The national debate on urban public education in the United States consistently involves strategies for improving K-12 academic achievement and contributes to our country’s educational performance globally. While strategies to improve academic achievement continue to evolve on the national front, in urban contexts one of the most valuable mechanisms to facilitate this achievement exists within the parent-educator and school teacher partnership.
Parent-educators, educators who have children within the urban school settings, have a unique function in strengthening the urban school system. We bring a wealth of professional expertise to the school community. Parental involvement continues to be at the forefront of the school-family dialogue and much more information is needed to learn how parent-educators can be more involved on a voluntary basis.
The quality and nature of the school community is strongly correlated to the cultural responsiveness in parent-teacher interactions in urban schools. In their work Diversity Matters: Understanding Diversity in Schools, Drs. Lynn Kell Spradlin and Richard D. Parsons (2008) offer practical solutions to building the cultural-competence skills in school communities. This text is filled with theoretical knowledge, illustrations and case study examples that offer direction for educators to be more culturally responsive in school settings. Some of their examples illustrate the perception school administrators may have about minority parental expectations and suggest the need for exploring how school-family interactions could be improved:
“Much of the research on minority family interaction with schools focuses on parent involvement. Many school officials hold the view that minority parents with low educational attainment attach little value to or interest in their children’s schooling” (Spradlin & Parsons, 2008, p. 29).
For me this quote raises questions about the value and interest in children’s urban schools where there are well-educated minority parents. I’m intrigued by the idea of more well-educated parents serving as volunteers in urban schools. This interest evolves out of my experience as a parent with a 7-year-old who attends an urban public school. More specifically, I believe I offer a unique first-generation perspective on this issue. As an African-American woman and a first-generation Ph.D. recipient from an elite institution I conduct research in the field of doctoral student development and the teaching of race and culture within the classroom. Some would view my parental involvement to be in stark contrast to what Spradlin & Parsons described earlier. As someone who believes in the transformative power of racial and cultural awareness, I see the value of employing strategies of cultural competence to enhance school climates. This competence is based on what we do to encourage cultural awareness by rising to the occasion to address systemic inequities. Simply, one way to do this is to be present within our urban public schools.
My role as both parent and educator leads me to think about the nature of the racial and cultural parental representation and how this affects the K-12 urban school climates. I will lend some context to my parent-educator experience in the classroom by discussing my perception of the commitment of some of my colleagues regarding public education. I’m thankful for my education and must acknowledge previous research that indicates African-American doctoral degree attainment is often wrought with personal obstacles and student marginalization. Based on the earlier points about parental involvement some of these obstacles involve the condition of parental educational background for marginalized students. My student experience encouraged me to be more sensitive to educational inequities and attuned to student and teacher voices that are often left unheard. First-generation emerging scholars who have had similar experiences and successfully manage barriers to degree attainment can offer valuable perspectives regarding achievement and school community involvement. Our roles in addressing systemic educational inequities are often shaped by our own student experiences and offer an in-the-trenches perspective on belief systems about the influence of cultural awareness on school climates.
Those of use who are educators and have children often discuss our children’s schooling while engaging in corridor discussions. For example, colleagues meet in the hallway and discuss what their children are doing in school. More often than I’d like to admit, many of my colleagues who are proponents of social justice, community uplift and equitable education do not speak favorably about urban public education for their children. Generally speaking I’ve heard two types of dialogue. Some colleagues blatantly mention that they would never send their kids to a public school because they have too many “issues.” Obviously, scholars in urban education are critically attuned to the systemic problems in urban schools. Moreover, there are colleagues who talk about their children’s attendance at prestigious private schools where the discussion of urban public education is absent. The latter point here should not be viewed as a devaluation of private schools. Rather, it’s an observation of the type of discussions taking place in the academy.
For those of us whose research focuses on social justice not only should we be involved as parents but we should look for opportunities where our expertise can be contributed to our children’s schools as volunteers. Those of us who are first-generation parent-educators do we use our educational achievements to act in the perpetuation of systemic inequity or, do we contribute our expertise to communities that could greatly benefit from our expertise? How might our participation influence family attitudes and parental involvement? This is a call to awareness for first-generation educators who have school-aged children (or those who are thinking about having them). We need to begin thinking differently about our involvement with our urban school communities. I encourage you to ponder about what could happen when we rise to the occasion.
Dr. Pamela Felder is a scholar of higher education. Her professional background includes teaching experience at Teachers College, Columbia University, The University of Pennsylvania and Camden County College, Camden City Campus.