From New York City to Chattanooga, district leaders around the United States have stories to tell about the instructional technologies they are introducing in schools. Many are training educators to teach students computer science, and other STEM subjects through new technology. And although leaders agree that parent engagement is an important part of student success, their innovation plans often leave them out—particularly those in low-income communities.
“We are not good at that yet,” said Keri Randolph, the director of innovation at the Hamilton County Department of Education in Tenn., when asked about her district’s plans to educate parents on computer science and technology. Randolph explained that the district recently set aside funding to help parents understand the new programs—a switch from when the program began. “We included money in the pilot budget. We didn't at first. We didn't recognize the need, but now we do,” she continued.
According to the Hamilton County Department of Education website, Randolph’s district serves approximately 42,000 students with majority of them (51.7 percent, according to the Kids Count Data Center) qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Her district has implemented infrastructure projects to improve digital equity, for instance, they have significantly discounted the one gigabit-per-second internet service in the city and provided all students in six of Chattanooga's high-poverty schools with a free electronic device. However, according to Randolph, they have not taken a community-wide approach to educating parents about the new techie topics entering their children’s classrooms.
"I worry about the parents understanding that regardless of how much money you make, how long you have been in the country, what you look like, you have a role in computer science, you have a role in math, science, technology and engineering—I worry about that a lot," says Deb Socia, the executive director of Next Century Cities, after a panel discussion on Digital Equity at this year’s SXSWedu conference.
For her, part of ramping up digital equity means helping parents and caregivers better understand what their students are learning in school. “Many schools have great parent portals, but who can access them and when is a big issue,” says Socia. “We taught our parents how to use the portal because we know when parents are engaged, kids are as well. It is a clear indicator of improved grades,” she adds.
In Randolph’s district and many others, the job of keeping parents up to speed has fallen on individuals educators, libraries or nonprofits in the area. She points to one popular monthly program run by a teacher--a “lunch and learn” for parents around technology and education. “He has great attendance,” says Randolph.
However, a national survey by GreatSchools’s Family Engagement Lab due out next week observes that, in spite of one-off efforts to educate parents, a significant number of families are not receiving information about the critical skills their children are learning in schools and how they can support them.
“There is a big gap between families and schools in terms of the roles that they can play. To fill in the gap, parents are asking their kids for information—almost 70% [of families who didn’t get information from the schools] said they are asking their kids,” Vidya Sundaram, CEO of Family Engagement Lab.
Sundaram suggests that schools build trust by providing parents with the information they need to make educated decisions about their children’s school and performance. “Schools doing good work help families understand three things; what are the key skills their children are going to be learning every year; how is their child performing on those key skills; and what can parents do to support their children develop the skills,” says Sundaram.
Troy Neal, a speaker on the “Next-Generation Parent Engagement” panel at SXSWedu and educator at YES Prep public schools, noted that barriers for low-income and immigrant families go beyond technological and subject matter knowledge. “How do we break down the barrier, so parents understand how schools work?” asked Neal, speaking about a broader lack of education system knowledge, “Some parents don’t understand their rights. They don’t know how to speak up, and they're afraid of the consequences if they do.”
The education systems knowledge gap becomes increasingly more significant as the Department of Education promotes “school choice” throughout the nation—propelling parents to choose where their children will go to school. In an address in late February to a joint session of Congress, President Trump called on representatives to "pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them."
But can 'choice' be valuable when people don’t understand their options?
In response, community organizers like Kids First Chicago and education experts are calling on schools to ramp up parent education. “You have to be insistent and persistent about getting the message out to families,” says Bruce Douglas, a PCG Education Consultant and former community organizer at the HEROH Foundation, “If you are talking about predominately black and Latino schools, we are talking about systemic inequities, those that allow for single parent homes. If mom has to pay the bills and has two jobs, she can’t be dealing with school. We have to use multiple mediums to reach them where they are. We have to get the message out.”