Ms. Jones had never had three college-educated adults visit her modest, one-room, government-subsidized apartment. Working two jobs, one at a hotel and the other as a waitress, going back to school, and being a single mother made it difficult to make time for this unusual visit.
But this was a special occasion. Her son's seventh grade teachers were coming, and school hadn't even started yet. Normally, when teachers contacted her about her son, he was in trouble. But on the phone call, the teachers mentioned nothing about his past behavior—only that they would love to meet.
She set out cookies and snacks on the makeshift coffee table in nervous anticipation of their arrival. When the doorbell rang, she was met by something she rarely experienced with teachers when it came to her son: smiles, positivity, and a genuine warm welcome.
After the visit, she knew a few things for sure. These teachers had high expectations for her son, he would have plenty of homework, and they were all going to tackle this critical school year together.
Parent Involvement Is Hard
Even in the best of family circumstances, maintaining a high level of parent involvement at the middle school level is hard. As kids get older and gain their independence, they begin to push away from mom and dad to create their own space.
Gone are the parent-staffed field trips to the pumpkin patch, the excited daily reviews of the finger paint activity, and the social review of the playground scene. Instruction can look different in middle school, and kids often feel they don't have as much to report when they return home in the afternoon.
In schools serving families living in poverty, parent involvement can be even more elusive. Often, one parent works later than school dismissal time, and there is less opportunity for home conversations about school. In many instances, the "parent" is actually a guardian, often a grandparent, who has no perception of what today's middle school setting is like.
Because there is little upward mobility in these low-income areas, many parents attended the school themselves and did not have a positive experience. When the parent or guardian has had a bad experience with teachers or other school authority figures, he or she is reluctant to engage with the people now serving in these roles. In high-poverty areas, teachers represent the most professional adults with whom they have contact, and this can be intimidating.
Even those parents who are willing and able to sit with students at homework time can find themselves intimidated by the content. Parents who were once regaled with stories of how the student was getting better at addition or reading Dr. Seuss may find themselves unable to engage in a conversation about algebra or ancient history.
This intimidation carries over to the parent-teacher relationship if the parent is afraid of seeming uneducated. All these factors can lead to communication barriers at a time when parent involvement can be most critical for the success of their child.
Meeting Parents Where They Are
Lincoln Heights Middle School in Tennessee serves students in grades 6–8 who face many challenges: 90% of our students live in poverty and for 30% of our students, English is not the primary language of the home. Few, if any, pay their school fees each year, and simply making ends meet is a challenge.
Our seventh grade team knew that the seeds of positive parent involvement had to start on the parents' "turf." We would have to put our personal concerns aside and visit neighborhoods we might regularly avoid driving through. Since it would be nearly impossible to visit every seventh grade student's home, we made a target list of 20 incoming students we considered at-risk due to classroom behavior or lack of motivation.
The ground rules were set: we would go in teams, we would make every attempt to call and schedule the visit with the parent, and we would keep the visit positive, not discussing anything negative from the previous year. In another gesture of positivity, we brought a small school backpack full of supplies as a gift for the student.
We were enlightened about our students' ability to receive academic help at home as we met parents with their own limitations and hearts that wanted nothing more than to see their child do better in life. We realized what kind of priority academics might have in the life of the student whose home had not a doorknob, but a rope to pull the door shut.
Outside our comfort zone, and in the face of these challenges, we held fast to our mission: to smile and greet the parents, express genuine excitement to teach their child in the upcoming year, and let them know that if we all worked together, their child would succeed. In all 20 households, we were met with kindness and gratitude.
Relationships Before Academics
After reaching out to our 20 identified at-risk students, we needed to provide an introductory event for all incoming seventh grade parents and students. Because our intent was to build relationships and break down walls between school and home, we wanted this event to be decidedly nonacademic in nature. School would not be a topic of discussion.
The ground rules for this event were simple: make it family-friendly, make it free, and make it fun. We decided to host a free cookout for seventh grade families. Through a combination of donations, school funds, and our own money, we were able to provide food, games, and fellowship for our incoming students and their families.
Making Academics Transparent
Once we had met the families, school was in session, and it was time to begin discussing academic expectations. Many schools (including ours) hold Open House nights after school has been in session for a few weeks. However, these nights can be overwhelming, since they are often overcrowded, hundreds of people are vying for a teacher's attention, and the child can already be off track at this point.
We decided to hold an event only for seventh grade during which we would discuss homework expectations for students, announce opportunities for receiving extra help, and let parents know how to contact an English teacher if they had any questions.
We made a promise to our students that we would not be talking to parents about them individually (and there would be food) so there was no reason not to come. Because homework night was friendly and nonthreatening in nature, approximately 40% of our students and their guardians attended.
Keeping Communication Open
Each week, we determine who deserves a positive phone call and make time to make it happen. We keep school postcards at the ready to mail a quick positive note. If one of our students misses more than two days in a row, we call to make sure the student is okay.
For the recipients of our summer home visits, follow up takes a more determined plan. These parents receive regular phone calls just to see how things are going. These conversations can reveal struggles that make missing homework seem a minor inconvenience. But they can also be an opportunity to determine how we can make schoolwork happen without being a burden. This might mean meeting early before school when a smiling face and an extra three dollar biscuit makes all the difference. When school is out of session, these kids receive Christmas cards with restaurant gift cards to ensure they have at least one full meal over Christmas break.
Following up with each other is also important. Tracking parent contact keeps our team accountable to each other and helps us understand how we can continue fostering these critical relationships.
As kids get bigger, often the divide between school and parent does as well. For guardians of students in poverty, breaking down social barriers, maintaining consistent positive contact, and redefining the perception of the teacher can make a huge impact on student success.
Jaime Greene is a middle school instructional coach for Hamblen County Schools in Morristown, Tennessee.
Derek Voiles is a seventh grade English Language Arts teacher at Lincoln Heights Middle School in Morristown, Tennessee.
They host teachinginthemiddlepd.com, a free website featuring middle grades literacy resources for teachers.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2016.