EVERY year I interview school board candidates running for office and I ask them, “How can you make our schools better?” and someone inevitably answers “more parental involvement.”
That phrase, and the one that goes “it’s for the children” can cause a cynical journalist like yours truly to put down his pen and drop-kick the editorial “we” out the door.
Last week in this space, in an anti-cynical move if I say so myself, I was principal for the day at a Bassett Unified School, and I challenged parents to get involved with their kids’ education. On Friday, I followed up by attending the 11th Annual Parent Involvement Academy put on by Bassett, Alhambra Unified, El Monte City School District, El Monte Union High School District, Garvey School District, Little Lake City School District, Montebello Unified School District and Rowland Unified School District (as well as the Los Angeles County Office of Education).
I conducted an informal survey by asking parents two questions: What good does volunteering really do? And if they answered in the affirmative, how do you get other school parents to volunteer?
I don’t know if I got definitive answers in my two-hour spin around the Pacific Palms Conference Resort in Industry where 900 parents and presenters gathered, but the parents I met were most impressive.
“It does a lot of good,” said Hugo Solis, whose daughter, Alina, attends South El Monte High School. “I’m here learning more about aid and scholarships for college. At home, they will ask me about scholarships and I can share this information with them. This will help us.”
He had me at hello, simply because he was a volunteer dad. Most here were moms and grandmoms.
Then he hit me with this bombshell: He felt like a hypocrite telling his daughter to stay in school when he himself had not completed high school. “So as a parent, I went back to school. I am going to Ramona Adult School and am getting my high school diploma … I am planning on going to college, too,” he said. Solis hopes to study real estate.
I told you they were impressive. Seems like volunteering at his daughter’s school helps her, helps others and helps himself. His example should get other parents off the couch, yes?
Then I met Alba Rangel who has volunteered at schools since her son, her oldest, began Head Start preschool. Though he’s struggled with learning disabilities, Jose graduated from Schurr High School and now attends East Los Angeles College. Her daughter is applying to Cal State Los Angeles.
Rangel spoke passionately about the difference volunteering has made. Everything she learned – from the A-G university requirements, to how to walk through an IEP (individual education plan) – came from her volunteering. “It makes a difference when you not only get involved, but get educated,” she explained.
She now tries to pass along her knowledge within the Montebello USD. “You’ve got to shine the other apples, too, and make sure they don’t get rotten.”
Rangel said too often Latino parents give excuses about why they don’t visit their child’s teachers on back-to-school night. Her husband told her he could not get involved because of his work. She convinced him to change to night hours and volunteer during the day. “He now helps out, you know, by putting ice on the ice chests and selling juices.”
Maria Padilla and Carmen Manzo, both volunteers at Alhambra High School, both Spanish speakers, said through an interpreter that they were volunteering in order to help their children graduate and move on to college.
Manzo said by getting “educated” about high school and college requirements, her own children can talk to her more freely. “They know the parents are in communications with the school so they can’t pull the wool over my eyes.”
I surmised from talking to folks that parental involvement is growing, especially at high schools. The question is not getting more parents involved but whether schools are capable of handling more volunteers. If so, what are schools doing to attract and retain parent volunteers?
Nogales High School in La Puente has a “parent center,” a room where parents can come and ask questions. Some take parental education classes in the evenings.
I also learned that simply saying “we wish more parents were involved” is the wrong response. Board members, principals and PTA presidents must form creative outreaches that help working parents connect with public schools.
Gilbert Garcia, Rowland Unified board member, said the principal of Rowland High School, Robbie Robinson, has begun mentoring 20 students who were failing. So far, five turned failing grades into passing grades in three classes each. “That is a huge impact,” Garcia said.