Research is clear that parental involvement is critical to a child's success in school. But for a number of factors, that can be difficult for families in low-income households.
Maria Barry is the home and school coordinator for Ledge Street Elementary in Nashua, where 8 out of 10 students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Rick Ganley visited Maria in her office at the school to talk about some of the challenges she faces in her job, as well as some of the success stories she's seen.
Here at Ledge Street School, students are coming from areas of the city with some of the highest rates of poverty. Are there barriers you’ve seen for parents from low-income households that can often keep them from getting involved?
Yes, we have a variety of barriers: socioeconomic, cultural. Mostly the two combined.
Can you talk to some of those barriers you’re seeing that you’re dealing with on a daily basis?
Anything from a parent who may have had a difficult experience in school and doesn’t feel comfortable being involved in the school to a parent who didn’t have a role model as to what it means to be involved in your child’s education. That can be anything from not knowing you sit with your child and read a book when they’re a toddler to not knowing you get out the crayons and work with your child to draw a picture before they even get to school.
Some parents may not know to come to open house or parent conferences. Other barriers might include the fact that a parent has to work multiple jobs. Other barriers could be things we see in the city: mental illness, abuse, violence; things that would make it really difficult for a parent to be involved in the school.
Can you talk about your job here at the school and what you do to overcome some of these barriers?
I start at the beginning of the year. I try to meet as many of the kindergarten and first-grade parents, so the newer parents, as well as any parents of students who are new to the school that has a parent who doesn’t speak English. I try to either meet with them or make contact on the phone just to let them know I’m available. And to let them know we have an open house coming and I can be here to help you talk to your child’s teacher. If you can’t make the open house, these are my hours, I’d love to have you come in. I can show you your child’s school, I can show you their classroom, I can show you where they eat lunch. I want them to become more aware of what their child is doing on a daily basis. That’s how we start the year.
Throughout the year, we have different school-wide activities. We have a lot of parents who come to the school-wide activities with their children. There are also more individual activities, such as parent conferences. And there are regular phone calls and meetings as issues come up. Those can be issues that I see or the teacher may see, but also issues that the parents see from their end of things.
If you could pick out one particular item that really stands out for you, what really works well with getting parent engagement?
I have to say, even though it sounds cliché, is just working one parent or one family at a time. Most of the families that I work with probably feel most comfortable coming into my office, sitting down, and just talking about what’s important with them and their family.
It’s hard for them sometimes at an open house or even at a parent-teacher conference. At some of the conferences, they have four staff members and it’s intimidating. I’ll be sitting next to them, but we’re in front of four different staff members, depending on the situation. Coming into my office, sometimes it’s mom to mom. I enjoy that and I feel most comfortable and hopefully they’re most comfortable that way, as well.
You’ve been doing the job now for several years. Do you see things as getting better?
I think within the school district, there’s more awareness of what some of the needs are of our families who are socio economically disadvantaged or who are from other cultures. I think teachers are especially more aware and we work together. I can’t do my job by myself. We’re all doing this together to try to realize that a lot of these kids are coming from backgrounds that are difficult. It’s not our reality, it’s theirs. But we can meet them where they are.
It seems like a lot of what you do day to day is to keep all of those issues outside of school at bay, so when kids are here, they can really be learning.
Right, so they can focus on learning.
So they can focus on it, while you help them with some of the resources the family might need.
Right, be they medical or clothing or food or even helping with housing. Another success story is one of the families I’ve been working with made it out of the projects. They’re living in Clocktower Apartments. I was just thrilled to hear and mom was thrilled to tell me about it. Things like that really make a difference. The neighborhood these kids are living in and what they’re seeing around them every day influences how they’re behaving in school.
Maria Barry and Rick Ganley spoke about a number of topics during their interview. You can listen to some other clips below.