ERIC Identifier: ED355314
Publication Date: 1992-12-00
Author: Lewis, Anne
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban
Education New York NY.
Helping Young Urban Parents Educate Themselves and Their
Children. ERIC/CUE Digest, Number 85.
No discussion of school reform or education policy issues these days seems
complete without references to "parent involvement." Most educators would agree
this term goes far beyond the traditional view of parents as field trip
chaperons and cookie bakers--from preparing children for school, to education
choice, to new forms of school governance. Nevertheless, much of the literature
still defines parent involvement as those activities supporting what the schools
define as involvement, and continues to address what PARENTS SHOULD DO.
The demographics of urban schools, in particular, are causing this view of
parent involvement to be challenged, however, as increasing numbers of very
young parents, most of whom are single, poor, and not well-educated, need
multiple services to help create a caring environment for their children. The
focus of involvement is shifting not to what schools should do for parents, but
to how to form genuine school-family partnerships.
Research data on parent involvement that separate out young, low-income
and/or minority parents are just emerging. Although, as a sub-group, the young
parent is not yet fully addressed in the literature, urban schools increasingly
must cope with the consequences of mothers who had babies when they were still
very young themselves.
Teenage pregnancy rates are rising. The
largest increase is among the youngest--ages 15-17. Their birth rates (births
per 1,000 females) rose 19 percent between 1986 and 1989, according to Child
Trends, Inc. (1992). During the same time, the rates for ages 18-19 and for
women in their twenties each increased 7 percent. In 1989, about 518,000 girls
under age 20 became mothers. Two-thirds of these births were to single mothers,
compared to 25 percent of the women in their twenties. These families, headed by
single mothers, comprise the fastest growing category of family groups,
according to Danziger and Farber (1990). As a percentage of their racial group,
single motherhood is a particular issue for African Americans; 58 percent of all
black families with children are headed by single mothers, compared to 19
percent of whites. Less than 25 years ago, the percentage for black families was
only 15 percent.
CONSEQUENCES FOR MOTHER AND CHILD
For those who become
unwed mothers at a young age, there are immediate disadvantages that have
lifelong effects. Wilson (1986) says they are less likely to ever get married,
they have more children than the average, they are more likely to be poor, and
their formal education ends early.
Education. Having a baby means dropping out of school for 80 percent of teenage
mothers, and only 56 percent finally graduate from high school (Armstrong &
Waszak, 1992). Further, a teenage parent will make only one-half of the lifetime
earnings of a mother who waited until at least age 20 to have her first child.
Being a teenage mother also means living below the poverty line; in 1986, 81
percent of young mothers living alone had incomes below the Federal poverty
level. Even if married, their poverty rates were twice the national average.
Income. Early childbearing is more than a personal tragedy. The Center for
Population Options (Armstrong & Waszak, 1992) estimates that in 1990, the
annual cost of teenage motherhood (welfare, food stamps, Medicaid) was $25
billion. If the teenage births in that year had been delayed until the mother
was age 20, the savings in support services would have been 40 percent.
School Readiness. The children of low-income young mothers, more often than not,
are unprepared for formal schooling. The Educational Testing Service (1992)
contends that even after controlling for key socioeconomic differences between
one- and two-parent families, students living with both parents perform better
academically in school. Low-income families do not have the resources to create
literacy-rich home environments, and reading at home makes for better readers at
Similarly, the level of verbal interaction affects how well young children
develop thinking skills. Young mothers who dropped out of school, or have not
experienced a stimulating workplace, may lack the skills to use language
elaborately with their children. Sigel (1991) finds that when parents use
low-level or authoritative oral strategies with preschool children, the children
perform poorly on tasks requiring memory or problem-solving. A low-level
question would be: "What color is the shoe?" A high-level one would be: "Are
there other ways you might draw the house?"
DIFFERENT VIEWS OF YOUNG FAMILIES
Most of the research and
program efforts reflect these "deficit" perceptions of children from families in
poverty and attribute the inadequate preparation of young children for school to
economic status, racial/ethnic conditioning, single parenthood, or dysfunctional
There is, however, another view contending that none of the research so far
really describes the process by which parents prepare their children for school
and, further, that it perpetuates stereotypes of particular groups (Iglesias,
1992). Even the most poverty-stricken families or those with very poor literacy
skills have been good early teachers for their children (Clark, 1989). They set
aside time for learning, make opportunities for a lot of family discussion, and
go together with their children to outside resources, such as libraries. Clark
calls this "quality of family life style."
Similarly, Scott-Jones (1987) found that low-income, minority parents who
want to help their children with home learning in the early grades, and do so,
have varying skills. Such differences are one of the reasons why Iglesias (1992)
argues that parenting and parent involvement programs should be tailored to the
individual needs of each family instead of forcing every family to fit into a
single type of program. "It is essential," he says, "that we begin asking
families what they want, rather than providing them only those services which
are immediately at our disposal."
Several recent studies contend that parent involvement in schools suffers
because educators do not understand different family cultures or even the
circumstances that make parenting difficult for poor families. They describe
situations where it is not lack of parental interest in the education of their
children that causes poor communication with the schools, as many educators
believe, but, rather, parental feelings of alienation from the schools.
In Appalachia, for example, the Education Writers Association (1992) notes
that school failure by mothers over several generations leads again and again to
early pregnancies, dropping out, and extreme difficulties in re-entering the
education system. These mothers and others interviewed for this report generally
felt ignored or misunderstood by the schools because of their poverty and/or
lack of English proficiency. The interviews were with populations of young
families--inner-city African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and rural
Appalachians. Garlington (1991) found similar attitudes in a project with
inner-city Baltimore families whose children were in the middle grades. She
dismisses the stereotype of parents who do not care about their children's
schooling, pointing out that when they have the confidence to become advocates
for their children, the parents no longer feel "invisible, voiceless, and
The myriad of ways schools attempt to
encourage parent involvement and fulfill their responsibilities to parents is
described in five types by Epstein (1992). These are:
Basic obligations of families: Positive home conditions that support learning
are a responsibility of families; schools help families become informed and
skillful at understanding their children and supporting their learning at home
through various activities such as parent training and information giving.
Basic obligations of schools: Schools are responsible for communicating with
families about school programs and children's progress, ordinarily through
notices, phone calls, visits, report cards and conferences; schools vary in the
frequency of communications and in ability to make them understood by families.
Involvement at school: Parents assist teachers, children, or other school
personnel as volunteers; schools vary their schedules to encourage such
involvement and recruit and train volunteers.
Involvement in learning activities at home: Teachers request and guide parents
to monitor and assist their children at home.
Involvement in decision-making, governance, and advocacy: Parents serve in
participatory roles and also may become activists through involvement in
advocacy groups; schools help parents become leaders through training, involving
them in meaningful decision-making, and providing information to advocacy
Schools with comprehensive programs encompassing all of these forms of parent
involvement help parents build the conditions at home that support student
learning, and there are hundreds of practices from which to choose.
Since her original research, Epstein has added a sixth form of
involvement--collaboration and exchange with community organizations. In this
form, schools collaborate with agencies, businesses, cultural organizations, and
other groups to share responsibility for the education of children. They make it
more feasible for children and families to have access to these services and
Other researchers define parent involvement on the basis of the direct
beneficiary of the intervention. Parent involvement programs which are meant to
benefit the child focus on parents as interveners, parent/child relations,
stimulating the senses, and parents as classroom aides. Programs with parents as
beneficiaries emphasize emotional support, resource access, parenting skills,
and the like.
The literature on parent involvement summarized by Henderson, Marburger, and
Ooms (1986) describes most school communication as formal and one-way, that is,
from school to home. Also, parents complain that their most personal
communication with schools usually only occurs because of a problem or crisis.
However, in the earliest grades, urban schools appear to have developed
special strategies. A study of the transition from preschools to kindergartens
found that there was more opportunity for parents in high-poverty schools (Love,
Logue, Trudeau, & Thayer, 1992). This probably is because such schools are
involved in Federal or state programs that stress home visits. In schools with
preschool programs, the parent education workshops and home visits are more
prevalent before children reach kindergarten.
Among low-income and/or minority families, parent involvement is difficult to
encourage. Studies of early intervention programs for high-risk children found
parents reluctant to participate or high rates of dropping out of specially
designed programs (Iglesias, 1992). Only about one of ten low-income parents
belongs to a parent-teacher organization (Educational Testing Service, 1992).
Furthermore, adolescent parents are especially hard to reach.
School attitudes and practices regarding
parent involvement in inner-city elementary and middle schools directly
influence how much parents will support learning at home, according to Dauber
and Epstein (1989). Parents who feel the school is actively trying to involve
them have a more positive attitude about the school, and they give higher
ratings to teachers who try to involve them. Although teachers in the Chapter 1
schools involved in Epstein's research project felt most parents were not
involved and did not want to be, parents expressed different feelings. They
reported that they were involved with their children and wanted more advice from
teachers about how to help their children.
Despite the problems in drawing parents into schools, some programs and
schools have learned to involve parents and provide greater support for their
children. And it should be noted that family involvement is becoming an even
stronger element in national policies.
Parent involvement tends to be greater
in the early years, and Even Start, Head Start, and the early childhood focus of
the Education of Children With Disabilities Act provide opportunities to reach
urban, poor young parents early. Moreover, these programs are becoming more
family centered. For example, Head Start programs are phasing in literacy
training for parents, and the Even Start program helps families in their homes
with ways to prepare their children for school. In addition, the growing family
literacy movement emphasizes parents and young children learning together. In
particular, elementary schools are becoming sites for multi-services for
families. The New Beginnings project in San Diego, for example, registers
families for appropriate community services at the same time as the children
register for school, and collaborative arrangements among a number of service
agencies bring many of the services to the school site.
Sometimes, however, the best results of such interventions require very
intensive support. Two pioneer programs demonstrated the benefits of reaching
young children early who might otherwise not receive good cognitive stimulation
at home, setting the policy and practice frameworks for Federal programs, but
they required a major investment in time and personnel. The Milwaukee Project of
the mid-1960s and the Abecedarian Project of the early 1970s illustrated that
intensive stimulation of very young poor children can lead to higher IQ scores
and that it is possible to have good success from such interventions. Ramey and
Ramey (1992) noted that among a number of income, social, and educational
factors, the mother's level of intelligence is the single strongest predictor of
a child's intellectual development. In both of the above projects, the mothers
were mentally retarded.
With early intervention through full-week, full-year programs in the
Abecedarian Project, all of the children of low-income mothers with IQs below 70
points tested in the normal range of intelligence by the age of three. These
early interventions resulted in a 50 percent reduction in the rate of grade
retention during the elementary grades. The researchers concluded that in order
to promote cognitive development and good attitudes toward learning, young
children need adults around them who model good habits of learning. In the
Milwaukee Project, the participants were enrolled in an enrichment program for
seven hours a day, five days a week, beginning when they were just a few months
old and lasting until they reached first grade. They maintained close to normal
IQ scores through age 14. However, the children performed lower than their IQ
scores might have assumed, but the researchers attributed this to the fact that
they were assigned to the lowest academic groups in their classrooms.
OTHER INNOVATIVE STRATEGIES
Because of working or poor
parents, and communities which have become fractured or decayed, schools must
re-create the "social capital in the community," says Coleman (1991). This means
bringing the parents together to agree upon and to enforce norms that support
the goals of the school. He warns, however, that a strong body of parents may
not always act how the school wants it to act, but will become advocates for the
children of the community.
Davies, Burch, and Johnson (1992) say urban elementary schools participating
in the League of Schools Reaching Out are redefining themselves as community
institutions, responding to the needs of their troubled environments. They use a
number of traditional strategies--open houses, fund-raising fairs, parent
conferences, volunteers, intergenerational literacy programs, and advisory and
policy councils. They also have developed three new strategies--parent centers;
family support programs, such as home visits and parenting workshops; and school
and community organization partnerships, with universities, businesses, civic
groups, and such.
Goodson, Swartz, and Millsap (1991) say successful family education programs
focus on empowering parents. This means they address those factors that alienate
parents from the schools, such as low levels of literacy. Other characteristics
provision of multiple levels of parent participation--any contact is seen as
different modes of contact that respond to different parent skills, e.g., home
visits are good for those who lack experience in working in groups;
helping parents move from one type of involvement to another, e.g., from home
visits to school settings;
sensitivity to the literacy levels of parents;
flexibility in scheduling and location; and
use of ways to create closer bonds with families, such as contracts or support
The Willard Model School Parent Center in Norfolk, VA, one of 12 elementary
school parent centers, is an example of the range of services this strategy can
provide. Parents help select the workshop topics, teachers brief parents at the
center every nine weeks on the upcoming curricula, the center provides a game
and computer loan library, and its coordinator and teachers visit parents in
their homes. During 1990-91, about 80 percent of the parents attended at least
one workshop; 71 percent attended two or more. The centers are financed by the
school system and Chapter 1.
Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS), a program developed by the
Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning at The Johns
Hopkins University, makes homework interactive with parents (Epstein, Jackson,
& Salinas, 1992). The program has developed 160 prototype interactive
homework assignments linked to the curriculum for Baltimore inner-city middle
school teachers. Parents help children with such assignments as oral family
histories, science experiments in the kitchen, or reports on health topics.
In Indianapolis, families interact with schools via a local cable channel
that broadcasts a homework hotline; children and families can get visual answers
to questions about homework assignments (Epstein, 1992). To counteract low
attendance at school meetings, some schools are using tape recordings,
videocassettes, or answering machines in schools or classrooms which can send
and receive timely messages. Others organize volunteer work for parents to do at
home or on weekends.
PROGRAMS FOR MULTILINGUAL FAMILIES
The most promising
programs to reach multilingual families do not locate the problem of low
literacy support at home with the parents. The National Clearinghouse on
Literacy Education asserts that strengthening the achievement of children is a
reciprocal one--enabling parents to understand schools while enabling school
personnel to understand and take into account how non-English-speaking families
view their situation.
While the programs have great variety, they all tend to build on family
strengths, emphasize collaboration among early childhood and adult educators,
and place value on the families' traditional cultures as well as on the new
culture and language. Often, the programs deliberately incorporate a
tables-turned aspect--children who are more proficient in English become their
parents' teachers. For example, the Pajaro Valley program for Hispanic families
in Arizona (Ada, 1988) uses storytelling among parents and children in the
native language and in English.
Despite the growing amount of research on parent
involvement in high-poverty urban schools and number of practices to choose
from, it is too early to say what works in the long-term and why. Iglesias
points out that the present parent programs "are a conglomerate of different
approaches which differ in their goals, formats, and durations with little or no
regard to the interaction of parent characteristics and programs." So far, few
programs seem to have produced much reliable knowledge about the special needs
of very young parents, and the interventions that both create long-lasting bonds
between such parents and their children's schooling and help the parents develop
better coping and parenting skills. What does seem clear, however, is that
inner-city schools must go beyond traditional strategies that depend on parents'
initiatives and see themselves as educators of families.
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