November 30, 2016 by

A Bridge to School: Reaching Disadvantaged Families Through Learning

A report from Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development that analyzes low-performing students across the globe offers very compelling statistics: a boy of average socio-economic status in a two-parent household with no immigrant background, who speaks the sameinfographic-math-1 language at home as in school, lives in a city, and has attended more than one year of pre-primary education, has a 10% probability of low performance in mathematics. A girl with the same socio-economic status in a single-parent family with an immigrant background, who speaks a different language at home than at school, lives in a rural area, and has not attended pre-primary school, has a 76% probability of low performance.

The report makes it very clear that a lack of opportunities that exists in disadvantaged families is a major cause of children’s low performance. Parents might work long hours, have little education, or not speak the language used in schools. These factors create learning environments that are drastically different from those of classrooms.

How can schools reach such families and make a difference for a child? Home visits, calls, notes, and relationship-building strategies go only so far. A study of more than 30,000 racially diverse students in urban areas suggested that to respond to differences in family background advantages schools need to supply more educational resources and learning experiences to families. Education of families in the areas with many adversity factors has a direct connection to family engagement.

Provide Information that Helps Families 

In addition to school- and curriculum-related information, schools need to create awareness about factors the affect students’ wellbeing. One important challenge in educating children in poor neighborhoods and some immigrant communities is that students often miss school. There might be many reasons for this – from transportation and frequent health issues to parents’ need to pull a child from school to interpret in banks, immigration offices, or employment agencies. Some cultures believe that teens have to work to support families. Parents have to understand that education of their children is their legal obligation.

Schools also need to widely and frequently share information on how they work to meet needs of students, what opportunities are available to them, and how this will benefit them and their families in the future. Making parents aware of free health clinics and food programs or government provisions that might be of an advantage to them can also lead to improved attendance and increased learning.

Promote Parent Literacy and Educational Awareness

In areas with lower levels of education among their population, promoting literacy and education awareness to families is of a great value. Any teacher, school, or district can offer parents a collection of books that they can borrow – a Parent Library.

Lakeview Elementary School in Illinois, for example, offers Parent Lending Library right in their school building. Parents either stop by the Main Office to sign out a title or view a list of titles online and send in the book request form with their children. The books are sent home in a child’s backpack and returned to school the same way within a 2-week period. The books offered by the school include titles on ADHD, anger, autism, bullying, college, death, discipline, divorce, friendship, homework, internet safety, self esteem, social skills, and much more.

In Santa Monica, California, A World is Just a Book Away organization opened 26 Parent Libraries to address requests made by parents who would drop off their children at school and wait until the children have finished school to take them home. A parent library there consists of least 50 books on anything from traditional cooking recipes to sustainable agriculture and parenting advice.

Offer Opportunities for Hand-On Training and Coaching

Open classroom presentations, parental workshops, booster meetings, and parent nights are just a few examples of opportunities for parent learning that can be offered by individual schools and teachers throughout the year.

Open classroom events are an occasion for families to observe instruction and their children in a learning environment. Parental workshops are series of trainings that equip families with knowledge and skills to act in various learning-related situations involving their children. Workshops can help parents understand different educational concepts, such as the Common Core standards or career choices, or target social and emotional learning and discipline.

Booster meetings usually afford parents some support in a particular subject; frequently they target literacy and math. Teachers also need to provide a variety of accessible suggestions and effective strategies that parents can apply at home.

Parent nights are often focused on an important topic for information sharing and discussion, e.g. learning feedback documents and how to understand them. They also connect parents, teachers, and administrators.

Create Comprehensive Learning Structures

At a district level, Parent Academies and Universities offer the most advanced level of parental education. These systems are multi-focused and incorporate frequent regularly-scheduled meetings.

Parent Academies are small educational institutions within schools that provide continuous learning opportunities to families through a variety of resources that meet their lifestyles and needs. Guilford County in North Carolina, for example, has created a comprehensive model for coaching parents free of charge through workshops, videos, and online tutoring – Guilford Academy. It provides information and training on a variety of topics for family members and is designed to assist them as they help their students succeed at school and in life.

Parent Universities offer free courses in a structured fashion and various family activities.  Participants can earn certificates and even become leaders in parental education. When Detroit Public Schools, Michigan, opened Parent University in 2014, families could choose from 20 free classes offered in eight Parent Resource Centers. There were four tracks within this program, leading to four certificates: Parent Leader Certificate, Parent Educator Certificate, Parent Mentor Certificate, and Parent Advocate Certificate. To graduate, participants had to complete 10 classes during the semester – two classes from each track.

To truly make a difference for their students, schools need to make a shift from thinking: “How do we involve disadvantaged and marginalized families?” to wondering: “What opportunities for parental education can we offer to them?”  There has been one persistent trend in human beings, as noticed by contemporary economists: all individuals consciously invest in themselves to improve their own personal economic returns, and most commonly, they do so through education.


Arina Bokas, Ph.D., is the editor of Kids’ Standard Magazine and a faculty member at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. She is the author of Building Powerful Learning Environments: From Schools to Communities and a producer of The Future of Learning TV Series. Connect with Arina on Twitter @arinabokas or her website http://culturesofpartnerships.com