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African-American students need parent-school partnerships

black-boys-in-school-400On July 5, Ivory Kaleb Toldson was born. He is my first son and second child. During his birth I relived the joy, wonderment and jitters that I experienced in 2007 when my daughter, Makena, was born.

Like millions of parents, I want the best education for my children. As a black parent, I am cognizant of the persistent racial inequities and biases in the school system. Black children need to be exposed to a curriculum that builds on their strengths, affirms their culture and treats them with dignity and compassion.

Notwithstanding many problems that schools are having educating black children, I am optimistic that black children can succeed in any type of school (public, private or charter) in any environment (urban, suburban or rural). Through my years of research on academic success, I am convinced that the key to educating black children is to have schools build successful partnerships with black parents.

Today the relationship between black parents and schools is precarious, primarily because of antagonists and instigators. Most antagonists speak through a certain movement or organization. Teachers unions, reform movements and public-education advocates can be noble when they focus on children but destructive when they become antagonistic and defensive. For example, when public schools and teachers unions defend themselves against criticism, they often use apathetic black parents and poverty as scapegoats.

At the same time, black parents have become pawns of entities that are interested only in privatizing education in poor communities (while preserving segregated public education in affluent communities) and marginalizing teachers unions. Divisive and ineffective strategies, such as establishing "parent trigger" laws, arresting parents for students' tardiness and instituting voucher programs, permeate from instigated conflicts between parents and schools.

However, the antagonists would not have power if it weren't for a minority of dreadfully negligent parents; racist, classist and classless teachers and school administrators; and policies aimed at berating parents and punishing students. In professional dealings with schools, I heard a white school administrator describe black parents as "ghetto," witnessed black parents passing through metal detectors at the school and routinely heard teachers of all races stigmatize children from single-parent homes.

For this entry of Show Me the Numbers, the Journal of Negro Education's monthly series with The Root, I outline what black parents should do to promote academic success among their children and what schools need to do to engage black parents.

What do schools need from black parents?

Schools need black parents to participate in their children's education, but without the best data, many schools have difficulty communicating what this means. The implicit messages that many schools give black parents are that they need to stop being single, turn off the television sets and help their children with their homework. Based on the data, this advice is shortsighted and elusive.

Research from 2009 found three distinct categories of parental involvement that had an impact on children's academic success: 1) academic socialization (socialization around the goals and purposes of education and strategies for success), 2) school-based involvement (volunteering at school) and 3) home-based involvement (helping with homework). Many are surprised to learn that among the three, academic socialization has the strongest relationship with academic success, and home-based involvement ranks last.

When I analyzed data from Health Behaviours in School-Aged Children for my first "Breaking Barriers" report, the strongest parenting indicators of academic success were holistic factors, including parents who often told children they were proud of them and parents who let students know when they did a good job. Interestingly, restricting children's behavior, such as the amount of time they spend with friends or watch TV, did not produce significant effects on grades.

In a nutshell, parents who frequently express love and esteem for their children produced better scholars than parents who place a premium on discipline. In addition, parents who help their kids with school-related problems, are comfortable talking to teachers, encourage their children to do well in school and maintain high expectations have higher-performing children.

Schools should avoid placing unfair and unfounded judgments on race and household configurations. In a recent research study, Howard University doctoral student Brianna Lemmons and I found that beyond race and household composition, many socio-demographic variables influence parents' participation in school. Parents who live in urban areas and unsafe neighborhoods and have young children in the home participate in school less often. In addition, parents participate in school less frequently when they have children with learning disorders, speak English as a second language, have low expectations for their children's future and receive less communication from the school.

All of these factors have a stronger statistical relationship to children's academic performance than household composition; however, these factors should not be used to stigmatize parents. Rather, they can be used to assess the needs of parents and provide the appropriate school-level resources.

My analysis of the National Household Education Surveys Program's Parent and Family Involvement Survey found that schools have distinct ways of communicating with parents across race. Parents of black children are significantly more likely to receive incidental phone calls from the school, while parents of white children are more likely to receive regular newsletters and memos. Parents of black children were also significantly more likely to have schools contact them to complain about their children's behavior or academic performance. These patterns create festering tensions with black parents and reduce their motivation to participate in the school.

In general, parents were more likely to visit the school when they described the environment as supportive. Supportive schools provide parents with the following: information about how to help children learn at home; information on community services to help their children; explanations of classes in terms of course content and learning goals; information about child development; opportunities for parents to volunteer; and updates on student progress between report cards. Parents also visit the school more frequently when they are satisfied with the school's standards regarding academics, teacher quality and discipline.

Building partnerships between black parents and schools

School leaders and parent advocates can implement many culturally responsive strategies to engage black parents in their children's education. Schools should assess their services and accommodations for parents of diverse backgrounds, including parents who speak a language other than English. In addition, schools should evaluate communication strategies and make every effort to communicate with all groups of parents year-round.

Emphasis should be placed on communicating the positive achievements of students and parents. Be creative. Take pictures of parents bringing their children to school, and post them on the wall under the banner, "We Love Our Parents."

Instead of stigmatizing parents, schools should broaden the scope and definition of parental involvement to include multiple forms of participation (such as school, home and community based) that accommodate various household compositions and family circumstances. Special accommodations, such as child-care services offered during school events, are another important engagement strategy to consider for these groups. Furthermore, schools should assess their communities for safety issues and engage in partnerships with members of those surrounding neighborhoods to promote safety and cohesion.

Finally, school leaders and parent advocates should develop strategies to enhance parents' academic orientation. This may be particularly challenging for parents who have lower levels of education and may not completely understand the value of education to their children's future. However, schools with highly involved parents are resourceful and adept at helping parents help their children. Strategies to help parents understand the value of education include providing college and career fairs; explanations of the importance of specific courses for college admissions and career development; guest speakers; career counseling services; and occupational information.

Together, parents and schools can build a positive learning environment for black children – if they avoid antagonists that place the needs of special interests and vanity over those of children. A good relationship between black parents and schools takes empathy, unconditional positive regard, compassion and a mutual interest in educating the whole child.

(Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and contributing education editor at The Root. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow him on Twitter.)

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