Boston schools help parents make grade

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / August 30, 2009

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Boston school officials, increasingly concerned about a lack of parental involvement, will launch a program this fall to give mothers and fathers an opportunity to learn how to help their children with homework, talk with teachers, or take on a volunteer leadership role.

Parent University will also help parents write résumés and develop career goals and will hold a graduation for participants at year’s end.

The program opens as state and national policy makers stress the need for urban parents to take an active role in their children’s education.

Parent involvement in Boston’s 135 schools can vary greatly, school officials say.

“We have some schools doing phenomenal work with parents, engaging families that historically felt marginalized and bringing them into the schools,’’ said Michele Brooks, assistant superintendent for family and community engagement. “Probably less than half our schools are doing exemplary family engagement, but we are progressing.’’

In launching Parent University, the Boston public schools are reviving a once-popular program, the Parent Leadership Academy. Started in the late 1990s, the academy helped thousands of parents learn the ins and outs of advocating for their children in school and helping them with their studies at home, including preparing for MCAS exams.

But the Parent Academy, which cost between $50,000 to $100,000 to run and offered classes in four languages, fell victim to budget cuts earlier this decade.

Such programs, however, have proliferated across the country, including in Everett, where the nonprofit Joint Committee for Children’s Health Care started its own Parent University almost 10 years ago. Last spring, about 260 people participated in an all-day event at Everett High School that offered programs not only about schooling, but also about health care.

Thomas Stella, Everett’s assistant school superintendent, said that the city has a lot of young parents and that the program has helped them develop parenting skills.

“Some parents might not know what assets exist at the local library, such as which books help children learn good reading skills,’’ Stella said.

Schools can be intimidating for parents who have bad memories of their own school years. Some parents are reluctant to even go into the buildings.

“All of us went to school. We remember being judged, failure, and being punished,’’ said Michael O’Neal, executive director of the Parent University in Savannah, Ga., which Boston school officials visited last year. “Even though we grow up and finish some level of school, those feelings still reside in us. And when a teacher calls, some of that comes back.’’

Teachers and principals can unconsciously make parents feel unwelcome by speaking in a lot of jargon - using terms such as rubric, performance-based assessment, proficiency, interdisciplinary learning, and not making AYP - without any thought that most people are unfamiliar with such language.

By teaching parents those terms, as well as a host of other lessons, O’Neal said, the program can help parents feel “a lot more comfortable in the schools and less adversarial.’’

Boston will offer the first session of its Parent University in October, in an all-day event at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, followed by two more sessions in the winter and spring. Individual schools will also hold Parent University sessions in their buildings during the year.

The program is free, and parents will have a chance to register for the first session at the district’s second annual Back-to-School Jamboree at City Hall Plaza Sept. 5.

Brooks said her goal is to have somewhere between 500 and 750 parents take part this year, with the hope of getting a greater turnout in subsequent years.

In Boston, perhaps more than in most school districts, schools must be aggressive in reaching out to parents, many of whom grew up in the city during the turbulent era of school desegregation and still harbor a lot of hard feelings and distrust toward the system, said Myriam Ortiz, executive director of the Boston Parent Organizing Network, a grass-roots group that advocates for school improvement. It is joining with the school district to sponsor the Parent University.

“It’s very challenging to engage families who have those scars,’’ Ortiz said. “We get phone calls all the time from schools asking us to come in and provide workshops on how to have effective parent councils or how to help kids with homework. To have the district recognize families as an asset is a big step forward.’’