Involving Low-Income Parents in the Schools: Communitycentric Strategies for School Counselors

By Van Velsor, Patricia Orozco, Graciela L

Low-income parents participate less in schools than higher- income parents despite the benefits of parent involvement. Barriers that low-income parents face suggest that schools must develop a new approach to engaging these parents. School counselors can play a leadership role in strengthening the relationship between schools and low-income parents by implementing community centered strategies for parent involvement. These strategies respect community culture and parents’ abilities to contribute to their children’s education. Parental involvement in the schools is associated with student improvement in a variety of areas including academic performance, attitudes and behavior, attendance, school adjustment and engagement, and graduation rates (Barnard, 2004; Epstein, 2001; Simons-Morton & Crump, 2003). A recent meta-analysis of 41 studies found a significant relationship between parental school involvement and academic achievement of urban students, both White students and students of color (Jeynes, 2005).

Despite the positive benefits to their children, low socioeconomic status (SES) parents participate less in the schools than their higher SES counterparts (Benson & Martin, 2003; Lareau, 1996; Singh, Bickley, Trivette, Keith, & Keith, 1995). This may be due to a number of barriers that low-income parents face in attempts at school involvement, which include not only demographic and psychological obstacles, but also barriers generated by the school itself.

School personnel understand the importance of parent involvement, and educational writers promote the idea of the home-school partnership (e.g., Fuller & Olsen, 1998; Pelco, Jacobson, Ries, & Melka, 2000; Raffaele & Knoff, 1999). However, many approaches to parent involvement primarily focus on school needs as they relate to children’s education. For example, parents are invited to support school activities in the classroom, on field trips, and in the library or school office. Although these strategies are essential to parent involvement, strategies targeting low-income parents for involvement may call for a broader focus. From interviews of teachers from a low-income, culturally diverse, urban community, Lawson (2003) found that teachers viewed parent involvement from a schoolcentric frame of reference, that is, how parents can help the schools promote students’ education. However, Lawson found that, although parent interviews also conveyed this school-focused theme, parents’ stories further communicated a broader communitycentric frame of reference, that is, how community concerns related to the future of their children. In designing strategies to involve low- income parents in the schools, then, it seems critical to consider this com-munitycentric perspective.

School counselors are in a unique position to provide leadership in implementing parent involvement strategies that speak to community needs. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) reflects this broad focus in its assertion that school counseling programs represent “collaborative efforts benefiting students, parents, teachers, administrators and the overall community” (emphasis added; ASCA, 2005a, Executive Summary, [para] 1). The purpose here is to encourage school counselors serving low-income families to take the lead in implementing communitycentric parent involvement strategies, which serve to enhance not only children’s school experiences but also their overall quality of life. The first step in adopting these strategies is understanding the barriers to involvement that low-income parents face.

BARRIERS TO LOW-INCOME PARENT INVOLVEMENT

Low-income parents encounter both demographic and psychological barriers to school involvement. They also face barriers related to both teacher attitudes and school climate.

Demographic Barriers to Involvement

Work often prevents low-income parents from devoting time to their children’s schooling. For example, parents may have inflexible work schedules, may need to work more jobs, and/or are just tired from work (Benson & Martin, 2003; Plunkett & Bamaca-Go mez, 2003). Responsibilities of caring for children and elderly parents also interfere with low-income parents’ abilities to become involved (Mapp, 2003). Additionally, transportation problems and lack of resources associated with lower-income families may hinder parent involvement (Hill & Taylor, 2004).

Low-income immigrant parents may not participate for additional reasons. Parents who speak languages other than English may experience fewer opportunities to volunteer in the schools. Parents also reported that in their native countries they were not expected to get involved and in some cases would even be characterized as disrespectful if they tried to do so (Mapp, 2003).

Psychological Barriers to Involvement

In addition to these demographic barriers, low-income parents also experience psychological barriers to involvement, and among these is parent confidence. According to Eccles and Harold (1996), parents’ confidence in their own intellectual abilities is the most salient predictor of school involvement. This may relate to parents’ own educational background, that is, parents may not perceive themselves as capable of helping their children in school. Lack of confidence by the parents may in turn result in a lack of confidence by students of their parents’ ability to help with schooling (Plunkett & Bamaca Go mez, 2003).

Parents’ perceptions of racism as well as their own negative school experiences serve to distance them from the schools (Lareau, 1996). In one study, low-income African American parents’ racism awareness was positively related to at-home parental involvement while inversely related to at-school involvement (McKay, Atkins, Hawkins, Brown, & Lynn, 2003). In another study, African American mothers of kindergarteners who believed that their teachers had discriminated against them on the basis of race were less likely to be involved in the schools (Rowley & Grace cited in Taylor, Clayton, & Rowley, 2004). Moreover, when they did become involved, they had less positive involvement experiences.

Additionally, poverty has direct effects on parents’ mental health and indirect effects on parent involvement in the schools (Hill & Taylor, 2004). For example, lower family income is linked to higher rates of depression and depressed mothers tend to be less involved in the early years of children’s schooling (Hill & Taylor; Inaba et al., 2005).

These barriers are only some of the barriers that low-income parents face. Parents also often face barriers that relate to the school culture itself.

Barriers to Involvement: Teacher Attitudes

Teachers may contribute to the level of school involvement of low- income parents in several ways. Some teachers do not value parents’ participation or opinions in the schools, perceive parents as impeding the work of the schools, and/or make negative judgments about low-income parents’ lack of involvement (Konzal, 2001; Ramirez, 1999). Teachers may make sweeping generalizations about families based on low-income status (Amatea, Smith-Adcock, & Villares, 2006). They also interpret a lack of school involvement as a lack of interest, although research supports the idea that parents from urban, low-socioeconomic settings do want their children to succeed in school (Delgado-Gaitan, 1990; Mapp, 2003). Negative attitudes toward low-income families by teachers may then lead to substandard treatment of parents when they do attempt to become involved (Hill & Taylor, 2004).

The intersection of low-income and cultural difference may further alienate parents from teachers. Epstein and Dauber (1991) suggested that teachers are less likely to know students from culturally different backgrounds. Moreover, value differences between the culture of parents and the culture of the school may inhibit parent involvement. For example, White middle-class teachers may value and reward independence and assume that parents will involve themselves in the school autonomously. However, in one Latino community, parents relied on their value of collectivity and banded together to better help their children in school (Delgado- Gaitan, 1996). This suggests that facilitating interaction among some parents could facilitate parent involvement.

Barriers to Involvement: School Climate

Besides teacher attitudes, school climate may serve as a barrier to low-income parent involvement. According to Hill and Taylor (2004), schools in low-SES communities are less likely to encourage parental school involvement than those in higher SES communities. Power differentials related to education and professional expertise may lead to unequal relationships between teachers and parents (O’ Connor, 2001). Schools also marginalize parents, ignoring the status differences and re-creating the dominant power relationships of race and social class reflective of the larger society (Abrams & Gibbs, 2002). Schools often (wittingly or unwit-tingly) develop activities based on specific majority culturally based knowledge (Delgado- Gaitan, 1991). For example, school personnel may speak to parents using professional terminology with which parents are not familiar, or send out notices and memos written in English to parents who speak little or no English (Delgado Gaitan, 2004). COMMUNITYCENTRIC STRATEGIES TO ENHANCE PARENT INVOLVEMENT

As school counselors design parent involvement strategies, it is critical that they take into account the unique needs of low-income families. This means considering the barriers to involvement, helping parents to learn about the school culture and needs (a schoolcentric focus), and addressing the needs of the community in which the students live (a communi-tycentric focus). The following strategies embrace the communitycentric focus as a means of involving low-income parents in the schools.

Learn About the Families of the Children in the School

It seems intuitive that school personnel must know about the families they serve to provide optimal education for their children. Getting to know parents by cultivating meaningful relationships may be even more important than programming and may enhance parents’ desire to be involved in their children’s education (Mapp, 2003). Teachers, however, may know very little about how less-educated parents are involved with their children (Baker, Kessler Sklar, Piotrkowski, & Parker, 1999). School counselors can begin to bridge this knowledge gap through proactive communication with parents. A phone call to provide information about available school programs or a personalized invitation to a school event communicates the value that the school places on parent involvement (Benson & Martin, 2003; O’ Connor, 2001). A call or a note to a parent offering positive feedback about a student provides an opportunity for relationship building that cannot be accomplished in a contact about problem behavior, which may negatively affect parent involvement (Lott, 2003; Simon, 2004).

It may be critical for school counselors to encourage teachers to build relationships with parents by initiating contact. In a multistate survey of parents, 62% of parents of color agreed with the statement that the teacher should be in charge of getting parents involved (Chavkin & Williams, 1993). In another study, however, teacher perceptions of good communication with parents focused on parents contacting teachers often, but not teachers actively contacting parents (Barge & Loges, 2003). While each (i.e., teacher and parent) waits for the other’s contact, valuable opportunities for building relationships and learning about families languish. To encourage teachers to build relationships, school counselors first must attend to developing positive relationships with teachers and then must provide role modeling through the proactive communication with parents described above. If counselors develop varied and understandable methods for communicating with families themselves, they can share these with teachers (Pelco et al., 2000).

Another way to learn about families is to make home visits. The authors’ recommendations of home visits to school counseling interns, school counselors, and directors of school counseling programs on various occasions have given rise to cries of protest. Although roadblocks to visits do exist, examples of the rewards of home visits also exist. Home visits help build relationships with parents who cannot come to school (Amatea, Daniels, & Bringman, 2004). Home visits minimize the power imbalance between professionals and families and help to overcome barriers related to low-income parents’ work constraints and transportation problems (Beder, 1998). Although it may be necessary to overcome parent distrust of home visits, school counselors can do so by utilizing parent input and strictly maintaining confidentiality (Dalton et al., 1996).

In her former position as a school counselor, the second author built positive relationships with parents and students through home visits. She found that the relaxed atmosphere of the home enhanced parent trust of school personnel and facilitated discussion of issues that had not formerly been disclosed in the school itself. School counselors who build positive relationships in which parents share their dreams for their children can support parents and children in achieving those dreams (Amatea et al., 2006). Allen and Tracy (2004) have provided recommendations regarding confidentiality and safety during home visits.

The school counselor might engage other school personnel in a home-visitor program. A school counselor designed a program in which teachers made home visits to the parents of incoming kindergar- teners with positive results (Alison Brenner, personal communication, February 23, 2000). In another program, low-income White parents who were hard to reach (i.e., having no phone) began dropping by or calling the school after receiving home visits by school representatives (Dalton et al., 1996).

Getting to know parents requires more than inviting parents to become involved; it demands actively reaching out to them (Raffaele & Knoff, 1999). In a survey of 529 parents/guardians (ASCA, 2005b), 24% of parents reported initiating no contact with the school counselor during the previous school year. The school counselor can take the lead in developing models of positive parent contact to help reach these and other parents. According to Benson and Martin (2003), research findings show that when schools make clear, deliberate efforts to involve parents, their socioeconomic status and education level become an inconsequential factor in their willingness to participate in the schools.

Learn About the Community Where the Students Live

Learning about families involves learning about the community where students live, which in turn involves identifying the leaders (e.g., community activists, spiritual leaders, local youth organization workers). In a study to examine the characteristics of high-achieving middle schools for Latino students in poverty, researchers found that, in the successful schools, principals communicated with community leaders, and teachers were familiar with the community (Jesse, Davis, & Pokorny, 2004). Community leaders have helpful information concerning families and the challenges they face. Parent leaders (i.e., parents who are well respected and serve as consultants and/or advocates for other parents) have valuable insights about the community, such as parent social networks, and can connect counselors with other individuals in the community. After school counselors have established relationships with community and parent leaders, they can help to connect the leaders with school personnel (e.g., through invitations to school) in an effort to further positive community-parent-school communication.

Learning about the community includes knowing the organizations and agencies that provide services to families. Many school counselors already obtain or create referral lists. It is important that these lists be updated annually. Speaking with community agency workers, via phone or in person, could reap even more benefits. Knowing agencies more intimately helps school counselors to communicate to parents the exact nature of and eligibility for services. When a referral becomes necessary in an emergency, knowing the person on the other end of the phone may expedite response to questions and requests. Furthermore, if school counselors explore community agencies for families, they can communicate this knowledge to teachers who are often not aware of such resources (Shumow & Harris, 2000).

Help Parents Address Community Concerns

The needs of low-income families extend beyond the educational success of their children. Low-income parents often struggle to provide for their family’ s basic needs, such as food and health care. When basic family needs are met, low-income parent involvement may be more consistent with that of parents who have fewer financial concerns. School counselors who know the community can provide appropriate referral to agencies that offer services such as medical care, dental care, and counseling. As part of the services of one parent involvement program in a White, predominantly low-income community, a mobile health unit provided weekly medical services out of the school parent center (Dalton et al., 1996). With permission, school counselors also can connect families who share concerns. Linking families with needed resources and support can lead to improved family effectiveness and contribute to parent involvement (Allen & Tracy, 2004).

Provide On-Site Services for Parents

Providing on-site activities consistent with the individual needs and interests of parents attracts parents to the school (Benson & Martin, 2003). A previously mentioned parent involvement program in one diverse low-income community has included a multitude of activities for parents that not only support student goals (e.g., family math nights, constructive discipline) but also address other topics of interest to parents (e.g., prenatal care, menopause) (Martinez & Talamantes, 2006). Parent involvement activities could include parent-child sports teams, plays, or art projects (Bemak & Cornely, 2002). One school launched a project that brought together low-income, immigrant Latino parents and their children for computer learning and publishing activities (Dura n, Dura n, Perry-Romero, & Sanchez, 2001).

A school resource and/or drop-in center can provide opportunities for parents to get to know the school and to get to know one another. The Institute for Responsive Education (n.d.) and the Superintendent of Public Instruction (n.d.) have provided funding for parent centers (Dalton et al., 1996, Mapp, 2003). In one urban, low-socioeconomic setting, a successful parent partnership program included a family center where families could gather informally for coffee and snacks to discuss social and educational topics (Mapp). In another district serving students from low-SES families, a parent involvement program included a parent center, which provided tutoring, a library, and weekly medical services (Dalton et al.). This program resulted in dramatic increases in the number of parent volunteers and parent volunteer hours at school. Parents are more apt to return to a school where they have a place and feel comfortable. The school counselor can function at the forefront in the organization of on-site activities and services for parents. Offer In-Service Training for School Personnel

In addition to services for parents, a communitycen-tric program must include training for school personnel. Training can be conducted by the school counselor, parents, community experts, or outside experts. Topics will vary from school to school and the school counselor needs to identify what kinds of training would benefit his or her school personnel. Teachers themselves may feel that they require additional education regarding communication with parents (Ramirez, 1999). Parents and community leaders from ethnically diverse groups can provide teachers with cultural knowledge and ways to integrate community culture into children’ s learning. Because research reveals a gap between the culture of middle class school personnel and that of low-income families (O’ Connor, 2001), training might focus on differences between these cultures.

If the teachers’ training programs failed to offer courses related to diversity, outside experts could educate school personnel about general issues of multiculturalism. In a collaborative action research project implemented at seven elementary schools, learning about the constructs of individualism and collectivism “enhanced teachers’ understanding of their own cultures, the culture of U.S. schools, and the cultures of their immigrant Latino students” (Trum- bull, Rothstein-Fisch, & Hernandez, 2003, p. 45).

School counselor training in group process makes school counselors good candidates to facilitate dialogues between parents and teachers aimed at helping to build relationships. In one study soliciting parent, student, and teacher perceptions on parent involvement and communication, all three parties highlighted the importance of high-quality parent-teacher relationships (Barge & Loges, 2003). In a comprehensive project undertaken at a university lab school, a significant outcome of problem-solving meetings to help students was the positive change in relationships between families and school personnel (Amatea et al., 2004). School counselors can help to create what Benson and Martin (2003) called a “pervasive culture of interaction” (p. 188) between parents and the school that positively engages urban families.

Utilize Parents’ Cultural Capital

Broadly, social capital refers to “the norms and values people hold that result in, and are the result of, collective and socially negotiated ties and relationships” (Edwards, 2004, p. 81). According to Lareau (1996), public school culture continues to be more consistent with middle-class social capital. Therefore, “those who speak the language of the White and privileged class” have more opportunity to become involved in the schools (Abrams & Gibbs, 2002, p. 397). Increasing parents’ social capital- skills and information consistent with existing school culture-is the goal of schoolcentric strategies and makes parents better able to aid their children in school-related activities (Hill & Taylor, 2004).

When working with low-income families, however, it is equally important for school personnel to understand and embrace community culture. This involves valuing parents’ cultural capital, broadly defined as how parents view the world and the universe and the ways in which they interact with their environment (Berkes & Folke, 1993). This means respecting what parents can contribute to the educational process “regardless of their own formal educational experiences” (Raffaele & Knoff, 1999, p. 452). This requires refocusing attention from family deficits to family strengths and recognizing the expertise that different families have to contribute to children’ s academic success (Amatea et al., 2006). Parents can furnish useful information about their children’ s knowledge and learning styles (Konzal, 2001). They can share unique information about their lived experiences, which helps them to identify the needs of their children and ways to address those needs (Lightfoot cited in Lawson, 2003). They can provide valuable information about their community for developing programs and learning strategies (Konzal, 2001). For example, parents can create and implement lessons from different cultural perspectives (Bemak & Cornely, 2002).

In seeking out parent knowledge, school counselors must respect parent strengths, affirm their efforts to be involved in their children’ s education, and honor new and various ways of contributing to the school (Abrams & Gibbs, 2002; Mapp, 2003). In a successful school improvement project in a low-income Native American community, the school accepted parents as primary providers of their children’s educational experience and encouraged exchange of information between the “home” teacher and the “school” teacher (de Baca, Rinaldi, Billig, & Kinnison, 1991).

Valuing parents’ cultural capital reaps benefits for schools. Parents have talents and abilities that teachers can use (Delgado- Gaitan, 1990, 2004). Drawing on parents’ skills and knowledge increases parent confidence in their ability to support their children and their effectiveness in doing so (Hoover Dempsey & Sandler, 1997). Collaborating with parents helps families and schools develop a consensus about appropriate behavior, so that students receive consistent messages at home and at school (McNeal, 1999). In valuing family contributions, school personnel learn not only from parents themselves but also from grandparents, aunts, uncles, and respected elders in the community. For example, African Americans can share their rich oral tradition (e.g., parables, folktales, proverbs) in the school setting (Lee, 1999).

Legitimizing the worldviews and utilizing the strengths of parents is not meant to preclude the use of schoolcentric activities that support children’s learning and development or teachers’ needs for support and recognition (Lawson, 2003). Instead, it is to create a collaboration between parents and the school that places value on parents’ contributions to their children’ s education.

CONCLUSION

Overcoming the barriers to the school involvement of low-income parents and incorporating communi-tycentric strategies for involvement most likely requires a paradigm shift. First, it requires that school counselors embrace a new role as promoters of effective teamwork within the school and community consistent with the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs standards (Colbert, Vernon-Jones, & Pransky, 2006). It also demands that schools rethink the work priorities of school counselors to make building relationships with students and their families a primary focus (Bemak & Cornely, 2002). In this new role, school counselors can help teachers understand the benefits of an open-door school policy for parents (Mapp, 2003). They can help administrators view parents as partners in the educational process of their children. They can help teachers, administrators, and parents alike view the school as the center of a larger community of learning (Martinez & Talamantes, 2006).

School counselors cannot create a comprehensive parent involvement program alone. Administrators must embrace a high level of family participation in the schools and demonstrate commitment through active involvement themselves (Mapp, 2003). Teachers must support the desirability of parent involvement strategies in order to coordinate planning and establish a successful program (Benson & Martin, 2003). The objective here is not to suggest that school counselors “go it alone,” but instead to motivate school counselors to take a leadership role in creating communitycentric parent involvement programs. This goal is consistent with the ASCA standards that call for counselors to act as leaders in schoolwide change and Colbert et al.’s (2006) call for school counselors to move to preventive action and a community-building approach to counseling. This goal is also consistent with the efforts of the National Center for Transforming School Counseling (Education Trust, 2003), which challenges counselor educators to commit to training future school counselors in leadership, advocacy, and collaboration skills.

The question that school counselors often ask is, “Where do I begin?” School counselors can glean some useful ideas from the School and Family Intervention project (Bemak & Cornely, 2002); however, lack of economic and human resources may require that counselors start small. Raffaele and Knoff (1999) provided prudent suggestions for initiating parent involvement programs, which include (a) soliciting stakeholder (e.g., teachers, parents) perspectives before beginning; (b) deciding on specific goals, objectives, and strategies; and (c) identifying reasonable expectations and specific definitions for success. In this process, it is critical to solicit input continuously from parents and to share ideas consistently with teachers and administrators (Colbert et al., 2006).

As school counselors begin to implement commu-nitycentric strategies, they must include data gathering to track progress. There is a dire need for research that investigates the effectiveness of com-munitycentric strategies in parent involvement programs. In the program developed by Martinez and Talamantes (2006), reaching out to parents to help address community needs resulted in improved parent involvement in schoolcentric activities. For example, an early morning information session about a tutoring program for students brought in an unprecedented 80 parents. However, it is critical to track what specific communitycentric strategies positively affect parent involvement and how communi- tycentric models of parent involvement relate to student achievement and other important outcomes such as students’ emotional functioning, school climate, and teacher turnover rates (Pelco et al., 2000). This kind of research will help identify strategies that create what Trumbull et al. (2003) called a mutually forged school culture, in which parents have knowledge of how schools operate and school personnel have knowledge of children’ s families and communities. The ultimate goal is to promote the academic and life success often unwittingly denied to children from low-income families. School counselors are in a unique position to provide leadership in implementing parent involvement strategies that speak to community needs.

As school counselors design parent involvement strategies, it is critical that they take into account the unique needs of low-income families.

Linking families with needed resources and support can lead to improved family effectiveness and contribute to parent involvement.

The ultimate goal is to promote the academic and life success often unwittingly denied to children from low-income families.

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Patricia Van Velsor, Ph.D., and Graciela L. Orozco, Ed.D., are assistant professors with the Department of Counseling, San Francisco State University, CA. E-mail: [email protected]

Copyright American Counseling Association Oct 2007

(c) 2007 Professional School Counseling. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.

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