BROOKLYN – For years the woe for both educators and Department of Education officials has been how to get parents more involved in the schools and in their children’s education. With low graduation rates and low test scores plaguing the school system, Department of Education officials and other educators are pressed to look for ways to change the statistics.

Why is parent involvement important to begin with? “It makes a difference” says Florencia Chang-Ageda, a Brooklyn Borough President appointee to the Community Education Council – a DOE initiative to get parents into the schools. “Teachers pay attention to your child when they know the parent is there. It’s more individualized attention for your child and it also allows for issues to be resolved right away,” states Chang-Ageda.

Ms. Chang- Ageda used the example of a Haitian woman who had a child in the school system. “This woman for years was struggling with various issues with her daughter, yet she could not get any results. She was not that active in the school mainly because of a language barrier. Her daughter had emotional problems that she could not comprehend due to a lack of communication between her and school officials. And for many Haitian parents who want to partake in their kids’ school life, often times issues of language insecurity prevent them from doing so,” states Ms. Chang. “It’s very difficult for many of the parents to express themselves and contribute when they don’t exactly feel confident to express their concern, or even confident they will understand the issues,” she explained, adding, what ends up happening is that parents stay away.

Othide Merand has reared five children in the New York City public school system. “I have been the one responsible for taking my grand children to school for all my 3 kids. They work long hours, so I am the only one with the time to take them to school, babysit and run around.” She looked almost tired just from the conversation, as she lamented about the ups and downs she has to deal with her grandchildren. Throughout her speech you heard care but more so exasperation. When asked how involved she is in her grandchildren’s lives, without hesitation she states “very.” She drops and picks them up from school. She cooks for them after school, and while she does not do their homework, she does ensure they do their school work. So when asked how active she is inside her grandchildren’s schools, she answered: “not that much.” I asked her if it was a language issue and she stated no.

A University of Maryland study by Chaung and Koblinsky (2009) attributed the lack parental participation to language barriers and demanding work schedules.

However, Rita Joseph, a Haitian-American teacher at P.S. 6 in Brooklyn feels differently about the matte. “It is not language because they provide interpretation services. In my opinion it is fear of the institution itself. In Haiti schools are considered the ‘it’ place. They control everything. It’s an institution parents look to mold and shape their children into respectable members of society. I have parents who simply tell me do with the child as I wish when they give me trouble. That’s how much reverence they have for teachers and instructors. They look for us as teachers for guidance. They think we know things they don’t know.”

Which leads us to another problem facing Haitians in the system: The education gap between guardians and their children is also an issue. Ms. Joseph states, “Sometimes the children are the only ones that speak English in the household. Once I received a visit from a parent of one of my fourth graders who came to tell me to be sure to explain the homework thoroughly to the children, because when her daughter would come home, she asked her questions that the mother did not have answers to.”

Ms. Merand, in her self defense, stated that not once since she has been dropping her grandchildren at P.S. 189 has she been asked to volunteer or partake in school activities. With P.S. 189 being one of the few remaining Haitian-English bilingual education schools in New York, the school could offer a great model for Haitian-American parents to get involve. The school is very welcoming and offers a good level of comfort for Haitian parents, states an educator who would like to remain anonymous; yet, parents such as Ms. Merand, say they don’t have a sense that their participation is needed in the school.

Ms. Michelle Brunson, of the Community Education Council, District 17, offers another perspective. “I think many parents don’t understand that the PTA is for them. And, at times, that’s to the fault of other parents. Some parents make the PTA seem like a membership exclusive organization that others need permission to join.” Ms. Brunson further states that schools need to offer a more welcoming vibe to parents. Ms. Chang-Ageda too is proponent of this. “Schools like P.S. 399 and P.S. 22 have that community feel – parents, teachers, guards and students are part of one circle, as opposed to different entities. It is not surprising that every student in P.S.399 received a 4in the state exam,” says Chang. Parents are made to feel like they are vital to the process.

Ms. Chang-Ageda says there are a number of ways for parents to get involved and points to the 32 Community Education Councils (CECs) in New York City. Each CEC represents a Community School District that includes public elementary, intermediate, and junior high schools. Each CEC has 12 members: nine parents selected by the district’s PA/PTAs; two members appointed by the Borough President; and one student member selected by the Community Superintendent. These councils and other school initiatives offer bilingual and translation services. The DOE provides parent coordinators within each school to bridge that gap between parents, students and teachers.

DOE has also instituted programs such as the Family Assessment Program, which works to ensure that families are provided the support to tackle major issues including runaways, psychological problems and other internal issues within the family unit. Programs such as The Native Language Forum and the Saturday Academy work to ensure parents are not hindered by language or time to learn about their child’s needs.

However, this information has to be known. Translation services are available.

“It’s simply our job to keep ensuring that parents feel the importance of playing a role. When a child understands or feels that at any given moment their parent can walk into their school, that make’s a difference,” says Ms. Chang-Ageda.

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