Karen Mapp


My name is Karen Mapp and I’m the president of the Institute for Responsive Education at Northeastern University.

Well, first of all I want to say what we mean an IRE – by urban parents and how they’re involved with their youth.  By urban parents what we mean are parents who are served by urban schools and those parents are usually parents who are from under represented groups, who are from economically distressed communities, parents of color, immigrant parents, and in some cases we actually do some work with rural – parents who are served by rural schools.  And obvious ways I think are ways that are often the school sanctioned ways of involvement, such as coming school for an open house, or coming to school for something maybe – that maybe happened like a performance for the child.  But I find that parents are involved in a lot of other ways that sometimes are not recognized by schools and that’s a problem because those parents often get labeled as not being involved, not caring about their kids.  In most cases I think all parents are involved in their kids’ education and I think the challenge now is that school staff are going to have to recognize the different ways that parents are involved when they come from other places, when they have a different mindset about parent involvement.  For example, um there’s a wonderful young man named Geraldo Lopez who you may want to find out about.  You may already know about and he did a great study of parents who were migrant workers and how they involved their kids by bringing them to the fields with them on Saturdays or whatever day it was that they may have had off and – the children had off from school.  And by the virtue of the fact that the kids had to work hard in the field, first of all they taught them the value of hard work, but they also let them know that this is what they would be doing if they didn’t succeed in school.  Now those parents never went to an open house, they didn’t go – they didn’t volunteer, they weren’t members of the school council or the PTA, um they didn’t speak English so that they weren’t in constant communication with the teacher.  Those are the parents who will often times get labeled as not caring, but obviously these parents were doing a lot at home to instill a sense of – the value of hard work and the value of school in their children.  So we need to recognize that as educators and start to figure out “How can we build on that?”  How can we either help support parents, to help them in those kinds of involvement activities, or let parents know that we as educators know their doing that at home and that work is valued?

Teachers, and principals, and superintendents um all need to be aware of the fact that parents are – are really an important part of any kind of successful school form and that – I think they – they need to understand that parents can be an equal partner with a teacher in terms of really helping a child learn, and I think that the teachers that I work with – I do work with young professional, uh but in both pre-service and in-service, and I’m finding that a lot of times they don’t understand that they have a partner right there who’s the parent.  Uh, I said and that’s your team member.  You – you’re not supposed to be doing this job alone and if you do it alone in many cases you’re going to end up being unsuccessfully, especially nowadays with all that’s happening in schools.  There’s a lot of pressure on teachers so I would think that they – they would want a partner.  So um I often talk to them about “Why don’t we try and see if we can find some ways that you can have a team of maybe 23 people or maybe times 2 because if you’ve got that many students in your classroom that’s how many team members you can have working with you on trying to help these kids get ahead.  So I think if teachers sort of stop thinking about parents as sort of the other and in some cases the enemy, because I have heard that from teachers that say, “Oh, you know, you want us to start to deal with the enemy.”  I think if we can change that mindset we’re going to go a long way to improving the educational development of our kids.

I can tell you a story of um a parent in Philadelphia at a school that Vivian uh Johnson and I uh did some work with and uh this was the Blaine Elementary School in North Philadelphia.  And there was a parent there that um actually I believe a restraining order had been filed on her by the school principal at one time because she was coming to school, she was very disruptive, and her child was labeled sort of the “problem kid” at the school.  And what we had done was we had started something called “Starting Schools Differently.”  This was something that – the idea was really um from Ron Walker who works at EDC and he wanted to try to help the teachers create a different environment, a different culture in their classroom such that parents were welcome and he wanted to do this right from the first day of school, so that’s why it was entitled “Starting Schools Differently.”  What we did was we encouraged the teachers we worked with to do 2 things.  One was to have an event before school even started where they would be able to have parents come in in a very relaxed fashion and tell them about what they were going to be doing that year, talk to them about the curriculum, get some of their ideas, and get to know the parents.  Um, and a funny story is that the parents uh who were called for this event wanted to know “Did my kid already do something wrong?  School hasn’t even started yet and you’re already calling me to come to school.  What is this about?”  Because they were so not use to having a teacher call them with good news.  So this parent did not show up for that event, but she did get the phone call from the teacher and she was a little curious about the whole thing because this was a pleasant call and not a call saying that “your son has done something wrong,” and the teachers – then what we asked them to do was to arrange a one on one meeting with the parents to talk to them in a way that the parent was the expert, not the teacher.  So this wasn’t a case where, “Okay, I’m going to sit you done, this was the information I got from the teacher last year, this is what’s wrong with your kid, this is what I’m going to do, thank you very much, next.”  All right?  So what happened with that, the teachers were instructed to interview the parents and ask them questions because they are their children’s first teacher?  All right?  So the teachers asked the parents questions like, “What do you think are your child’s strengths and challenges?  What does your kid like to do for hobbies?  Uh, what are some of the things that maybe I should know about – about the family?  Is there something happening?”  And at first we were a little apprehensive about that question because we figured it would be sort of dipping into privacy issues, but the parents were really open.  They were so happy that someone was asking them about their child and that they were being asked to give information as the expert.  It totally changed their relationship between all the parents that were interviewed.  Now this one mom and her husband were interviewed over the phone.  She was so grateful that this teacher took the time to ask her about her kid.  She just didn’t know what to do.  She was very – she was beside herself.  She told the teacher some things about her child like that her child liked the Discovery Channel and liked reptiles.  So what the teacher did was the first couple of weeks of class she asked this young man to help her plan a lesson about reptiles for the class.  She and he connected because of that and to make a long story short, his grades went up, no behavior management problems with him at all, and mom now comes to school to volunteer, and we actually had her come to a session with teachers and principals and she was sitting right next to the principal and the teacher and she told us that she would lay down on the trolley tracks for this teacher.  So – and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  She was very passionate about the story.  She said, “You know, nobody ever treated me like I had anything to say that was meaningful.”  And it totally changed the relationship with the school.  So that – it was a funny moment because the principal actually said, “It wasn’t always this chummy, chummy.  We don’t want you to think that.”  And she told us the story about, you know, the restraining order.  But this is how partnership can work and uh here you had a case that was, you know, really sort of the case that you read about in the newspapers, a parent coming in and causing trouble, but just through that communication where she felt like she was an equal partner with the teacher, it made all the difference in the world.

High school family centers um are places in the school building – and I will say they can also be centers that are outside the school maybe in the community center or um there are some federally funded family centers.  But family centers are – are typically – at least the ones that we try to help schools create are typically in the school building.  These are places that are really for parents where they can feel comfortable coming to the school, sort of their place where they can sit down, have a cup of coffee, get information about the school, get information about different courses and um talk to someone there who’s a friendly face who can often be a mediator.  We call them boundary crosses is a terminology we’ve used for some of these very, very adept family center staff.  And it really is a nice place for parents to come in and really feel comfortable with the school setting.  A lot of times by the time kids get to high school this – sort of this, “Okay, mom and dad, we want you to stay away,” um kind of message that kids give to their parents.  But it’s still very important for parents to be involved in their children’s education in high school.  And as a matter of fact, the students tell us on the side that they really want their parents involved, but it’s just not cool to let them know that.  They tell us when we go in and we do the research, but they would never tell their parents.  And so here’s a nice way for parents to be able to come to the high school, get information because it’s not always the same.  It’s not the same type of involvement in high school where you’re maybe going in and sitting in on a class.  But parents are really hungry for information like “What are contained in the different courses?  What are the course expectations?  When are tests going to be given?  What did my child get on a particular test?  Are there some things I could be doing at home?”  A lot of times workshops are held in the family center around “How do I deal with a teenager?  Um, how do I deal with college, financing of college?”  And these kinds of workshops can go on for families’ right as soon as kids get into the 9th grade.  We’ve also seen family centers in high school offer programming for parents.  Um, GSL classes, GED classes.  And again, this is a great way for parents to feel comfortable coming to the school and it’s a way that you can fulfill parents’ needs, not just the needs of the child.  So these are – this is what goes on in high school family centers versus maybe an elementary school center or one in the middle school.

School factors that invite parents to participate.  Um, my research – I’ve talked to quite a few parents about this because I feel that, you know, their voices are very important here and this is what parents tell me.  They tell me that when schools are welcoming, when school staff honor them, respect them, again, make them feel like they’re equal partners and – and that the school is willing to share power with parents, and when the activities around parent engagement really center around the kids, those 3 components are what really draw us parents into the school setting.  I call this the joining process.  I sort of follow this from family systems or (unintelligible).  That it’s just – I like that because it’s that aspect of coming together, um, but parents have really – time and time again these 3 themes come up.  “I want a place that makes me feel like I’m a member of the family at the school.  I want a place where whatever contribution I make, it’s validated and it’s honored, and only – and it’s not only that certain people who go to meetings are the ones that are made to feel like they’re a member of the school or they have a right to speak up.  Even if I don’t go there all the time, I want to – somebody to hear my voice and to pay attention to what I’m saying.”  And then the parents say, “Look, I’m busy.  I work 2 or 3 jobs.  I’ve got an elderly parent at home I’m taking care of.  I have children in other schools in the system.  Give me the important information that’s going to help me support my child.  Tell me what it is I could do at home to help create an environment or uh give sort of indirect support for homework.  Maybe there’s some things that I can do when I go grocery shopping.  Can you give me that information?  Is there some kind of support – moral support I can give my child?  Um, give me some clues on how to, again, deal with a teenager.”  They want that pertinent information, that relevant information.  They don’t just want to be involved in raising money to paint lines in the parking lot.  That’s a true story.  Um, they really want to be in ways that are meaningful and really help their kids.

I think we’re in a time period where everyone is searching for answers around how are we going to close the achievement gap between students of color and white students?  How are we going to raise the bar when it comes to public education?  I get concerned sometimes because I hear that conversation happening in many cases without the people who really need to be a part of the team, and that’s parents and members of the community.  I think we overlook the power of parents and community members to really have an impact on what happens in schools.  And it shouldn’t be that they’re just asked in focus groups and we gather the information and then “Thank you very much.  You can go back now.  We’ll take care of it.  We’re the experts.”  This has got to be something that we’re all in on this right from the beginning and we stay together in discussing these matters, you know, right until we see those kids graduate, and then beyond.  So I think where we have to start really acknowledging the power of parents and the power of community members and stop sort of pushing people down and creating this hierarchy because it’s not doing us any good and its not doing the children any good either.