Student academic performance in the state of Wisconsin, and indeed throughout the nation, has been falling precipitously for many years now. Third grade proficiency rates in math and reading in Northeast Wisconsin are now below the 30% mark. That means fewer than 1 in three of our young people are reading or doing math at a level that will allow them to succeed academically or professionally. If students continue to miss the mark through 5th grade, as most do, the odds of those students excelling in middle or high school are very small. Uneducated adults will struggle to become financially independent and suffer much higher rates of incarceration, abuse, addiction, and mental health challenges.
We all know that our schools and our teachers are overwhelmed; as a community over the past several decades, we have become very comfortable with laying many of the challenges that our young people are facing at the doorstep of our local public school, and then returning back at the end of the day expecting all to be well. It is simply impossible for school administrators and teachers to be experts in education, all aspects of mental health, every imaginable physical and learning challenge, food service, addiction, abuse and basic needs. Education is a tremendously complex and all-encompassing career field that requires the full focus and attention of our teachers and administrators. We as a community need to begin to carry much of the weight of the other issues and let schools focus on their critical mission of education.
The truth is that in our current disconnected reality, many parent / teacher or parent / school administration interactions are negative. Oftentimes, parents will only reach out to the school if there is a problem (failing grades, bullying, attendance problems, etc.). The same can be said for the reasons schools reach out to parents. These interactions are necessary, but perhaps we can find ways to bring parents and schools together in more positive and hopeful circumstances and in the process reduce the need for those negative interactions.
So how can we as a community begin to empower parents to reconnect and engage in their students’ education in a positive and proactive manner? The goal is to empower parents to take their rightful role as primary educators of their children, and to give schools and teachers the assistance they so desperately need. There is already some very promising work being done in Northeast Wisconsin to empower parents, including programs in the birth to 5 category, activities at some of our local libraries, and collaborations within some of our schools and after-school programs. But the truth remains that there is literally an army of capable and passionate parents on the sidelines who we desperately need in the game. So, what’s holding them back?
Obviously, some parents will have the ability to be more engaged than others; however, we believe that all parents should be empowered to engage to the extent that they are able and to the extent that they are comfortable. Perhaps for a parent that is struggling, engagement takes the form of getting his / her kids to school on a more regular basis. Attendance is a leading indicator of student success in education. For another parent, who may have had a negative educational experience as a child, perhaps attending a parents’ welcome night at their kids’ school and having some positive interaction with the teachers and staff would be empowering. For our ELL parents, let’s give them the assistance they need to become confident in their ability to read and speak English, and then invite them to read with their children (perhaps both in their native language and in English).
Other parents who have more stable foundations at home may be willing to take on larger roles if the opportunities are made available. What if every elementary classroom in Northeast Wisconsin had a parent volunteer working individually with students who are struggling behaviorally or academically? How would the dynamics of the classroom change and how might student learning improve? What if two or three parents volunteered to be on the playground during recess or in the cafeteria during lunch hour? How would parent perspectives change about the student challenges that teachers and school administrators must face on a daily basis? What if your student’s school had a thriving PTA or a school Facebook page that promoted positive interactions and support for teachers and a loyalty and respect for your school? What if parents could reach out for support to other parents if their student is struggling socially instead of calling the principal? What if all teachers shared basic lesson plans with parents once or twice per month as well as homework assignments so that parents could be aware of and assist in what their children are learning?
To the teachers and school administrators, what would it take to make these opportunities available? As we envision what the future of education in Northeast Wisconsin might look like with empowered and engaged parents, we acknowledge that turning this ship will take cooperation, effort, and time. Parent involvement will be a trickle before it becomes a stream; but if we can make these first interactions with these first brave souls a positive one, we will be developing a grass-roots team of ambassadors who will invite and recruit even more engaged parents.
The first step in the process is to get the word out. Parents and our community need to know that our schools and students are struggling and that we need their help desperately. The next step in the process is to provide hope and action items to invite and empower parents into the fray. Parents – don’t wait to be asked – our kids need you today.