March 2016 Issue
March 30, 2016

Reframing parent involvement: What should schools do differently?

Author: By Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United

Don't tell Terri Watson parents don't care or don't want to get involved.

She fiercely believes just the opposite. And she's got the research to back it up.

The problem, says the CUNY activist scholar and Harlem native, is too many schools focus on traditional, school-centered methods of parent involvement that don't work with disconnected families. Instead of judging parents on whether they attend PTA meetings or midday parent-teacher conferences, her research suggests trying different activities that extend community resources and encourage mutual respect.

"You have to find ways to speak to them," says Watson, a member of the Professional Staff Congress, representing CUNY faculty and staff.

While her research focuses on parents of color in urban schools, her preliminary findings offer practical takeaways for all schools that struggle to engage parents and improve student achievement.

Her bottom line? You have to meet them where they are.

An education leadership professor at The City College of New York (CCNY), Watson began her research into parent involvement as an outgrowth of her study on successful school leadership. As she conducted learning environment surveys and interviewed staff on what makes schools succeed, parent involvement kept cropping up as a central issue — especially in middle and high school.

"When we talked to staff about what was troubling them, we kept coming back to parents," Watson says. "They kept saying they wished more parents were involved. And I kept asking myself, 'How can we get this right?'"

With that central question and a West Harlem Development Corp. grant, Watson approached the problem from a completely different point of view: the parents.

She immersed herself in the culture of a west Harlem high school down the street from her college office and began asking parents: "What do you want? What do you need?"

Schools shouldn't be surprised, Watson says, when parents who work two or three jobs can't attend that back-to-school night or mid-morning parent-teacher conference. That's why it's so important for schools to be more flexible in scheduling activities, offering some evening and weekend opportunities so parents can attend.

Language is also often a barrier. In the high-needs school Watson is studying, 65 percent of the families speak Spanish — so it's crucial for bilingual staff to be recruited and translators to be available.

Parents who were not successful themselves in school can also harbor negative feelings about it and don't want to return, Watson says.

After interviewing parents, she pinpointed a number of less traditional points of access, such as yoga classes, well-being seminars and advocacy workshops. Parents also look for programs that will help them advance themselves, whether it's technology workshops, English classes, skills training or help connecting with social service programs. And, sure, parents like award ceremonies that recognize their children, but they also are looking for cultural celebrations and community events like garage sales and job fairs.

NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino says Watson's findings underscore the value of community schools and expanding parent involvement opportunities. "All the research shows a direct correlation between parent involvement and higher student success," Fortino says. "We must do everything we can to partner with parents and families."

Watson is now testing her research findings. In December, she and the PTA hosted a college workshop parent night featuring her PSC colleague Guillermo Rivera, a senior admissions counselor at CCNY who asked parents, "Has anyone here been to college?" A couple of hands went up.

Speaking in both English and Spanish, Rivera explained the ins and outs of SATs and ACTs — and even offered a couple of study tips. He methodically explained the college application process and how financial aid works. After a Q&A, Mayrelina Ynoa, a parent coordinator at the school, quickly briefed parents on school events, advising them to look for the report cards handed out the week before and telling them how juniors could participate in a backyard toxicology class that would give them lab skills they will need for college.

At the session's end, Watson pulled names for much-coveted raffle prizes, another way to meet parents where they are. When she asked parents for ideas, MTA MetroCards were a popular choice.

As word got around about the parent events, attendance has grown. In February, more than 150 parents, students and staff attended a DREAMers Night, an event offering resources for parents who are undocumented but have kids who want to go to college.

(The term refers to students who would qualify under the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act). Tatyana Kleyn, a CCNY associate professor and PSC member, introduced her film "Living Undocumented" and real-life DREAMers offered promising first-hand accounts of their successful experiences at CCNY. Stephanie Delia, CCNY's immigration lawyer, answered questions from the audience. Parents left the session feeling a little less frightened and with important contact information.

Those kinds of events help build trust with parents and allow teachers to get past their misperceptions about uninvolved parents, Watson says. She can't help thinking of her own mom, who worked all the time and raised three children alone. "She didn't make many PTA meetings or curriculum nights, but she cared and helped us be successful in school," Watson says. She's hoping her research will help reach parents like her mother.

"For me, the job of researchers is not just to point out what's wrong," Watson says. "You have to go beyond the data and find practical solutions."

For more info

Go to for professor Terri Watson's article, "Reframing Parent Involvement: What Should Urban School Leaders Do Differently?"