When I was asked to write a blog for the White House "Champions of Change" I was overwhelmed. I certainly don't consider myself any more of an expert than any other parent, and no doubt many of my points of advice I would give have been delivered in a variety of ways (and with great graphics) and can be found at National PTA, Parenting magazine, or in numerous books or even on morning television. "How to engage the under-engaged parent in their child's education" is quite a weighty topic, and one that might be too much for a brief blog post.
So, I thought about the various programs our District PTA runs, like the Clothing Assistance Program which provides clothing and school uniforms to children and families in need and has served over 7000 families ytd and is entirely run by volunteers; or the partnership and collaboration with the Parent Leadership Academy with the Louisville Urban League, Kentucky PIRC, and JCPS, the goal of which was to provide a series of classes/workshops to engage a parent in different ways. I thought about all the issues that so many of the student's in our schools face. 10,500 homeless in a district of approximately 100,000 students. 450 of 500 at my son's elementary school who participate in a weekend food program ("blessings in a backpack") so that they have something extra to eat until Monday. Student's and families for whom navigating the school system is complicated because English is a second language, or there isn't a computer in their home, or...well, it is a long list. These are issues and concerns that my children do not have to endure and do not impact their educational experience…Or do they?
Then my daughter interrupted me. Here I am writing what I consider to be the most important piece I have ever written, and my five year old wants me to ... blow bubbles with her? Wait. My daughter wants her mother (who she hasn't seen in several days because I was out of town) to be with her. To be engaged with her. Because at that moment, I was the under-engaged parent. I had let other things become the priority.
So we blew bubbles. It didn't last very long. It was cold. The bubble soap wasn't making the big bubbles that she likes to chase after and pop. But to her, it was magic.
Certainly I will say that joining a PTA is important. Attending meetings is important. Calling and visiting elected officials is important. Participating in programs and projects is important. Especially when we know that the value of a volunteer is about $20.36 an hour. We know that having a parent or family member visibly active in a school, no matter what grade level the child, contributes to their success. That field trips, class parties, or even shelving books in the school library is a contribution. But let me get back to the bubbles, because for the parent who has faced a job loss, or is working a third shift job, or two jobs, there might not be a way to get to school to be considered "volunteer of the year." There might be transportation barriers, such as no transportation except public transportation. There are barriers in a job which doesn't give a parent time off to go and volunteer or attend a field trip and for some parents there are no days off, or you save your own sick days for when you have a sick child. It might be that a parent has to decide between milk and a school fundraiser, and family must come first.
So why is it that judgments are made about how much a parent cares about their child if they don't attend a parent-teacher conference, when maybe the reason they can't attend a parent-teacher conference is because they are doing everything they can to care for their child? So how does that parent show engagement?
While there are amazing parents out there calling elected officials, attending school board meetings, sitting on committees, running Reflections Programs, building playgrounds, and serving on school based site management committees, there are also amazing parents who are engaged with education in different ways. Counting pennies in the grocery line makes a difference. Reading with their child before bed makes a difference. Being positive and enthusiastic about education makes a difference. Tuning into your children instead of tuning into television, facebook, twitter or an ipod, makes a difference. The bottom line, attending a workshop about bullying prevention has just as much impact and importance as sitting and sharing dinner and talking with your child about their day. I've made these judgments about not caring. But because of the work I do in the district, because I have met so many families, and know their stories, I understand that I may be the only one at the school board meeting not because of a lack of care, but because they do care and are at home with their child...blowing bubbles.
This post was originally written for the White House Champions of Change series.
Myrdin Thompson has been a Louisville public school parent, volunteer and advocate since 2002. She has served on the boards of her children's schools’ PTAs and is currently the President of the 15th District PTA as well as a member of the KY PTA Legislative Committee, the Kentucky Department of Education Parent Advisory Committee, the Mayor's Healthy Hometown Movement (MHHM) Schools Committee, the Every1Reads Community Committee, the JCPS Title I Parent Advisory Council, and the JCPS Parent Involvement Group, Volunteer 15th District PTA Clothing Assistance Program (CAP). Honors: Kentucky Delegate for Parenting Magazine's 2010 MomCongress, "Mom of the Moment", Parenting Magazine, School Years, March 2010; KaBOOM! Playmaker of the Month (June 2008) for work on playground advocacy. She has a MA in Renaissance Drama from CSUF and contributes to her blog "Roots and Wings". She is dedicated to building support for and enhancing the quality of education in the Jefferson County Public Schools.