The Myth of the Uninvolved Parent

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 5 │The Myth of the Uninvolved Parent

Wednesday, October 2, 2019



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Show Notes

Kwesi Rollins

What does it really mean to be “engaged” in your child’s education? For busy parents, it is impossible to do it all: attend and volunteer at school events, check the backpack and help with homework, drive to after school activities—while also planning meals and maintaining your home. Kwesi Rollins from the Institute for Educational Leadership gives us a realistic view of the barriers families face when trying to engage with their child’s school. He also shares how school districts across the country are making family engagement more meaningful and inclusive for families who aren’t involved in the traditional ways.


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Transcript (Disponible en Español)

Intro: Welcome to ''Notes from the Backpack,'' a PTA podcast. This series features real conversations with real experts, real parents, and real educators so families can get the real behind-the-scenes story on what's happening in education. Get the inside scoop on how to help your child become successful in and out of school. As parents, we know that your child can sometimes forget to share the notes from their backpack that tell you everything that's happening at their school. That's why we've launched this podcast just for you. Welcome to ''Notes from the Backpack,'' a PTA podcast.

LaWanda: Hi. I'm LaWanda Toney, Director of Communications at National PTA, and welcome to another episode of ''Notes from the Backpack.'' Each week, we are bringing you cutting-edge research to help you increase parent involvement at home and at school. Today, we'll tap into what makes school events both worth attending and meaningful. There are also many barriers and misconceptions that lead parents and families to be labeled as uninvolved due to their lack of participation in school events. This week's podcast will reveal what causes the school partnership gap and how parents and schools can work together to overcome it.

Helen: This is Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement at National PTA, and I'm gonna start us off today with a little bit of research. A recent study from "Child Trends" found that family involvement in schools varies based on race, income, and parent's educational level. One of the biggest gaps the report found was that parents without a high school diploma were less likely to attend events than those who completed college and beyond. But does this mean that those parents don't care about their children's education or aren't involved? Today, we're gonna confront that myth head-on.

LaWanda: To help us bust some of those myths, we have Kwesi Rollins. Kwesi is the Vice President of Leadership and Engagement at the Institute of Educational Leadership, also known as IEL. At IEL, Kwesi directs several initiatives, including the District Leader's Network on Family and Community Engagement and Leaders for Today and Tomorrow, an initiative that designs and delivers professional learning and support opportunities for school and district leaders. Kwesi has long been an advocate for youth and currently serves on the board of Parent-Teacher Home Visits and an ex-officio member of the board of directors of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the National Capital Area. Be sure to follow Kwesi on Twitter @kwesibaby58.

Helen: Thank you for joining us today, Kwesi.

Kwesi: Thanks for having me.

Helen: How did you get your start in this work working with families and schools and school districts?

Kwesi: My career today is really... I hate to say the culmination, it’s not quite over, but it really reflects a broad level of experience from community organizing, from tenant organizing, union organizing, to community building to youth development, hence, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and now, more often than not, to working at multiple levels to improve leadership and capacity-building for folks who really want to improve outcomes for kids. And so that at IEL has taken up a particular kind of shape where for the last decade now we've been very consciously working to improve family and community engagement, particularly at the systems level, and have cultivated a national network or folks who coordinate that work.

One of the things we realized, you know, a decade ago with some of our partners was that folks were beginning to understand the importance of the research, research like what you cited at the beginning of the podcast. But certainly years of research have kind of confirm the utility of having engaged families and the usefulness of that effort. And they have also confirmed that schools, in particular, don't feel as confident in doing that. And the myths that you talked about are part of the issue as well. So you have certain myths, certain assumptions, levels of bias on the part of folks who are at various kind of entry points in all of these enterprises. And so there's just a lot of work to be done.

When there are strong family school-community partnerships that you see a lot of better outcomes across the board. And so that's been important work. For us at IEL, we've made that a priority over this last decade and I've had the pleasure of leading that work. So that's meant working with the PTA, working with a number of other national partners, working with a number of regional and local efforts to really improve their engagement of families. And it's critically important work.

Helen: I think some parents listening might be surprised to think about this work. You said systems level. Family engagement feels so personal, wow I interact with my child's teacher in school. When you say systems, could you talk about what that looks like for parents listening who might not necessarily know?

Kwesi: There's a whole set of activities that's always kind of taking place that we just don't see, many of the things we take for granted. There's a whole yard of school buses from places that have buses that have to pick up kids. And there's a whole set of things that have to begin happening at four and five o'clock in the morning and the average person never sees it. And then a bus just kind of magically shows up. But there's all this stuff that goes on behind the scenes to make that happen. And so engaging families has become that kind of a thing. And one of the things that we've learned is that certain families, by virtue of being more well-to-do, by virtue of having more opportunities, by virtue of having, you know, a lot more kind of supports as a given, it's much easier for them to have their voice heard. It's much easier for them to have the kind of access that they demand that all of us would love to have for our individual kids. And then there are other families who don't have the same levels of opportunities to have that happen.

And so the systems aspect of this, when we say systems, we're really talking about district-wide. So if you're, you know, a large district like New York City is the largest district in the country, so every little thing they do right or wrong affects a million kids. So all over the country you've got folks who are trying to figure out, so what does this look like at a district-wide level and what's our responsibility to improve? What's our process to improve, all of that, based on what we know and based on what we understand?

And so for the average parent, they may never see a lot of what that looks like. They may experience this as their kid brought home a piece of paper and there's something on there that says, "Please come to this meeting." And then depending on any number of factors, they may or may not show up. They may or may not care. There's a lot of different entry points, but the systems behind all of that that help individual schools figure out, so what's the set of activities that actually makes sense? What's a set of activities that can help? What does the research say about that? It's the systems and the thinking at the district level, hopefully, that kind of inform, so what are those activities? What should we be inviting parents to?

You talked earlier about a study and one of the things that's useful about studies like that is it kind of helps raise very important questions. One of the things that's potentially dangerous, depending on who's talking about the study and how it's interpreted, is you can easily read a study like that and say, "Well, they don't have a high school diploma, so therefore they're uneducated, so they're not smart enough to understand that it's important for them to be involved." That's one of the myths that we persistently have to fight. And then in a time where you have a really interesting climate around race and difference and etc., then you add a whole another layer of those kinds of assumptions and so it's very potentially dangerous. And you can easily have staff, you can have teachers and principals who think it's a waste of time to try to engage or involve those families who think, "Well, maybe those families don't care anyway," who think, "Well, maybe those families are not smart enough to get it."

The other way to look at that, of course, is, well, if you have a high school diploma or you haven't had the opportunity to have a college degree, then chances are you're working a couple of jobs to make ends meet. Chances are you're working in a vocation where you have probably the least amount of flexibility. So you can't just drop everything and go someplace. You don't have leave necessarily or you're using your annual or your sick leave to the extent that you have it very judiciously. And schools have had a tendency to kind of schedule stuff at the convenience of staff, not necessarily at the convenience of the families they serve. And so there's a lot of ways to look at research and there's a lot of ways for us to interpret that and to make meaning of that. And that's really what systems is all about.

LaWanda: I wanna talk a little bit more about how we fight these myths, that just because I'm a parent who may not be able to attend a particular meeting means that I don't care about my child. How do I combat that myth?

Kwesi: I think that we've got lots of examples of places that kind of break those myths well and understand that it's important not to make assumptions. I remember in a summer institute a couple of years ago working with a group of principals and assistant principals and the topic was chronic absenteeism and one of those principals who was a principal of a pre-K to second-grade configuration. And she made a very simple statement that's based on the kind of bias that everybody really believes. "Well, these kids are too young to make the decision to come to school or not to come to school. So if they're absent a lot, it's because their parents don't value education." This is a kind of typical statement that you get. Now, coming from a principal, that's really problematic because the principal is providing the guidance and the leadership for the whole school. They're setting the tone about how everybody treats their family. So it's particularly troubling when a principal has that kind of bias about them. You know, a good-hearted person, not, you know, nothing personal and not a hateful evil person. Just that's what she thought.

In that same meeting, another principal described a scenario where he had a whole set of students who were chronically absent. And they were Latino and he was really curious about why they were chronically-absent. And so he investigated. He took it upon himself to investigate. And he found out that all of their parents were migrant workers. And they lived in a trailer park and that their parents left very early in the morning to go to the fields to work and that a lot of those kids were basically unsupervised. So no, it's not that their families don't care. It's that their families are underemployed, doing really hard, hard work, having to leave very early to provide for their kids.

And, of course, if you were to interview those families, you'd find out 100% that they want their kids to have a better life. So it's not that they don't care. But a set of circumstances created a situation where kids were unsupervised and then that was leading to them being absent. And so by him taking that next step and not just living off of an assumption, he's then able to investigate and then able to say, ''Okay, so I gotta figure out a way to get some help so that we can make sure that these kids get to school on time.'' Now, that doesn't mean he automatically found the answers. But if you think about those two stories and the myth breaking, so you have a contrast, two school leaders, two very different approaches, instead of making assumptions, one investigated and as a result of the investigation bust myths across the board. And because they're a school leader, you can imagine that those teachers under that person's leadership probably are not able to just kind of live in the myth.

LaWanda: You touched on a really great point about taking things a step further, not seeing things at face value. You might not be able to solve immediately, but your thinking changes as you look at a challenge and you get some of the underlying, what's happening here, versus just what you see on the surface? I think that's really important and really important for parents as they work in groups together. Not to assume because one person didn't show up or they couldn't make the call it means that they don't care. There could be other circumstances that prevent them from being a part of this particular situation at that time.

Kwesi: For those migrant families who left early to go to work in the fields, they are just everyday kind of parents that have no idea that their principal invested. You know what I mean? They just don't know any of those things, so that's happening behind the scenes, but it's important that it happened. Parents also play a role in that and they should also challenge their own assumptions about their peers. That's a task for all of America in this moment where we've all got to challenge our assumptions and take the next level to investigate what's actually going on so that we can be more of an ally.

Helen: I was sort of wondering why you think these beliefs that parents care or don't care based on whether they show up persist.

Kwesi: You know, I think it's complex. A lot of myths persist because they feed into kind of broad societal assumptions. And so part of that is driven by the time you're in. Part of that is driven by the culture you're in. Part of that is driven by the setting you're in. So there's a lot of complexity. So I don't wanna make this overly-complicated, but I think that's kind of broad spectrum why certain myths persist. Then a lot of it has to do with capability and capacity and understanding. And so depending on your mindset and your orientation and what's really interesting, so there has been all this workaround trying to encourage growth mindsets in kids, but we need to encourage different mindsets in adults.

Helen: What might that look like?

Kwesi: Part of it is a leadership task. Part of it is creating environments where people can learn and be honest about their own assumptions and biases to have them challenged. You mentioned in the intro that I sit on the board of Parent-Teacher Home Visits. And one of the things that was kind of an unintended positive consequence of the home visit as showed by the recent research that we've done was that those teachers who visited families actually had their own assumptions and biases kind of challenged as part of that process. And they came away less biased and with less negative assumptions.

And so why? Because parents were not just this theoretical thing over they're living in some theoretical community on the other side of the tracks. They were just like, "Oh, these people are struggling like I'm struggling. These people are just everyday people. These people are working hard. You know, these people care about their kids. These people... Oh, and now that I have a relationship with these folks, this is awesome." But the myths persist because that's part of our culture.

I think we have a culture that is a little bit schizophrenic. We like to think of ourselves as really loving, caring individuals that will do anything for, you know, the guy next door. But on the other hand, we have a deep fear of the other folks that don't look like us. It's hard for us to kind of get out of some of that thinking. And so then when you apply that to the context of education, it takes on a whole another set of ramifications. I think at the same time, you know, where I'm hopeful is that there are a lot of folks who have been doing some good creative work to get on the other side of that, so there's a lot of hope there, so it's not a hopeless situation. I think that a lot of teachers, especially when they're in a position to really just kind of be focused on the reasons why they came into education and the reasons why they wanted to have relationships with their families and their kids and they're able to tap into that, they are doing an excellent job. So there's a lot of hope out there, but we still have a lot of work to do.

LaWanda: What does inclusive family engagement really look like? What does that look like in a school setting ideally?

Kwesi: I think it's a combination of things. I think it's a process of building some kind of a trust in a relationship with your families, with your kids, with getting to know them. So I was a mentor for many years in Big Brothers Big Sisters. And I remember going to visit my little brother's fifth-grade teacher for a parent-teacher conference because, you know, his mother wasn't available or something. So I was invited and I said, "Okay. Good. Great." So I went and I sat and I talked and I came away from that experience feeling like, "Oh, this is great." And at that time in DC, there was a lot of mystique around teachers feeling overwhelmed about the tests and all. This is quite some time ago because, you know, my little brother's a grown man now. And I was like really pleasantly surprised that, well this is not a teacher that's all freaked out about the testing and all freaked out about this, that, and the other. She seemed quite competent and she seemed to know my little and she seemed to like really appreciate the fact that I came and sat and talked. You know what I mean? And so it's those simple kinds of things.

And the other reason why that example is important is we talk about families and caring adults. So I was officially a caring adult. I'm not a father. I'm, you know, the big brother in a program, Big Brothers Big Sisters, right? But I'm part of the support system for a young black kid, which is important, a young black male. So that's even more important than ever. And so it's important for the teachers to not just make assumptions because they're teaching in a school where most of the kids are not in a two-parent family, for example. Almost every kid with some exceptions, obviously, but they've got some caring adults in their lives. They've got uncles. They've got unofficial uncles and aunts.

There's a whole group out there of folks that would love to be connected, would love to have a trusting relationship, would love to know so what is he doing or he did what? Okay, let me hold him accountable about that. And I think that that is the way to look at all of this part of the challenge. And I know you guys know this at the PTA, is that sometimes schools don't get the fact that the foundation of having a trusting relationship between the families and the teachers will pay dividends later. You know, it will add up. And so we're trying to figure out how to divide our time. This goes back to the systems questions like, "Well, if you spend the time helping your teachers and principals do a better job of making trusting relationships with their families, that's gonna pay dividends later on. And that's gonna result in better test scores. It's gonna result in better attendance. That's gonna result in lower discipline problems. That's gonna have a lot of positive results that will pay dividends in terms of academic achievement." And so that's part of the dance that we do to help folks understand that at a deeper level.

Helen: You know, we've heard some stories from parents, PTA members where maybe they went to a meeting and they sat in the back or had an idea and they didn't feel like someone was listening or say welcoming them. And so I think that parent groups can also be places where you feel included or not included. And that can make you feel like, "Do I keep showing up to this or not?" What advice would you have for folks that are bringing parents together in a space, whether that's a principal or a PTA, to make sure that space stays one where everybody feels valued?

Kwesi: So, you know, I think there's some lessons from kind of basic human resources where now, you know, everybody's in the habit of when you bring on a new employee, you map out a whole plan to onboard them successfully. At my agency, we assign people a buddy for six weeks or so, so that they can answer any and all questions. We have a whole process to ensure that they know what we're about, who we are, what our divisions mean. And it's not a perfect situation. But going back to kind of these situations, you need to have some kind of onboarding. You need to have some kind of very intentional welcoming process. You need to avoid this idea that some people are in and some people are out.

This is particularly important in places like DC where you have gentrification and you have kind of a clash in certain schools between families of immigrant kids, immigrant families, versus more well-to-do young white families. That process is more important than ever in terms of everybody really feeling welcome, that they're going to be heard, that they have a voice. You know that their cultural differences are going to be respected. It takes extra work, but I'm of the belief that it's important work and it will make for a stronger situation among all of the parent groups.

Helen: Could you give us an example, Kwesi, of a school district you've worked with that maybe went from this feeling of there's uninvolved parents and involved parents to really reorienting themselves so that every parent had the opportunity to be involved? Like what would that the district level concretely look like for a parent wanting to know, "Is my school district at the front of this effort or are they way behind?"

Kwesi: That part is actually quite interesting because I think, depending on the vantage point of the parent, there may be a lot of things that aren't obvious that are going on behind the scenes. And so from our vantage point, we experience it as major moves that are different for a district than they were in the past. Think about a place like Waite County, North Carolina, which is kind of Raleigh in the greater area. And they went from a period where as a district they actually had some national renown because they had a very creative way of using busing and school zoning to create a more even experience for kids in poverty and well-to-do kids. And, actually, for a minute, there was a national model. And then they went through a period where because of a political change in the school board where that entire system got scrapped. And it was kind of an ugly period. And now they've kind of come out of that period and have, again, another school board which wanted to kind of go back to the days when things were a lot more positive. They hired a superintendent that made family engagement a priority. And they are working feverishly to make sure that they implement, you know, effective high-impact practices, particularly in all of their title one schools but across the entire district.

And so my guess is that families experienced that as a new attitude, as the employing of different kinds of strategies to reach out, of being a much more welcoming environment, environments that are much more inquisitive about what parents and families actually need, who they are in their places, and a lot more flexibility in terms of the kinds of things they do to engage their families. Going back to the "Child Trends" study, one of the things that's really interesting, if you go back to income level, folks who are underemployed and having to really be creative about making ends meet usually have the least amount of flexibility in their schedule.

You know, like I have my life planned out for the next six months because I'm kind of fortunate in that regard, but they may not know their work schedule for the past two weeks. They have to be really judicious about how they use their off time. So the last thing they need is an expectation to come to a school event that's not that useful for them. So is it that important that they come to this particular thing? You know, like everybody loves Donuts for Dads. And that's cool and there's dads and there's donuts. And so it's good that they came out. But wouldn't it be great if then, you know, we did something with those dads so they knew how to really kind of help their kids, a range of things, when they went back home?

And so it's great to have people in the building. It's even greater to have them in the building and then, you know, given the capability to really help their kids when they go back home and to understand, "So what's my child studying this semester in this subject and how can I support their learning there? What simple things can I do as a caring adult to help move that needle?" And so those are the kinds of things I think in districts that understand the importance of this work. Families experience the interaction in a different way.

LaWanda: I'm a parent. I walk into a school. I don't feel welcomed. What's the thing that I can do to help change that?

Kwesi: You know, I think talking to the principal if you have the capacity to do that. You hate to be the complaining parent, but there is some truth to the notion that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. And one of the things that's always very interesting is that well-to-do parents tend to have a lot more agency by default. And thankfully, there are a lot of folks around the country who are really working with our less well-to-do parents to exercise their agency and their own sense of efficacy and their own sense of, you know, "I have something to say here and I'm going to wield that power." But I think if I'm an individual parent, I've gotta figure out a way to push that envelope, not in an adversarial way but in a way that is firm but productive because we all have the same goal in mind.

And so I think it starts with that and really, you know, just being more informed about so why are we doing what we're doing and how is that working, and paying attention to these deliberations at school board meetings. I mean, there are lots of ways to be involved. I think there used to be this thing years ago that was called the continuum of parent involvement where you went from having a parent that was individually involved in their individual child's education. And then you move along the continuum to the point where they're taking responsibility, not only for their individual child, but for the children in their school, the children in the neighborhood, and all the children in their community. And so that's what you ultimately want. We all have self-interests, obviously, so I want what's best for my kid. Most of the time with, well, I guess I'll say with a few exceptions, what's good for your kid is good for all kids. Why don't we fight for all kids, including our own individual kids? And so that's what you want ultimately.

Helen: For parents who really want to be involved in their child's education, but maybe who can't attend to the school events because of all the things you've said, what is your advice to them for how they can continue to deepen their support for their kids without necessarily having to physically take time off and go to the school?

Kwesi: One of the benefits of this time is that we're in the time of social media. We're in the time of all kinds of resources online. And most schools, not all, but most schools have become pretty savvy about having a Facebook page, having a Twitter handle, having ways for folks to connect. Many teachers, especially our younger teachers, have figured out ways to, "Here's how you can be in touch with me regularly, you know, via these various platforms." Many schools have actually engaged in specific platforms that are designed to send reminder texts to parents and things of that nature and also to keep parents in the loop online about what the subject areas are and what their kids are studying and where their progress is.

So there are a lot of ways to do that without having to physically come to the building at a time that doesn't make sense. And I think some of that is on the parents. Many of us in the field tend to place more responsibility on the schools and the districts to make that easier, you know, as part of their job. And in those places that have done that and they're using those portals wisely, they are seeing better connections and families having more capabilities to support their kids' learning.

Helen: Thank you again, Kwesi, for coming in to share your advice and research around family engagement. If our listeners are really interested in learning more about what good systems and what school districts can do to be great at family engagement, where should they go?

Kwesi: Well, you know, you can come to our website, And you'll find links to a new resource that we just released called "Taking it to the Next Level. Strengthening and Sustaining Family Engagement through Integrated Systemic Practice." You'll find some other kinds of items of use. You'll find the new graphic for Version Two of the dual capacity-building framework.

Helen: Could you give us one sentence of the dual capacity-building framework?

Kwesi: Plain and simple, dual means two. Capacity is about our capabilities to do stuff. And it's based on the premise that in order for us to improve outcomes for kids, we've got to improve the capacity, the capabilities of the adults in their lives. And on the side of schools, that's school people. That's teachers, principals, and the capacity of parents, families, and caring adults.

LaWanda: Thank you, Kwesi, for having a great conversation with us. And for those tuning in, do not forget to follow Kwesi on Twitter @kwesibaby58. And as always, thank you for tuning into ''Notes from the Backpack,'' a PTA podcast. Keep the conversation going by using #backpacknotes on social media to share your thoughts. Thanks for listening.

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