Engaging Middle School Parents, Students, and Teachers in a Learning Community: A Case in Point
Wright, Kay, Willis, Susan, Childhood Education
Learning may be defined as an interchange of ideas and experiences that are to be shared and to be the sources of some reflection. This sharing helps us validate the language, cultural differences, learning styles, and behavioral expectations and values of the family and community. (McCaleb, 1997, p. 25)
Children and adolescents are more apt to succeed in school when parents use positive strategies to support their learning and communicate with school personnel (Henderson & Berla, 1994). Unfortunately, it appears that parent involvement declines steadily from the early years to the degree that it is almost completely absent by the middle grades. This decline is unfortunate, as research demonstrates that parental engagement enhances a school's academic environment (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1996). Such a discrepancy between recommendation and practice warrants investigation.
The focus of this article is to explore reasons why parents may become disengaged at the middle school level re-state the importance of parent involvement in learning, and share insights learned through one case, in which parents, teachers, and students were engaged in collaborative learning.
EXPLORING THE WORLD OF MIDDLE SCHOOLS AND PARENT INVOLVEMENT
Many definitions of "parent involvement" can be found. Teachers and parents may define involvement differently. Teachers often focus on soliciting parents' support for academics, while parents typically focus more on the whole child, including his or her physical and emotional well-being (Scribner, Young, & Pedroza, 1999). Several barriers to communication in middle school are evident. First, young adolescents typically discourage the presence of their parents in school. Even parents whose involvement had been moderate or high in their children's elementary education decreased their involvement by 50 percent when their children reached middle school (Manning, 2000). Some adults may regard the increasing independence and self-reliance of young adolescents as an indication that middle school children no longer need them to monitor their school efforts.
Second, the number of teachers with whom parents must interact increases from one teacher in the early elementary grades to a teacher for each content area in the middle grades. Teachers, too, have a much larger group of parents with whom to interact, as they have a number of different classes and students per day.
Third, differing cultural practices and/or languages of families and teachers may impede the efforts of teachers and parents to collaborate. Both families and teachers must learn to negotiate if they are to support each other in the child's learning. When language is a barrier, parents may become isolated. They also may lack the confidence, skills, and knowledge that are needed to negotiate the "culture" of the school (Wright & Stegelin, 2002). Parents and teachers in this situation need the assistance of community groups, other parents, and relevant school personnel.
Finally, the dynamic of parental involvement has been affected by the incidence of violence in schools and by fears of terrorism. Schools have responded with tighter security measures designed to limit public access to schools and to screen adults who volunteer in school activities.
Regardless of these barriers, we have an ethical commitment to support families in their work with the educational lives of their children. Children and adolescents need their parents to be supporters and advocates for their learning across all grade levels. Such parental support enhances the academic achievement of young people and nurtures their sense of competence and self-esteem (Henderson & Berla, 1994). Teachers can encourage parents' involvement by engaging them in discussions about the children's progress at school. Examples of collaborative efforts are reflected in Joyce Epstein's (1995) typology of family involvement:
* Parenting (drug and alcohol abuse prevention workshops, newsletters featuring parent/student activities)
*Communicating (through E-mail, grade reports, parent requests for conferences)
* Volunteering (as chaperones for school trips and for extracurricular activities)
* Learning at home (homework hotlines, student calendars)
* Decision-making (site-based councils, advisory boards)
* Collaborating with the community (family resource and youth service centers). …