Getting Parents Involved Early to Close the Achievement Gap

At Colfax Elementary, where half the students are foreign-born and Spanish-speaking, the staff is teaching parents to be facilitators of their child’s learning. The hope is that with their parents help, Latino students can close the yawning achievement gap that separates them from their white peers.Latinos represent about 15 percent of the nation’s population. But Latinos receive less than 7 percent of all advanced degrees conferred, and among 16- to 24-year-olds, nearly one in four is not enrolled in school or lacks a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The tendency of Latino students to lag behind their white peers has been misunderstood as a signal that Hispanic people don’t value education, says Richard Garcia of the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition (CSPC), a group that works with parents and educators to increase graduation rates.

“Every parent I’ve talked to cares a lot — they just may not have the tools they need to make a difference.”

School is meant to support a child’s academic development, Garcia says, but the foundation for learning is set in the home: reading to kids, conversing with them, controlling TV viewing, helping with homework and making sure they are on time for school.

“If every parent would be involved with their child in this way, we wouldn’t be talking about the achievement gap,” he said. 

At Colfax Elementary in west Denver, where about 90 percent of students are Latino and nearly all qualify for free or reduced lunch, Principal Joanna Martinez wants to reach parents early and give them the skills they need to help their kids learn at home.

“Parents need to understand they have a job as teachers, and it is their responsibility to teach their kids, not just the schools. Developing the love of reading, the love of learning, that sense of wondering — those are things done together as a family,” Martinez said. “There is just so much kids need to know. Parents have to help them.”

With the help of Garcia and the CSPC, Martinez and her staff organize family nights and parent workshops on topics such as improving communication with children, tips on how to cultivate curiosity and effective disciplining methods. The idea is to help parents educate children at home and turn everyday activities into teachable moments. The monthly workshops are conducted in Spanish and include pizza for extra enticement.

“They gave me a lot of ideas on what I needed to do to be more interactive with Emma,” said Christina Garcia, whose 4-year-old daughter is in the Spanish-language Early Childhood Education program at Colfax. “Not only do I need to get her to school on time, but with breakfast in her belly and maybe with a fun activity in the car on the way there.”

Taken with the idea that she could reach other Spanish-speaking parents, Garcia, 26, participated in a series of trainings led by the CSPC and attended by Colfax staff and parents. Now in addition to Garcia’s volunteer efforts supervising field trips, supplying cupcakes for class parties and taking pictures at the Halloween parade, she attends monthly school meetings with Martinez and other staff, where they plan family workshops and parent involvement strategies.

“Immigrant parents want to be involved, they just need to know how,” said Garcia, who was born in Colorado but whose first language is Spanish. “In Mexico, you send your kids to school and you trust the teachers are doing their job and your kids are getting what they need. There isn’t a lot of opportunity for involvement. But here, schools want parents to participate, so it’s completely different.”

Immigrant children and their Spanish-speaking parents make up about half the families at Colfax. Martinez says that although many of these parents work more than one job and have little time to spend at school functions, immigrant parents at Colfax tend to be more active in the school than native-born, English-speaking parents.

“I think it has to do with the fact that education is one of the reasons immigrants come here,” she said. “They come because they want to be economically stable, and they want their kids to do well — they know that means getting an education.”

For a child to succeed academically, Martinez says, it is difficult to overstate the importance of active parental involvement. She hopes by reaching parents early and helping them supplement and supervise their students’ learning from home, she can make a difference in the graduation rates for Hispanic youths.

“If we can get parents ‘hooked’ in elementary school, so they know nothing other than active involvement in their child’s education, then it will become the expectation for middle school, high school and beyond.”

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Kate Bernuth

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