Fostering Millie’s sense of curiosity is important to her parents. “If Millie expresses an interest, we let her investigate it and see what new ideas are sparked along the way,” says Sharla Myers about her youngest daughter, a rising second-grader at Westdale Heights Academic Magnet (WHAM), a public school in Baton Rouge. In support of Millie’s newfound interest (her mother says she is obsessed with Jane Goodall), her family’s Florida vacation included a special trip to Monkey Jungle in Miami. “There she was, surrounded by spider monkeys, feeding them and making monkey noises to ‘talk’ to them,” Myers says. “She’ll never forget that experience.”
Myers says her role towards her daughter’s education is “to establish a consistent routine” while serving as Millie’s advocate when the workload becomes overwhelming. Meanwhile, she believes the roles of teachers are to introduce and explain new material, building on what the students have previously learned, while ensuring that no students fall behind. “Too much of a gap between those two things, and the students are going to really struggle,” Myers says. “Good teachers find different ways to introduce the new material, because their students have so many different learning styles.”
Intertwining Parents' and Teachers' Roles
While not everyone perceives the roles of parent and teacher the same way, prior studies have linked parental effort with higher levels of student achievement. In fact, parent-teacher collaboration is important, especially when it comes to the educational success of children, so to promote good relationships with parents, the U.S. Department of Education suggests that new teachers maintain communication with parents.
East Baton Rouge Parish Schools currently have systems that work in building parent-teacher relationships, including holding open house nights and parent-teacher conferences. “Unfortunately, only the first one is mandatory, but we encourage parents to attend,” says Joanne Sherburne, a fourth-grade EBR public school teacher. This allows parents to see their child’s classroom and meet the teachers.
Sherburne shares that her school provides Chromebooks for student use as part of the curriculum. For use in the classroom, teachers use an app called Dojo, which tracks the children’s behavior and provides a means of communication with parents. Each class is equipped with a digital whiteboard and panels, and parents have access to Gradebook online. She explains, “They have a code, so they can see the name of the assignment, how many points the assignment is worth, and when it is due.”
Myers agrees that teachers should alert parents when their children are struggling–academically, socially or behaviorally. “It’s just as critical for a parent to alert a teacher if she thinks her child is having trouble. It’s good to ask what resources are available, if they aren’t being offered already. If you discover that resources exist but weren’t offered, then that’s a red flag.”
Regarding technology-related means of communication, Myers believes that there are almost too many ways to get feedback from school, referring to the teacher websites, the school app, and EBR's online portal and automated phone system. While technology is great, Myers says it is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. “WHAM’s administration and Parent/Teacher Organization do a great job of hosting programs for the whole family,” including STEM nights, picnics in the garden, work days on the playground, and year-round community building events.
“By the time your child has gone through two grade levels, you’ll know most of the parents and their children. Many parents exchange information to compare notes on homework, deadlines, and all the nitty gritty that gets lost through the cracks,” Myers explains.
Challenges Facing Collaborative Efforts in School
Regardless of the existing opportunities for parent-teacher collaboration, some circumstances make collaboration more challenging. Sherburne teaches in a typical EBR public school, which includes mostly low-income neighborhoods with working-class parents, single parent households, and sometimes, grandparents who are raising the children. She recalls instances of transportation issues, parental work schedules and one-parent households that have often interfered with parental involvement.
“For some parents, the lack of opportunities to know what is going on cause them to not come,” Sherburne says. “I’m dealing with a population that has a lot of negative things going on in their lives, and this affects them and their parents. There are a lot of factors that are at play. For instance, keeping up with technology might be more difficult for the grandparents, and they already have a lot on their plates. In my opinion, it isn’t that they don’t want to, but they are lacking resources,” Sherburne shares.
Language barriers need to be overcome. Even in fourth grade, students enroll at Sherburne’s school each year without the ability to speak a word of English. And often, the parents at home speak only their native language. “If the child doesn’t speak English, they can’t even translate for the parents. And the handouts we send home are only in English,” Sherburne says.
Sherburne shares that the public school system offers a lot to parents and students to support them in many ways, including ELL (English Language Learners), autistic programs, ESS (Exceptional Student Services) and IEP, in which students receive special accommodations for testing in the regular classroom. IEP works in close collaboration with parents.
“Very often from my experience, these accommodations have saved the child’s life, and parents are always so grateful. When given accommodations, a child who was failing with us every year, suddenly, everything turned around for him. He became more confident,” Sherburne says. “Unfortunately, we’ve had some situations where we’ve told the parents their child needs accommodations and they refuse for fear of their child being labeled, but this is not common.”
Communication is even more important in the face of challenges
Another Baton Rouge parent, Maria Yiannopoulos, has two daughters–a recent college graduate and a senior at Dutchtown High School. She notes a real difference in the parochial/private and public school systems, especially when it comes to handling and teaching kids who are living with special needs.
“Communication is the key to success to the career of any student,” Yiannopoulos says. “But the communication I’m talking about is between the parent and the educator. The more educators and administrators know about the challenges that a child faces, the better.”
Regarding her daughter’s progress, she says, “I have seen her go from doubting herself and her abilities to her understanding that she is very capable. She is mainstreamed, and she has learned to live with ADHD and Asperger’s.”
Not long after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Yiannopoulos’s daughter was diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome. “No one in the Baton Rouge parochial system knew how to deal with those two combinations, so communications broke down between the schools and me,” she says. Yiannopoulos found herself at a loss when representatives from one parochial school told her they could not accommodate her daughter, suggesting they “go elsewhere.”
“Technology has been the biggest Godsend to parents and educators, especially for working parents with questions,” she says. “FaceTime or Skype allows communication to take place to address the concerns together. It’s been a win-win.”
Yiannopoulos shares that using Google Classroom allows her to go online with her daughter to look at her assignments. “I see everything that’s going on, everything that she has posted, and if she’s not following through and there’s a reprimand. If she’s not submitting her work, I get to hear why she is not doing this. And then I can understand better,” she says. “It is an incredible collaborating tool, the technology that we have now. It really does take a whole village to educate a kid.”
Importance of parental involvement and voluntarism
As a stay-at-home mom, Myers served as a room parent for each of her daughters, finding a high level of expectations and commitment time at certain schools.
“At many other public schools, room parents do not exist. When I was still working, I’d try to pop in at lunchtime,” Myers says. “I could have a quick chat with the teacher, or ask if there were any supplies that I could send her way.”
Myers notes that Southdowns Elementary, where Millie attended PreK, focuses on children with special needs and features two PreK inclusion classes. “Millie was more than academically prepared for a magnet kindergarten by the end of that year, but more importantly, she learned at a young age to be inclusive and empathetic toward children who are not the same as she,” Myers shares.
As a parent, Myers knows and believes that, at the end of the day, making sure her child receives the best education possible throughout her years of schooling is ultimately her responsibility. “It’s up to me to be involved, to make informed choices, and to be responsive to her needs, as well to those of her teacher and school,” she says. “And if the school isn’t meeting my daughter's needs, then it’s up to me to explore other options.” ■