Parents in Schools: A Radically Simple Solution to Cultural Competency

– Andrew Ryan, ’12

Parents care about their children’s education. It is a simple concept. But Parents rarely fill much more than an advisory role in the American public education system.

Why is a parent’s role as an educator so detached from the actual structure of education in America? That is a question that drives Joanna Brown as an organizer for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago. The LSNA launched a program back in 1995 that can truly be called revolutionary. It is called the Parent Mentor Program. The idea is simple: put parents in classrooms with teachers, with students.

And it works. Student performance at the schools with the program has skyrocketed. “Standardized-test scores have tripled,” reports Joanna, but the school environments too have changed drastically (Brown 30). With parents in the classroom, outreach to students has improved immensely. There are far more bilingual figures in schools. Student involvement in extracurricular activities is at unprecedented levels. The schools are now community centers.

I sat listening to Joanna Brown present this program at the National Immigrant Integration Conference in Seattle this past week and thought: here is the answer to the calls for “cultural competency” in schools. Who better than parents can make students feel comfortable at school? If administrators are trying to make their schools more inviting to the diverse cultures they serve in their community, what better solution is there than simply inviting members of the community into the schools?

The program is as radically simple as it is effective. It works because the benefits are reciprocal for the parents involved. Unemployed parents, typically mothers, are given the chance to gain professional instruction in the field of education. They are paid stipends for their work, and the experience gives parent mentors skills to take with them in future fields of employment. Perhaps most importantly, it gives motivated and caring parents the opportunity to actively contribute to their child’s educational environment.

For my own research here in Walla Walla, Joanna’s message is inspirational:

“Transformation of parents, teachers, and schools is possible, but the paradigm of schooling must change. Students must be seen not as blank slates ready to be filled by information, but as already partially formed cultural beings with their own cultural and social capital. Biligualism and cultural complexity must be seen as assets, not deficits to overcome. Parents are central to the educational system, not outsiders. And by treating them as partners and welcoming what they have to offer into the classroom, we can create schools that engage students and increase student achievement” (Brown 34).

Here is the real no child left behind program.


Source: Brown, Joanna. “Parents Building Communities in Schools.” Voices in Urban Education: Skills for Smart Systems. Vol. 26, (2007): 26-34.

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