ERIC Identifier: ED350380
Publication Date: 1992-08-00
Author: Inger, Morton
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education New York NY.

Increasing the School Involvement of Hispanic Parents. ERIC/CUE Digest Number 80.

The importance of family structure and support for extended families remains strong among Hispanics in the U.S. despite news reports about the decline of the traditional family in general. At home, Hispanic children are usually nurtured with great care by a large number of relatives. Often, however, family members don't extend their caregiving role into their children's schools; they are reluctant to become involved in either their children's education or in school activities. In the case of poor Hispanic parents, interactions with school range from low to nonexistent (Nicolau & Ramos, 1990).

There is considerable evidence that parent involvement leads to improved student achievement, better school attendance, and reduced dropout rates, and that these improvements occur regardless of the economic, racial, or cultural background of the family (Flaxman & Inger, 1991). Thus, given that 40 percent of Hispanic children are living in poverty, that Hispanics are the most under-educated major segment of the U.S. population, and that many Hispanic children enter kindergarten seriously lacking in language development and facility, regardless of whether they are bilingual, speak only English, or speak only Spanish, the need to increase the involvement of Hispanic parents in their children's schools is crucial.


In Hispanics' countries of origin, the roles of parents and schools were sharply divided. Many low-income Hispanic parents view the U.S. school system as "a bureaucracy governed by educated non-Hispanics whom they have no right to question" (Nicolau & Ramos, 1990, p. 13). Many school administrators and teachers misread the reserve, the non-confrontational manners, and the non-involvement of Hispanic parents to mean that they are uncaring about their children's education--and this misperception has led to a cycle of mutual mistrust and suspicion between poor Hispanic parents and school personnel.

Many schools have unconsciously erected barriers to Hispanic parents, adopting a paternalistic or condescending attitude toward them. In some cases, parent-teacher organizations meet during working hours, and material sent home is in English only. Few teachers or administrators are offered guidance or training to help them understand and reach out to Hispanic parents, and school personnel rarely speak Spanish. Less than three percent of the nation's elementary school teachers, less than two percent of secondary teachers, and only two percent of other school personnel are Hispanic (Orum & Navarette, 1990).


One step that schools can take is to understand and tap into an important and underutilized source of strength--the Hispanic extended family. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, godparents, and even friends all play a role in reinforcing family values and rearing children. This is a resource that schools can and should draw on.

With budget cuts affecting virtually every school district in the country, public schools have turned to parents for help. Parents keep school libraries open, raise funds for computers and playground equipment, and, at some schools, even pay out of their own pockets to continue before-school and after-school enrichment programs. Although worthwhile, these efforts raise troubling questions: "[W]hat happens to schools in which parents do not have enough money to compensate for the system's failings?" (Chira, 1992). And what happens at schools where Hispanic parents are not involved and therefore are not available to supplement the school's staff? Does this put their children at an increased competitive disadvantage? Budget crises thus reinforce the urgency for schools to break down the barriers between them and Hispanic families.

Through expanded outreach efforts, a budget crisis could be an opportunity to bring Hispanic family members into the school. Even if the parents are working and cannot volunteer their time, other available family members could serve as a pool of potential volunteers. If the schools need their help, and if this need is made clear, Hispanic family members are more likely to feel welcome, useful, and respected, and this participation could lead to a fuller involvement with the school.

But the need for schools to work with what Delgado (1992) calls the "natural support systems" of Hispanics--e.g., the extended family, neighborhood mutual-help groups, community based organizations--goes beyond the short-term exigencies of a budget crisis. By working with these natural support systems and not insisting on meeting only with the nuclear family, schools can draw poor Hispanic families into the system.


Some educators, community groups, and government agencies are working to develop ways to encourage greater participation by low-income, non-English-speaking parents. Some school districts now employ a range of special training programs to help parents build self-esteem, improve their communication skills, and conduct activities that will improve their children's study habits. Within the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE), Project Even Start provides assistance to instructional programs that combine adult literacy outreach with training to enable parents to support the educational growth of their children.

In the private sphere, many Hispanic organizations have undertaken a variety of projects to improve the relationship between schools and poor Hispanic families. For example, the Hispanic Policy Development Project (HPDP) conducted a nationwide grant program to promote and test strategies to increase Hispanic parental involvement in the schooling of their children. And the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) runs a series of demonstration projects, called Project EXCEL, that combine tutoring and enrichment programs for Hispanic children with training seminars for parents.


The following recommendations are based on what has been learned from the efforts of educators and community groups to improve Hispanic parent involvement.

Programs that increase and retain the involvement of Hispanic parents follow a simple, basic rule: they make it easy for parents to participate. In Detroit's Effective Parenting Skills Program, for example, programs and materials are bilingual, baby-sitting is provided, there are no fees, and times and locations of meetings are arranged for the convenience of the parents (Linn, 1990, cited in Flaxman & Inger, 1991). Other programs provide interpreters and transportation.

Outreach efforts require extra staff. They take considerable time and cannot be handled by a regular staff person with an already full job description. Also, successful outreach is organized by people who have volunteered, not by people who have been assigned to the job.

Hispanic parents need to be allowed to become involved with the school community at their own pace. As the Hispanic Policy Development Project (HPDP) learned, "All the schools that felt that poor Hispanic parents should begin their involvement by joining the existing parents' organizations failed" (Nicolau & Ramos, 1990, p. 18). Before they join existing parent organizations, Hispanic parents want to acquire the skills and the confidence to contribute as equals.

The hardest part of building a partnership with low-income Hispanic parents is getting parents to the first meeting. HPDP found that impersonal efforts--letters, flyers, announcements at church services or on local radio or TV--were largely ineffective, even when these efforts were in Spanish. The only successful approach is personal: face-to-face conversations with parents in their primary language in their homes.

Home visits not only personalize the invitations but help school staff to understand and deal with parents' concerns. The schools learn, for example, which families need baby-sitting or transportation; and the parents learn whether they can trust the school staff or otherwise allay their fears about attending.

Since many low-income Hispanics feel uncomfortable in schools, successful projects hold the first meetings outside of the school, preferably at sites that are familiar to the parents. Successful first meetings are primarily social events; unsuccessful ones are formal events at school, with information aimed "at" the parents.

To retain the involvement of low-income Hispanic parents, every meeting has to respond to some needs or concerns of the parents. Programs that consult with parents regarding agendas and meeting formats and begin with the parents' agenda eventually cover issues that the school considers vital; those that stick exclusively to the school's agenda lose the parents.

Based on what it learned from its 42 School/Parent projects, HPDP concluded that overcoming the barriers between schools and Hispanic parents does not require large amounts of money; it does require personal outreach, non-judgmental communication, and respect for parents' feelings. HPDP found that although Hispanic school personnel can facilitate the process, non-Hispanics can also be effective. In fact, HPDP reported that the two most successful and innovative programs were led by a Chinese principal and an Anglo principal. Both, however, spoke Spanish.


ASPIRA 1112 16th St., NW, Suite 340 Washington, DC 20036

Hispanic Policy Development Project 250 Park Ave. South, Suite 5000A New York, NY 10003

Mexican American Legal Defense Fund 634 South Spring St., 11th Floor Los Angeles, CA 90014

National Council of La Raza 810 First St., NE, Suite 300 Washington, DC 20002-4205

National Puerto Rican Coalition 1700 K Street, NW Washington, DC 20006


Chira, S. (1992, March 30). The new cost of public education. The New York Times, B1.

Delgado, M. (1992). The Puerto Rican community and natural support systems: Implications for the education of children. Boston: Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning.

Flaxman, E., & Inger, M. (1991, September). Parents and schooling in the 1990s. The ERIC Review, 1(3), 2-6.

Nicolau, S., & Ramos, C. L. (1990). Together is better: Building strong relationships between schools and Hispanic parents. Washington, DC: Hispanic Policy Development Project.

Orum, L., & Navarette, L. (1990, January-February). Project EXCEL: A national Hispanic organizaation seeks to improve the American educational system for Hispanic children. Electric Perspectives, 14(1), 4-14. (ED 337 558)

State of Hispanic America 1991: An overview. (1992). Washington, DC: National Council of La Raza.

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