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Lily Eskelsen's picture

It’s Parent Day today.

Ok. Parent Day was Tuesday of American Education Week and I fell behind my schedule for getting this up, but still. It’s Parent Day.

I remember when I first started teaching sometime in the late 1800s when one of the moms of one of my 4th graders came to the class to apologize. She had always been The Room Mother for her kids, but this year she was working outside the home, and she was apologizing for not being able to be involved.

I said, “You’re going to be involved, because you’re a good mom. You don’t have to be a school volunteer to be involved. I’m a working mom, too, and I’m involved with my kids’ education because I make sure they do their homework and that they don’t watch too much TV and I ask what they’re doing at school, and I make them tell me. You do that every day, and it’s the best parent involvement a teacher could ask for.”

We love it when parents get involved. But just as things have changed in the world so that there are fewer and fewer stay-home parents who can even think about being school volunteers, schools, themselves, need to recognize how when they need to change to involve parents.

I visited a fearless school in Waterbury, Connecticut. West Side Middle School isn’t in an affluent community. There are families working two or three part-time jobs with no benefits just to put food on the table and pay the rent. They love their kids, but they don’t have the time or money to provide all the enriching opportunities that some families can provide with dance classes and league sports and trips to the museum.

Families are counting on that school to care about their children, mind, body and soul. That is a huge responsibility.

Four years ago, West Side Middle School wasn’t what it wanted to be. Teachers were tired and discouraged. Support staff were overworked. Kids were absent too often and too many of them were disruptive and too many of them just didn’t care. Parents rarely walked into the building and some teachers were thinking out loud, “What are we supposed to do if we can’t get the parents to show up.”

It was a rhetorical question. But something happened to move that question to a different level. The University of Connecticut and the teachers’ union on the local and state and national level and the principal and the district and the school board and a few community leaders decided to turn the school around.

There was a little bit of money from the University and the NEA to pay for a little time to get together and plan and to study the results after the plan was in place. But the magic started when the conversation turned to the parents.

They started asking that question with a different tone of voice, “What are we supposed to do if we can’t get the parents to show up.” They wanted an answer. For these professionals, they were determined to do something.

They sent out a survey to parents. They were distressed at what they heard. Parents didn’t feel welcome. They felt disrespected. They felt invisible.

One teacher said that at first she wanted to argue with the results of their survey and tell parents that they were wrong; that the teachers did care and did want them. But she stopped. They asked parents how they felt. Just because they didn’t like the answer didn’t mean it wasn’t important information they needed to know.

Changing the climate in a school is not a task for the faint of heart. These brave folks decided that nothing was going to get better for kids until the staff and the parents were a solid team. They talked, as a school community, what personal responsibility each one had to make that school a place of respect and energy and inclusion.

I met one of the parents. I asked her what it was like five years ago. A cloud came over her face. “If I ever came to school, it was because my kid was in trouble. It was the only time the school asked me to come. I hated coming into this school.”

I asked her what it was like now. The sun came out. “I walk into the office, and the school secretary stops what she’s doing and smiles at me. They ask me if they can get me a cup of coffee. They’ve got a Saturday Community Day where the whole family comes to a party in the gym with music and art shows and games and prizes. I get to see the teachers and principal relaxing and just having fun and we talk and we laugh. I love this school.”

I could go on and tell you about other teams that came up with innovative literature programs that get kids reading so much that they don’t want to put down their books. I could tell you how teachers are collaborating across the curriculum so that the Math teacher and the Art teacher coordinate around a geometry lesson. I could tell you that disruptions and violence have all but disappeared.

But you have to start with the most important things. Inside the school, research says the teacher is the single most important factor in the success of a child. Outside the school, research says the parent is the single most important factor in the success of a child. Put the most important factors together, and this child will fly to the future. So celebrate!

It’s Parent Day today. Every day is Parent Day.

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