When Khalilah Jones was only a few minutes late to the first parent-teacher conference at Cleveland’s Citizens Academy charter school, she found out to her surprise that all the seats in the gymnasium hosting the meeting were taken. This was the first year that Jones’ kids were enrolled in the school, and she hadn’t yet realized one of the things that contributes to the school’s success is the high rate of parental involvement. Unlike in other schools around the area, meetings between parents, school staff and faculty aren’t patchily attended. Instead, they were the hottest ticket in town.
Spending even a few minutes observing the proceedings, it isn’t hard to see why. According to Margaret Bernstein, writing for The Plain Dealer, the level of enthusiasm was high even at the start and only got higher as the Assistant Principal Lisa Quick announced the latest round of results from the state-mandated testing the year before.
There was lots of good news to celebrate. Ninety-nine percent of third-graders passed the state assessment exam in mathematics, and 100% of fifth-graders passed their reading tests. The passing rates for other exams and grades hovered between 96% and 98%.
How much of the school’s success can be attributed to parental involvement is hard to say. But there’s no doubt that parents who take an active role in their kids’ education help them succeed academically. However, to make a real difference, parents need to move beyond the traditional definition of “involved.”
Involved doesn’t just mean helping out with bake sales. Engaged parents make sure that their children don’t miss school unnecessarily and that they arrive on time. They read with them, help them master their alphabet and math facts, and essentially back up what the teacher’s doing when the student is home.
The parents of Citizens Academy students are, of course, a self-selecting group. They have already proven that they’re more invested in their kids’ education merely by making the effort to enroll them at the Academy. Still, those in charge of the school don’t take that enthusiasm for granted — even parents who are inclined to be engaged need a little encouragement once in a while. Providing that encouragement is the job of Tonyetta Miller, whose job is to “promote parent engagement,” which includes in-person contact and a campaign to get each family to volunteer at the school for at least 8 hours each year. She is even in charge of organizing the end of year parent-appreciation assembly that gives students an opportunity to thank their parents for all the work they’ve done over the course of the year.
Here, the parent club is the “in crowd” and members compete against one another to see who’s more involved. “You will hear parents in the hall saying, ‘I got two hours this week, how many do you have?’ ” Miller said, laughing.
Still, Citizens Academy didn’t always have such robust parent participation. Miller had to build it.