Forging Partnerships between Mexican American
Parents and the Schools. ERIC Digest.
by Chavkin, Nancy Feyl - Gonzalez, Dora Lara
According to the Bureau of the Census (1994), there are approximately
13 million Mexican Americans in the United States. In her review of the
status of education for Mexican American students, Sosa (1993) reports
alarming statistics--a decline in high school completion rates, a steady
rise in the dropout rate, and high numbers of students two or more years
behind grade level. In light of these facts, educators have an educational
imperative to look for new ways to work with Mexican American families.
This digest describes research supporting family participation in students'
education. It then describes barriers to participation faced by many Mexican
American parents and successful programs and strategies for overcoming
those barriers. Finally, the benefits of two-way communication and school-family
partnerships are described.
RESEARCH ON PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT AND STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT
Research has shown that one of the most promising ways to increase students'
achievement is to involve their families (Chavkin, 1993; Henderson &
Berla, 1994). Herbert Walberg (1984) found that family participation in
education was twice as predictive of academic learning as family socioeconomic
status. Establishing partnerships with families has many benefits for schools
and families, but Epstein says, "the main reason to create such partnerships
is to help all youngsters succeed in school and in later life" (1995, p.
BARRIERS TO PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT
For many Mexican American parents, lack of involvement in their children's
education is erroneously seen as lack of interest, but Montecel et al.
(1993) present evidence that Mexican American parents do care about their
children's education. The reasons for limited involvement include beliefs
that the roles of home and school are sharply delineated. Mexican American
parents see their role as being responsible for providing basic needs as
well as instilling respect and proper behavior. They see the school's role
as instilling knowledge (Nicolau & Ramos, 1993). They believe that
one should not interfere with the job of the other. Nicolau and Ramos compare
Mexican Americans' respect for teachers with the awe that most Americans
have (or used to have) for doctors or priests.
Other barriers to parental involvement include a negative view of the
school system, past negative experiences with education, and language barriers.
Often parents view the school as a bureaucracy controlled by non-Hispanics.
The school often reminds Mexican American parents of their own educational
experiences including discrimination and humiliation for speaking Spanish.
Many times the lack of bilingual staff can make parents feel powerless
when they are attempting to resolve problems or advocate for their children.
OPENING THE DOORS TO MORE PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT
How then can schools open the doors to more parental involvement and
build partnerships with Mexican American families? Begin by making parental
involvement easy and interesting, at a pace that is comfortable for parents.
Outreach efforts can and will work, but they must be done in a culturally
sensitive manner and begin with a strengths perspective. Mexican American
families have many strengths and these strengths need to be recognized
from the beginning.
Nicolau and Ramos' (1993) examination of 42 projects provides helpful
insights that can inform practice. Communication should be a major focus
of the involvement effort. Reception areas in schools should include bilingual
staff; telephone calls and written communication should be available in
Spanish. For some parents, home visits or visits at a neutral site, such
as a community center, offer a less threatening environment. In general,
the more personal the approach, the better it works for Mexican American
parents. Written correspondence is not as effective as the personal conference;
in fact, it is wrong to assume that all families are literate.
If meetings seem appropriate, invitations should be extended by parents
to parents, preferably neighbor to neighbor. A good idea for a first meeting
is to ask parents who are more familiar with school personnel to bring
three friends to a meeting at a community center outside the school. Meetings
should be informal and based on the interests of the parents, with transportation
and child care provided.
SELECTING PROGRAMS AND ACTIVITIES
There are many programs and activities for parents and schools to consider.
Some focus on family involvement in home learning activities and others
focus on parents' continued education. Each school must select and adapt
activities that best match the interests and needs of their families. The
programs described below are only a sample of the successful approaches
being used across the country (Goodson, Swartz, & Millsap, 1991).
*Project FIEL (El Paso, Texas) was begun in 1985 and is in eight elementary
schools in El Paso. This intergenerational literacy program involves limited-English-proficient
parents and their kindergarten children in oral language, story writing,
reading, discussions, and at-home activities.
*Prestame una Comadre (Springfield, Illinois) means "loan me a godmother"
in Spanish and works with migrant Head Start families. Social workers conduct
home visits as often as three times weekly and hold small group meetings.
Families work on increasing self-reliance, learning about child development
and education, and improving family functioning.
*Academia del Pueblo--developed by the National Council of La Raza--provides
afterschool and summer classes for Hispanic children, monthly parent groups,
and literacy classes three times a week. The program operates at the Guadalupe
Center, a multiservice organization in Kansas City, Missouri.
*McAllen Parental Involvement Program (McAllen, Texas) includes three
core activities: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (PECES is
the Spanish version of this commercially available curriculum), evening
study centers, and parent meetings on a variety of topics.
Some effective programs are part of a national or state network or are
supported by private funds. ASPIRA Parents for Educational Excellence (APEX)
trains Latino parents to become effective advocates for their children
at home and at school. The Hispanic Policy Development Project has worked
with hundreds of parents using an enrichment model rather than a deficit
approach. Project AVANCE, a privately funded program in San Antonio, Texas,
uses door-to-door recruitment strategies as part of its outreach to develop
parenting skills among low-income Mexican American mothers. Mother-daughter
programs, developed at Texas universities, work to expand the role of Hispanic
women by exposing them to nontraditional roles, campus field trips, and
career activities. Empowerment programs such as Comite de Padres Latinos
in Carpinteria, California (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991), emphasize treating parents
as valued participants and often lead to active participation by parents.
USING THE PARTNERSHIP APPROACH
Sustaining family involvement requires a commitment to open, continuous,
two-way communication with Mexican American families. Most schools have
established methods of one-way communication with parents, but the need
for more two-way communication cannot be stressed enough. It is critically
important for educators to take the time to listen to parents. The attitudes
and practices of teachers and principals make a difference in the amount
of parental involvement and in the achievement of students (Dauber &
Epstein, 1993). Sometimes educators overlook what they can learn from Mexican
American families. These families are rich sources of information that
can be used in the classroom. Parents have interacted with their children,
and they know many of their learning styles as well as their strengths
and weaknesses. Parents also know the community.
Partnerships with families require all participants to share responsibility
for educational outcomes. This perspective represents a major shift for
schools from merely delivering services to students to taking active, integrated
roles that validate the cultural and social experiences of families. To
succeed in this partnership role, staff need to ask parents for their ideas,
meet with parent and community representatives to define goals, and develop
a plan for parent and community involvement.
Training can help faculty and family members take on new roles needed
for effective partnerships. Ongoing partnerships need evaluation and frequent
checkpoints to see if their goals and objectives are being met and if those
goals and objectives are still appropriate. Keeping programs flexible helps
everyone adjust to changes within the student body, families, the school
staff, and the community.
There is a big difference between the rhetoric of partnerships and the
activity of partnerships. Educators must truly believe and act on the belief
that parents are their children's first teacher and the only teacher that
remains with a child for a long period of time. Educators must discard
the old deficit model of working with families and, instead, operate on
an enrichment model founded on the belief that parents truly want the best
for their children. Not only must educators tell parents that they are
equally as important as the school, they must tell students how important
their homes and communities are. Having a partnership allows educators
to tap a rich source of cultural knowledge and personal experiences. Mexican
American families want their children to succeed in school, and educators
have an important responsibility to work with these students and their
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