Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Parents, nonprofit study ways to close achievement gap - Gazette

IMPACT Silver Spring report seeks to build relationships as a way to improve education for minority students

by Jason Tomassini | Staff Writer | Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008

A Silver Spring nonprofit organization has released a report examining challenges facing minority students and parents in the county public school system and offering recommendations to help close the achievement gap in a racially, ethnically diverse population.

Six diverse parents with children in Montgomery County Public Schools spent six months working with IMPACT Silver Spring to prepare a 43-page report that calls on schools to improve the relationship between parents, students and teachers through a variety of programs.

The report was completed in August and distributed last week to several MCPS administrators.

Some of the recommended programs have been used in MCPS schools and others were modeled after programs in cities such as Chicago and Sacramento. But whether the programs promote teachers meeting in their students' homes or discussing reading assignments one-on-one with students, all programs looked to improve teacher-student relationships on a school-by-school basis.

"MCPS has done a lot and we really believe that," said IMPACT Executive Director Frankie Blackburn. "This [report] cannot be done by top-down government structure. The theory is that you start doing a bottom-up strategy and it spreads faster when you start having success."

Locally, Springbrook High School in Silver Spring has implemented a Summertime Teacher-Student Book Club in which students were given a list of 93 books this summer, chose two and then met with teachers to discuss the books. IMPACT's parents thought the program could be implemented in diverse schools to strengthen the relationship with parents and teachers.

The parents were also shown a video of a Teacher Home Visit program in Sacramento where teachers meet with a student's family twice a year in their home. The teachers are paid a stipend to cover travel costs and time commitment.

"It's a teacher coming to a home without any paper or asking questions," said parent participant Sara Mussie of Takoma Park, a native of Ethiopian and mother of two children in the county school system.

Previous IMPACT programs were recommended to MCPS, including an overnight retreat of parents and teachers, which was conducted at Piney Branch Elementary School in 2006.

"The main challenge is helping teachers understand the needs of different cultures because so many cultures and languages are represented [at Piney Branch]," said Principal Bertram Generlette. "IMPACT really helps to make that happen."

A program from Chicago's Logan Square Neighborhood Association was also recommended. Called Literacy Ambassadors, the program matches a teacher with four to five families for weekly meetings in one of the families' homes. The group discusses a reading assignment together and a meal is provided for the gathering.

School board member Chris Barclay (Dist. 4) of Takoma Park went to Chicago with IMPACT to observe Literacy Ambassadors and was encouraged to see it included in the report. Because the recommendations came from the same parents who will benefit from them, the priority should be high, Barclay said. But it will be difficult to conduct the programs systemwide.

"It's going to probably be more about what kinds of things hit for the particular school and community and, given the resources of that particular school, what works for them," said Barclay, who has three children in MCPS.

How the study was done

The six parents came from a group of about 20 who took six workshops with IMPACT in 2007.

These parents – one African American, one Latino and four Africans – committed to two meetings per month for the past year to develop the report.

The goal was to create a school where teachers served students and parents of all backgrounds equally, thus closing the achievement gap.

In addition to examining programs from around the country and meeting with each other, the parents interviewed 14 teachers, 13 parents and 16 students of different genders, ethnicities and grade levels.

A 10-page section of the report contains anonymous testimonials from these interviews.

One high school teacher suggested colleagues attend students' sports and extracurricular activities. Another high school teacher spoke of how going on a police ride-along in his students' neighborhoods helped understand their background.

Teachers who keep parents involved by contacting them regularly by phone or through Internet grading are the most effective, one immigrant parent said.

"It's exciting to know how different they were, each person's country had a different take on education and what they have learned," said Takoma Park resident and Caribbean-born Sherron Allen, one of the six parents who conducted the report.

The multicultural classroom

Many of IMPACT's longstanding relationships are within the diverse Silver Spring and Takoma Park area at schools like Piney Branch that have certain characteristics allowing them to benefit the most from a closer parent-student-teacher relationship.

"The criteria is having a principal with some level of empowerment to be able to manage the demands coming down from a system and still be able to balance relationships with the community," said Ray Moreno, director of schools for IMPACT. "There has to be a sense that people in the community and teachers really want to create a situation that's not just best for their kid but best for every kid."

IMPACT is pursuing a "pilot program" at Piney Branch and Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, which would establish IMPACT programs with the hope of "changing the culture" of the school.

When discussing the achievement gap, IMPACT and the parents are more interested in the cultural aspects, while Moreno acknowledged that MCPS generally looks at the gap through standardized test scores.

Blackburn said participation in school programs, getting jobs in high school and staying out of trouble are more important goals for students. Barclay agreed.

"If you look at state tests, for me that's not going to be the bottom line," he said. "My daughter is not going to take a state test to get a job."

Immigrant parents must work to close the achievement gap even before their children start school, said West Africa native Akibou Obaonrin, another of the six parents who participated in the study.

"The gap doesn't start in fourth or fifth grade, it starts sometime before our kids were born," he said. "… Because if we don't know exactly what to do to get them ready, they are going to accumulate a lack of understanding."

Challenges facing parents

When Obaonrin moved to the United States in 1998 to unite with his family, he knew he wanted to assist his daughters' education as his father, a PTA president for 10 years in Africa, did for him. After years of struggling to understand the school system and communicate with teachers, Obaonrin decided to embark on the Silver Spring Loves Teachers study.

"If you don't go to the school, you might have information but sometimes you might not understand it," he said. "… I knew that and I was just following what I saw of [my father] and what he taught me."

Both Obaonrin and Mussie spoke of major differences between school systems in the United States and Africa, where parents only go to their child's school if they did something bad. When they come to the U.S., many immigrant parents are reluctant to seek out teachers, they said.

At Piney Branch, Generlette said bilingual staff members, as well as IMPACT staffers working at the school two hours per day, will help teachers make calls home to parents to discuss their children.

Mussie said the recommended programs in the study would promote positive, informal interaction with teachers and immigrant parents.

"When my son started school, I was saying ‘hi' and ‘bye' to the teacher, that's about it," she said. "I didn't know how to [be more involved], I didn't know if I had to. It's a lot more than that."

The following six parents

contributed to the Silver Spring Loves Teachers report:

Berhanu Bedane

Originally from Ethiopia, Bedane has four children, two of whom are students in Montgomery County Public Schools.

Eddy Carranza

A Montgomery Blair High School graduate, Carranza is from the Dominican Republic and has four children, three of whom are in MCPS.

Fini Kondeh

From Sierra Leone, Kondeh has three children, two of whom are in MCPS.

Akibou Obaonrin

Originally from Benin, Obaonrin has two children in MCPS.

Sara Mussie

Now an employee for IMPACT Silver Spring, Mussie is from Ethiopia and has two children in MCPS.

Sherron Allen

Born in the West Indies, Allen has a son in the pre-kindergarten program at Rolling Terrace Elementary School, which is an MCPS school.

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