Friday, January 16, 2015

Parent engagement builds trust and academic success

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Rapid Growth Media
January 15, 2015

Mel Atkins, GRPS administrator, and Deanna Wilson, parent (Photo by Adam Bird) 

For Grand Rapids Public Schools (Grand Rapids, Michigan), one key to increased academic success for students has been connecting with their parents. Parent Essentials, a collaboration between GRPS, LINC, and Believe 2 Become, is doing just that. Writer Zinta Aistars finds out how a fresh approach to partnering with parents is benefiting everyone.

When Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) administration gathered to brainstorm about what could be done to improve student success, the role of parents quickly surfaced.

“How do we interact with parents? We realized we had to change our approach,” says Mel Atkins, executive director of community and student affairs at GRPS. “We realized that we had to build trust between the schools and parents and make them equal partners. We changed our approach from saying, ‘If parents would only do this …’ to a partnership that began with listening.”

That change in attitude took two years to cultivate. When a meeting with parents was called in 2010 inviting parents to tell school administration what they wanted out of their schools, “parents showed up in droves,” says Atkins.

After two years, a culture shift at GRPS had taken place and had evolved into active parent involvement. By 2012, parent meetings were popping up at schools (Alger Middle, Campus Elementary, Cesar E. Chavez Elementary, Ford Academic Center, Martin Luther King Leadership Academy, Southwest Community Campus, Buchanan Elementary and Burton Elementary/Middle), and the meetings became known as Parent Essentials, designed to bring parents together in meaningful conversations about parenting.

“One of the challenges parents and administrators took on was attendance,” says Atkins. “We noted that 36.7 percent of our students were chronically absent. You can’t learn if you’re not in school. Our goal was to reduce absenteeism by 10 percent each year.”

That was in 2012. Two years later, absenteeism has been reduced to 23.7 percent, Atkins says. Still room for improvement, but Atkins credits parent and community involvement.

“Everyone got involved,” he says. “Now, we are working on measuring the correlation between attendance and achievement, including test scores.”

Key players in community involvement were LINC Community Revitalization, a nonprofit housing and business development organization with a strong interest in education, and Believe 2 Become, a neighborhood initiative working to improve student success in schools.

“Parent Essentials meetings have resulted in increased parental involvement within the schools, key behavioral changes and a deeper understanding of the culture and expectations of the school and district processes,” says Willie Patterson, LINC Neighborhood Services Coordinator. “We have also found that parents who attend these meetings have increased knowledge and access to resources. We’ve seen tremendous growth in trust and relationships between the school and parents as well as a significant upswing in volunteer application submissions and approvals, equipping more parents to be actively involved within their child’s school.”

Deanna Wilson is one such parent volunteer. She has two sons attending Grand Rapids public schools—one in 10th grade, one in 1st grade.

“I started volunteering when my oldest was in 7th grade,” Wilson says. “He was a borderline student then. I had worked out a transfer for him to a better school out of our home area, but because of his grades and attendance, the transfer was not extended.”

Wilson was made an offer. If she wanted to keep her son at the better school, she could ...


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