts to comply. The first use of parent involvement funds in the early years of NCLB at Thompson School District was for part-time wages to family outreach liaisons who served as Spanish language interpreters at all the district’s Title I schools.
Many schools in the district offered a “menu” of ways for parents to help their children at home and at school. Still, principals found it difficult to recruit diverse and disadvantaged parents to serve on committees or to volunteer in school.
Myers helped the principals of Truscott and Winona Elementary schools to manage parent participation in school planning and decision-making as well as the use of federal parent-involvement funds.
Her teammates, Gloria Major and Claudeth Castellanos, did similar work in other schools within Thompson School District. Their Spanish language fluency and positive relations with parents help them make personal invitations to school events. When they can, they accompany Spanish-speaking parents and call to get feedback, Myers said.
“I spend time with every parent to discuss the school’s responsibility to involve them in the education of their children,” Myers said. “Special education staff and the English language acquisition teachers also look for win-win solutions for parents using simple, plain language.”
Myers and her principal, Karen Hanford, have also supported her kindergarten teachers’ desire to host monthly parent meetings. This year, these have become quarterly meetings with an agenda of announcements and teacher-delivered takeaways. At least one meeting features a “roundtable” discussion for parents, Myers said.
“The meetings are about connecting, building community, helping parents recognize their contributions and to see themselves as partners,” Myers said. She sees daily that ongoing support is more important than hosting “big events” like math and reading nights.
Leaving NCLB Behind
Myers was at Winona Elementary in 2008 when it became the first school in the Thompson School District to face NCLB penalties. Since Winona had not raised test scores across all student groups, the Thompson District had to use up to 20 percent of its federal funds to pay private tutor companies to give eligible students tutoring after school. The time and effort to comply was only one reason for rising discontent with NCLB.
Many educators were concerned about the effects of high stakes testing on at-risk students and students with disabilities. As fewer schools with diverse and disadvantaged students reached rising test benchmarks, more attention on reading and math reduced learning time for other subjects, the arts and physical activity.
All this led to a bipartisan agreement to explicitly deny USDE the authority it had previously used to mandate how states implemented NCLB. Though there are still disagreements about oversight and flexibility, with ESSA Congress reached a compromise that preserved the intent of the original 1965 education law, a legacy of the civil rights era. In December 2015, President Obama signed ESSA into law to replace NCLB.
The shift to state and local oversight and support may strengthen parent involvement in Colorado if the CDE continues to collect and use parent, teacher and citizen input. At the same time, national standards will help schools and districts adopt and adapt practices that engage all parents as partners to personalize learning.
Though some parents, administrators and many teachers are glad to see the end of NCLB, Myers does not think the parents she works with care whether parent engagement is under federal or state control. While Congress and USDE work out their differences, Myers and the Colorado schools where she works will keep doing what they can to get parents involved.
Roger Quintanilla recently retired as Title I Coordinator for the Thompson School District in Loveland, Colorado, and is interested in community health and social justice. He wrote this story as a student in the Journalism for Social Change online course.