How parents with kids in N.J.'s urban schools can lift their communities | Opinion

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
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on February 22, 2016

The Black Alliance for Educational Options is advocating for more school officials to engage with students' parents. Studies show, when this happens, parents become more active in their child's education.

 

By Shanell Dunns

For many black families, especially those living in communities with high levels of poverty and low academic achievement, ensuring their children have access to the best schools and teachers can often be stymied by historical, institutional, and cultural barriers.

These roadblocks often include the educational attainment of parents, institutionalized racism, and disconnections between schools and the communities they serve.

Studies show that when parents are engaged by school officials, they are likely to be more active in their child's education. 

We have the ability to improve a school's psychological climate for learning and their academic performance. Parents can be the best free advertisement a school can have.  Not only will they fight tirelessly alongside a good school but, they will also organize the community to support it.

So how can our schools better engage parents? Here's are a few ideas:

  • Provide information in the most simplistic form. Use language everyone will understand.
  • Host informational sessions on important issues like Common Core and state test scores.
  • Engage parents year-round, not only when they are needed to fight for a particular issue.
  • Be visible. Step outside of the school and show up in their community.

Many families living in distressed communities lack the proper resources to send their child to a private school or move to a neighborhood with better school options. That's why the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) fights to empower low-income and working-class black parents become stronger advocates for their children's futures.

BAEO works to remove many of the obstacles that hinder our children's academic progress by engaging with parents, faith leaders, school officials and community supporters to create, protect, and expand high-quality educational options for black families.

As a parent of five this is important to me.

Still, despite BAEO's unwavering commitment to the plight of Newark's parents and children, the truth is we're not alone in the struggle for education equity. Black families in urban communities all across the nation are also fighting to close the academic achievement gap in their communities. 

Data from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show just how bad the problem is in New Jersey.

In fourth-grade reading, 42 percent of black students scored below basic on the exam compared to 15 percent for white students. The achievement gap continues to persist in fourth-grade mathematics as well where just 29 percent of black fourth-graders scored below basic compared to six percent of white 4th graders. Gaps exist by income levels as well where 40 percent of low-income fourth-graders scored below basic in reading compared to 14 percent of their more affluent counterparts. The same goes for mathematics where 25 percent of low-income fourth-graders scored below basic compared to six percent of those from wealthy backgrounds.

Solutions to abate this travesty is often kept between policymakers and politicians at the expense of parents and their children. I remember a time when parents were sought out to help solve challenges in our schools. Now it seems they just want us to stay out of the way.  

As a parent I know first hand how we can be both passionate and frustrated when it comes to our schools.

Frustration can easily arise if parents don't receive accurate information. Some schools place a negative stigma on parents who ask too many questions. Parents that challenges a school's status quo are often tagged as "anti" or their child becomes a target. And if the parent doesn't speak eloquently, they can easily feel their opinions aren't valued. I've seen it all. In fact, I've been this parent.

We know many of our schools are operating with limited and finite resources. That's why the community is here with advocacy organizations, like BAEO and others that want to assist in these areas. Use them!  

Remember, parents who are engaged by educators are likely to be more active in their child's education, and this will ultimately translate to more successful outcomes and higher academic achievement.

Shanell Dunns is the deputy state director for the New Jersey Black Alliance for Educational Options. She lives in Newark, N.J.

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