By Lillian Mongeau
It has become a default explanation for student failure in low-income communities: Those parents don’t care what their kids are doing in school. Principal Laura Robell thinks that’s ridiculous.
“I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t care about their kid’s learning. All parents care about their kid’s learning,” Robell says.
Robell leads a small public middle school in East Oakland. She says family involvement here is critical. When parents don’t help their students with homework or encourage them to show up on time, kids can get the message that school is not important. And when that happens, schools have an uphill battle to convince kids to engage in their studies.
“Parents are our partners in this work,” she says. “Their role in the ways that students show up at school is hugely important, and so of course parent involvement is a major thing that helps us both raise test scores and have students be more prepared for school, better readers and writers, better math students.”
The school Robell leads is located in one of the poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods in the country. It many neighborhoods with these stats, it’s hard to pull parents in. Early evening Back To School Night’s are scheduled with a nine-to-five job in mind, but parents in working class neighborhoods often work morning or night shifts that don’t come with time off. And many parents in this neighborhood won’t go out with their kids after dark for fear of the gangs and the drug dealers. Despite all that, ninety percent of Elmhurst families visit the school twice a year to discuss their child’s academic progress. Robell says the trick is to let the kids do the talking.
Student Tina Tupou is in eighth grade here and she’s sitting with her mother and sister in a math classroom.
She tells her mother, “We had to make a history book, like a little history flip book for the Missouri Compromise, like we had to write seven questions and then fill it in with our answers.”
This is called a student-led conference and it’s Elmhurst’s answer to Back To School Night.
“This is my math project,” Tina says. “I got a B. We had to graph like – we had to battlefield, like set bombs in the ocean, and then every time enemies try to pass by it’ll explode their boat. Yeah, we had to write a paragraph on how we got our answers.”
When Tina finishes flipping through a folder of projects she’s completed in all of her academic classes, her sister translates what she’s said for Tina’s mother, who only speaks Tongan.
“I’m proud of most of my grades but some grades I wish I didn’t have to show her,” she says after the conference. “I feel embarrassed when I show her. But yeah, I still have to show her. It’s her business too.”
When Elmhurst was founded in 2006, school leaders knew they needed to do a better job making student learning a parent’s business. Back to School Night wasn’t working.
“We were making fun of back to school night,” says founding teacher Christina Villarreal. “Back to school night… it’s a joke.”
Parents must have though Back to School night was a joke too, because not many of them showed up. What was sort of revolutionary about what happened next is that the Elmhurst leaders decided not to blame the absent parents. Instead, they figured it was their job, the school’s job, to come up with a system that worked better. So they started Student-led Conferences and they were a huge hit.
“It just showed like if schools can be willing to be courageous in trying things differently, you might get different results,” Villarreal says.
Villarreal says that Elmhurst school leaders stopped concluding parents don’t care.
“[The] student-led conference directly refutes that claim. It shuts it down, because this exact same population, the same parents,” she says. “They didn’t come to back to school night. But they come to student-lead conferences”
Principal Robell says the conferences have changed the culture of the whole school.
“Families are coming up here not because their kid is in trouble, not because there’s something wrong, but they’re coming up here to celebrate the work that their student has done,” she says.
Tina’s family, for one, is thrilled. Tina’s report card is the best it’s been all year. She has a 3.5 GPA. Her mom says it’s great to see her daughter improve every time. And Tina’s sister, Maue is proud too, though she’s a bit worried about Tina’s math grade.
“What you think, you get B- on your math. What would you do… what would you do, you know, to make it up? To make it better?” Maue says.
Tina replies, “I’ll try to do more extra credit, study more, like study more for my concept checks because the concept checks are worth more of my grade than anything else.”
“They’re all good grades,” Maue says, “but you can move forward to get an A. so our goal for next conference will be 4.0. That’s the goal for us.”
“Yeah, okay,” Tina says.
So Tina writes down her goals for next semester and she writes how she’s going to get there. By going to sleep on time, studying harder, and doing extra credit projects. And her sister and her mom promise to help.