Building Bridges with Books

D.C. Project Puts Parents in Classrooms

By John Rankin

WASHINGTON, D.C. — They are urban education’s silent partners: parents with a direct stake in the quality of urban public schools but whom, for a variety of reasons, the schools have been unable to involve in school activities.

Yet in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, a small group of such silent partners has gotten involved. For the past six months, they have spent their Saturday afternoons writing about their lives and sharing the stories as part of a writing workshop. As a result of the project the parents, who are predominantly African-American and Latinos, are learning about each other and are helping to write a new chapter on family involvement programs.

The initiative, called the Family Involvement Project, is coordinated by the Network of Educators on the Americas (NECA), a Washington-based non-profit organization, and George Washington University. Its goal is threefold: to overcome barriers which separate school personnel and low-income and minority parents, to build bridges between these two key players in school reform based on mutual respect and cooperation, and to encourage parents to become advocates in the schools. The project also hopes to develop a model of parent literacy and advocacy that can be replicated by other urban school districts.

The Family Involvement Project has a tough problem to tackle. “Many parents say that they’ve felt insulted and excluded from the schools,” says project coordinator Marguerite Lukes. “There is a pervasive attitude among many educators that these parents don’t care about their children’s education, but we know this isn’t true.”

Although research shows the positive benefits of parent involvement on student achievement, many poor and minority parents are alienated from Washington’s public schools, Lukes adds. “Parent voices are not included in the curriculum,” says Lukes. “Many teachers don’t know anything about their students’ lives. Involving parents in writing and sharing with teachers helps them to understand what goes on in the classroom.”

During the Saturday sessions, held at a Mt. Pleasant public library, parents spend two hours discussing and writing about various aspects of their lives. Usually, the first hour is devoted to addressing a specific topic, from childhood memories, to their job, to immigration stories. Conducted in both English and Spanish, the discussions are sometimes emotionally charged and often reveal the negative experiences many parents have had with schools.

“School was never a place for me,” said 34-year-old Theresa Colbert at one Saturday session. The mother of three, Colbert dropped out of school at age 16 following the death of her mother. The project, she said, has helped her develop the confidence to talk with teachers and administrators about academic issues and has helped give her the determination to make sure her son finishes high school.

Sharing Stories

After parents write a brief story or essay based on the discussion, they use the second hour to share their stories with the children and other parents. The atmosphere is normally festive and encouraging, reflecting the mutual respect that parents and children have developed toward each other as writers.

The parents’ writing also serves to teach school personnel about the families’ lives. In the school in which the project started, teachers learned that some immigrants had to leave behind children in their home country, while others are working two or three jobs for less than minimum wage.

Teachers generally were aware of this, but this was the first time they had “heard” the personal stories which gave life to these experiences.

Initially, the project was meant to include only parents. But because so many parents brought their children, the two groups were combined and the parents and children now work together.

The decision to meet at the public library was deliberate. Because many parents were uncomfortable in school environments, it was felt they might be more likely to attend a parent meeting if the initial meetings were not held at a school. Further, most schools are not open for weekend meetings, even though this was the best time for many parents.

The Family Involvement Project is an extension of the Books Project, a 3-year-old initiative designed to increase the use of whole language practices in language-diverse classrooms in D.C. Public Schools. The Books Project is also coordinated by NECA and George Washington University, in collaboration with the D.C. Public Schools.

“The Books Project provides support for teachers who want to move from a phonics-based, traditional reading curriculum to a whole language approach that concentrated on quality children’s books and literature and encouraged children to write their own stories,” according to Deborah Menkart, executive director of NECA. “The Family Involvement Project was a logical extension.”

The project ultimately plans to have the parents publish their books for use in the public schools. As an initial step, parents are presenting stories and folktales to children at Tubman Elementary, a nearby school where many Family Involvement Projects parents have children enrolled.

“My children just love the storytelling sessions,” says Tubman teacher Gwen Faulkner. “They are asking that the parents come back….They are just elated with it.”

The storytelling sessions have also helped break down teacher misconceptions about parents, especially Spanish-speaking parents.

“One of the things that I’ve learned is that all of the parents, including the parents of Limited English Proficient students, have a great interest in their children’s education,” Faulkner says. “It’s just that most of the time they don’t know how to get into the school. The program is making them comfortable and to feel good about the school.”

The Family Involvement Project still has at least one big hurdle to overcome. Recruiting parents is a slow process.

Because many of the parents the project hopes to attract are not native English speakers or have low literacy rates, publicity is primarily by word of mouth.

Despite problems of recruitment, Lukes says she would like to see the program “institutionalized” in schools. “We hear that parents don’t care,” Lukes says. “The program shows that if you’re flexible, and you involve parents in planning, then they’ll participate.”

The hope is that expansion of the program would increase participation of language minority and low-income parents in other school activities. As Alma Flor Ada, an education professor at the University of San Francisco points out, family writing projects help “students and parents to become authors not only of their past experiences, but also of their present and future.”

John Rankin is a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. For the address of the Books Project see page 29.