Parent engagement builds trust and academic success

For Grand Rapids Public Schools, 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 take a position there as a Parent Action Leader, or PAL.

“I’ve been involved ever since,” Wilson smiles. “And my son has been on the honor roll ever since.”

Wilson operates not quite as a liaison between parents and school administration as a PAL, she says, but “as someone calm and comfortable to talk with. I do whatever is needed to help: answer phones, make copies, work equipment, help out in the classroom or at sporting events or in the cafeteria. The teachers get to know you, and the kids see you care.”

When her son saw that Mom cared enough to be at school every day, Wilson says, he started to care more, too. The effect on her own son was quickly apparent with climbing grades, but her presence had an effect on other students, too.

“I’d walk into a class, and the kids get quiet right away,” she says. “Kids realize teachers get paid to be there, they act up, but most of them imagine their own moms in my place, and they show respect. It’s a psychological thing.”

Wilson’s younger son has autism, and with his mother actively involved in his education, Wilson has seen measurable improvement in his academic success as well.

“Like many with autism, he is extremely smart but does poor socially,” Wilson explains. “It’s soothing to him to have a parent nearby, and the teachers work harder, too. They know now how to make conversations with my son more personal because they know his family. My son didn’t speak until age 3, but now his vocabulary is off the charts.”

The Michigan Department of Education says children who have involved parents have:

• Higher grades, test scores, and graduation rates
• Better school attendance
• Increased motivation, better self-esteem
• Lower rates of suspension
• Decreased use of drugs and alcohol
• Fewer instances of violent behavior
Alecia Haven, another parent volunteer, echoes similar results with her two children, a son in 10th grade and a daughter in 5th grade.

“They were both doing fine in school, but they needed to be challenged,” Haven says. “With 30 kids in the classroom, it’s hard for teachers to hit both ends of the spectrum, so brighter kids may not get challenged enough. They get bored.”

Haven says her children have both gotten more motivated to excel. When her daughter hated her gym class, getting that extra parental encouragement along with teacher’s attention got her in the game.

“My husband and I are strong proponents of public schools,” Haven adds. “Volunteering at school has been a fabulous experience. We often hear about the bad things at school, but there’s a lot of good going on. Parent engagement makes a difference.”

Parent engagement at GRPS and volunteer opportunities benefit parents, students, teachers and school administrators. For more information on volunteer opportunities, joining PAL or Parent Teacher Community Council, contact the GRPS office at 616.819.2150.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and hosts a weekly radio show called Between the Lines at WMUK 102.1 FM, Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.
This piece was made possible through a partnership with InspirED Michigan, a project of the Michigan Public Schools Partnership. MPSP is a coalition of more than 50 education-related organizations, school districts and individuals committed to promoting the good news about Michigan public schools. To subscribe to the monthly e-newsletter, click here.
Photography by Adam Bird