For the first time since Oak Park’s public middle schools opened in fall 2002, Percy Julian Middle School will offer a first-day parent welcoming coffee reception.
A simple idea: parents talking to parents”an icebreaker that parent leaders hope will result in greater parent involvement.
“A lot of it has to do with perception,” said Larry McIntyre, special events coordinator of the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization. “If people feel they’re invited, they’ll feel more comfortable.”
But parent involvement at the middle school level is anything but simple.
Just how and where parents should be involved is controversial among educational researchers, said Theresa Thorkildsen, a University of Illinois at Chicago education professor who studies middle school age children.
“Schools should be more inviting to parents, but not all parents need to be in schools,” Thorkildsen said.
Experts agree that parents need to be involved in their middle school students’ lives, and that a parent’s role changes with the child’s age, transforming from a “unilateral” role of taking care of every facet of a child’s life to one of “cooperative negotiations” in middle school years.
But drop-off in parent involvement during the transition to middle school has been correlated to a similar decline in achievement, said Anne T. Henderson, co-author of a 2002 summary of parent involvement research.
Parents need to advocate for students, and help them make the right choices on which courses to take. “But to do that [parents] need to collaborate with people inside the school,” Henderson said. “This can’t all be accomplished from home.”
That connection “is vital. It’s extremely important,” said Mary McCabe, co-president of the Brooks Middle School PTO. “The best way to know [what’s going on at the school] is first-hand.”
“It has always struck me on an in-your-face level what little involvement we have at schools until there’s a crisis,” said John Mayes, co-president of the Julian PTO.
When the schools used to be two-year junior highs, many parents felt there wasn’t enough time to get involved, parents said.
But now the schools span sixth through eighth grades, they have a new problem. Parents of sixth graders have different expectations and needs for involvement than older middle schoolers, parents said. And older students don’t want their parents around.
“Kids say, ‘Oh, don’t embarrass me by coming to school,'” McCabe said.
“They’re seeking and they need more independence,” Mayes said.
“I see parents being involved in a child’s education as a highest priority,” said Tom Sindelar, new principal at Brooks, adding that he hopes parents recognize how open the school is.
But how parents are involved changes as students progress, he said. Parents should remember that social development is a “huge” part of middle school years, and that helping a student feel good about seemingly superficial things such as their hair or clothes allows them to focus their energy on learning.
But there are many ways for parents to get involved at schools, too, McCabe said. The Brooks PTO keeps a database with hundreds of parents’ names and how they want to help, from stuffing packets to leading activities during lunches. Parents can also get involved with the School Leadership Team or BRAVO! board.
Attendance at Julian PTO meetings has been sparse. But the PTO board is revamping the meetings from dry business-type meetings to ones that provide valuable information of interest to parents.
PTO leaders hope specific topics, guest speakers and useful information will bring more parents out.
The first meeting will feature the new band teacher, and other information on how students can get involved in extracurricular activities. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sept. 12.
Upcoming meetings will deal with other topics, such as bullying issues and what parents should expect from kids as they grow into their teen years.
APPLE leaders have similar plans for parenting seminars based on informal sessions the group hosted last year.
“The parents liked them so much we thought we would do them in a more formal way,” said Eleanor Taylor of APPLE, African-American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education. The first seminar will be offered at the end of October or beginning of November.
Taylor said APPLE has tried to reach out to parents who can’t always attend evening meetings but who want to stay connected. “We do a lot of juggling of schedules and one-on-one phone calling and extra things to keep them informed,” she said. “You may not see them at the school, so we go to them.”
Julian is staggering PTO meeting times to try to attract more teachers, too.
Communication is always a key ingredient in parent involvement, said McIntyre. He and McCabe each email electronic newsletters to parents at their schools.
Communication between parents and teachers has improved “drastically” in the past decade, owing in part to new technologies, said Jim Gates, a Julian language arts teacher and president of the teachers’ union.
“I think it really helps create the mindset in kids that parents and teachers are working together,” Gates said.
But no matter how much leaders reach out, it is parents that have the ultimate responsibility for determining how they should be involved in their student’s education.
“There’s no substitute for parents taking an active role,” McIntyre said.
Governments recognize the importance of parent involvement.
Citing Anne T. Henderson’s 2002 summary of research, “A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement,” the federal government requires schools to use 1 percent of Title I funding for encouraging parent involvement.
Title I money is awarded yearly to schools for the express purpose of giving special attention to struggling students. Parent involvement should target parents whose children are struggling. The government defines a parent as anyone”regardless of relation”who’s responsible for a child’s well being.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law this summer SB10, which requires the Illinois State Board of Education to develop a pilot program to identify and award grants to four school districts for developing programs to improve parent participation.
The grants are to be awarded to Chicago Public Schools, and three other of the “lowest performing” districts.