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A Family Affair: Engaging Parents of Color

Students of color represent more than half of the United States’ public school population, but their parents are the most underrepresented group of stakeholders in local and national conversations about whether policies and reforms are working for their students.

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A panel of experts who engage parents of color on local and national levels shared these and other observations with education reporters in Boston at the Education Writers Association annual national conference. And their message was clear: No longer can these voices be ignored.

“If we’re having a conversation that doesn’t resonate with 50 percent of the population, then we should be having a different conversation,” said Tyler Lewis, the director of messaging and project management for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Lewis presented findings of a “New Education Majority” poll, released in April. Four hundred Hispanic and 400 African-American parents weighed in on the challenges their students and schools are facing.

Among the key findings are that parents want schools that are safe, offer rigorous academics and have great teachers. And despite test scores being the go-to gauge of a successful school, for these parents, test scores ranked near the bottom of what’s important. Teacher quality was identified as the single most important factor for a “great school,” according to a majority of the Hispanic and African-American parents.

But these parents are also acutely aware of what challenges stand in the way of their children’s schools achieving success. In addition to funding disparities and low teacher quality, parents of minority students believe their children face an even greater barrier than resources: discrimination.

“They are well aware of the impact of racial inequities,” Lewis said. Race and bias, Lewis pointed out, ranked third among the challenges parents feel their student face, even more than lack of opportunity.  These two realities are increasingly coloring debates in every sector of society, and education reporters have to start acknowledging this uncomfortable truth in their coverage of public education.

According to the “New Education Majority” poll, 66 percent of black parents do not believe their children get as good an education as white students do. Also 83 percent of black parents rejected the notion that their schools were receiving as much money as white schools, a sentiment shared by 61 percent of Latino parents.

What’s worse, Lewis pointed out, is that one-third of African-American parents, and one-quarter of Latinos, don’t believe schools are even trying to do better by students of color.

In the meantime, the poll found, parents believe that their children can succeed with a strong family, hard work and being held to even higher expectations than their white counterparts.

Panelist Adriana Flores-Ragade, the engagement manager at Univision, explained how media can empower parents of color to help facilitate all three of these success factors.

Univision does this by capitalizing on its captive audience. Programming for its large Latino viewership includes online tools intended to help parents brush up on the latest education reforms and assist  their children with their homework. The tools also enable to see if their children are doing grade-level work. In addition, the organization also launched parent academies, even creating mini-novelas about school-related issues.

Much of Univision’s influence is a result of the trust that it has earned from its audience, according to Flores-Ragade, who said that trust is a result of continuous engagement.

“When we say do something, they tend to do it,” Flores-Ragade said. ‘That’s a very powerful thing to say about a brand.”

Pious Ali, a youth community engagement specialist at Portland Empowered, is attempting to build similar relationships among Maine’s less homogeneous population.

Maine, which Ali called “the whitest state in the union,” experienced a drastic change in its demographics about 25 years ago when it saw a huge influx of immigrants from war-torn countries in Southeast Asia. In Portland, schools have struggled with how to increase graduation rates among its students of color.

Portland Empowered, a local organization supported by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, has focused on engaging international students and their parents to help ensure strong graduation rates.

The most consistent piece of feedback the group received from parents was that they only heard from the schools when their children were in trouble. Students said the one thing they believed could change the way education was delivered to them was relationships.

Ali and his group worked to open up the lines of communication between schools and the  communities of colors they serve, he said. The group began disseminating flyers in every language represented in the Portland school district, and holding roundtable discussions led by parents four times a year.

“We had to shift the power at the table,” Ali said. “In order to own the conversation, the parents have to lead conversation.”

The impact was felt most at the school level, Ali said, where teachers said they better understood their students and their families.

The speakers also addressed the need to help families understand the new federal K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which has significant implications for school improvement efforts around the country.

Education journalists should go after the stories that focus on the populations these policies affect most — low-income and minority students, whose low performance are the basis for these reforms.

Reporters have to extend the narrative beyond the fact that students of color are failing, and entertain the idea that it might be the education  policies themselves that are failing, Lewis said.

“Be more honest with them about what the issues actually are, and that’s not the students,” Lewis said of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “It’s the system.”