23% of Milwaukee Parents Attend Parent-Teacher Conferences

If parents' direct engagement can be gauged from attendance numbers at parent-teacher conferences, then the figures released by the Milwaukee Public Schools paint an alarming picture indeed, writes Alan J. Borsuk for the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. Although the percentage varied from school to school, across the whole district, only 23% of parents attended the conferences last semester, according to the data recently released by MPS.

This represents a 50% drop from the year before, when 47% of the students had a parent or a relative who attended on their behalf. The attendance figures were drawn from a report in parent participation presented to the district school board last month. Although the district superintendent Gregory Thornton tried to reassure the board, explaining that "Parent involvement is more than the numbers you see on these sheets," board member Terry Falk wasn't assuaged:

"There's a lot in here I'm not real happy about, and I don't think you are either."

The picture presented by the turnout for the MPS-sponsored parent orientations was even grimmer.

The number of households with children in MPS schools in each year was estimated at 52,000, so in either year, participation was less than 1%. The parent sessions are required in connection with federal grants and are reasonably well promoted.

The district commissioned the report because of research that has shown that parental involvement is one of the key factors in child academic success. Although things like family income, education attainment and home environment also play a role, getting parents involved in schools is one area where there's room to make a difference.

One of the ways MPS is attempting to do so is via a program called Having Involved Parents which is organized and run by COA Youth and Family Centers.

Having Involved Parents includes monthly sessions at each school for parents and their children, promoting constructive school-home connections. It also includes work by parent coordinators at each school who promote day-to-day things parents can do.

In the last two years, Having Involved Parents expanded from a handful of schools to 35. The report to the School Board said total attendance at HIP programs was 47,145 adults and children from 15,666 families in 2009-'10 and 69,453 from 28,170 families in 2010-'11.

MPS is not the only district that realizes the importance of parent involvement. Clarion Ledger reports that in Mississippi, the districts that performed best on the state standardized tests credited involved parents with their success. And parent participation doesn't just mean conference attendance. Things like volunteering at the school, or even just checking over their kids' homework make a difference.

These are the ideas being taught to parents at the Parent Leadership Institute, a program organized by the Parents for Public Schools of Greater Jackson. At the PLI, participants learn strategies for communicating with their children's schools and even how to understand school reports to make sure that parents are never in the dark about their kids' progress.

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