by Jose Gonzalez

I have spent many years active in NYC public schools in the Bronx — as a PA President, Title I Parent Committee Chair, SLT member, Vice President of CEC District 9, and long-time member of United Parents of Highbridge. One thing I am extremely passionate about is the need for parents, teachers and administrators to work together to improve our children’s educations. Each group has their own set of skills and their own relationships with our children. Only by working together, pooling our various perspectives, knowledge and skills can we truly come to understand our chilren’s needs and strategize to serve them best.

Over the nine years that my two sons have spent in public school I have worked on several projects that have involved parents, teachers and/or administrators working together. (I got my start and learned a lot about parent engagement and advocacy working with United Parents of Highbridge — the community organization instrumental in the creation of a new DOE middle school, Highbridge Green School.) Below, I’ve described some of these projects and how our collaborations have served to improve our school communities and our children’s educational experiences.

At P.S. 73, while chair of the Title I Committee and PTA President, I worked to improve the effectiveness of how we spent our Title I funds and to increase collaboration between the administration, teachers and parents. When I first came to the school, there was little collaboration between school staff and parents, many of whom spoke little English and could not be present at the school during school hours due to their work schedules. I started with a conversation with the principal, Ms. Bueno, who also wanted to increase parent involvement. I had identified parents’ needs for more information on what was going on in school and the curriculum, and with the principal’s support, began working with the teachers on ideas for events that could address these needs and that could be developed by parents and staff together. Working as a team of parents and teachers, we created two such events: Family Reading Night and Saturday Academy for Parents and Children.

For Family Reading Night, parents and teachers designed a museum in the gym — we set up tables with many science projects around the gym, cardboard animal figures such as dinosaurs and other creatures, a galaxy map I drew, and some global earths for the kids to look at. We had all these things ready for the kids to work on after they finished with story readings. We set up a blanket in the middle of the museum and the kids gathered in their pajamas and listened to stories read by community volunteers we had recruited, including two medical professionals and an assemblywoman as well as our own principal. While the children were occupied, teachers held workshops for parents in four classrooms, focusing on topics such as how to help with homework, understanding Common Core, what a school day curriculum looks like and more. Afterwards, the parents rejoined their children in the gym were there were tables set up with projects and resource information.

The Saturday Academy for Parents and Children (also called Family Literacy Day) was another event designed to meet parents’ need for information while strengthening the school community as a whole. Parents and teachers came up with the curriculum for the academy together and the set up was similar to that for Family Reading Night. Six teachers donated their time, coming to the school on Saturday. Four teachers (two in each of two classrooms) instructed parents on the Common Core and helping your child at home. At the same time, two teachers helped out in the gym where the children walked around viewing displays parents had set up and listening to volunteer readers. We ran the Saturday Academy twice while I was at P.S. 73, and I will never forget the positive feedback I received — from parents who loved spending time getting to know their teachers and finally felt like they had good insight into what was going on in school; and from teachers who were impressed by the parents participation and the close conversation they had with the parents. They all wanted to continue this effort.

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While I was on the SLT at Highbridge Green School (a middle school) I helped lead the creation of an academic project that was a joint venture between some teachers and parents — the Immigration/”Dragon Wings” study. Always looking for ways to engage parents and increase their roles in their children’s educational experiences, I teamed up with a teacher, Anna Staab, who was also interested in that type of collaboration.

Our parent community is largely made up of immigrants, so when I found out that Anna’s next unit included a study of the book, “Dragon Wings” — about an eight-year-old who immigrates to the U.S. from China — I realized this could provide an excellent opportunity to involve parents in the curriculum. Anna, along with some of her fellow teachers, collaborated with a group of seven parents to jointly design the “Dragon Wings” study unit. (We first drew parents in by bringing a group straight from our PA meeting to the English Department meeting that was going on in the building at the same time.) The study unit involved interviews of parents and community members, essays comparing interviewees’ perspectives on immigration with those in “Dragon Wings,” a Saturday subway trip to Chinatown (for which several teachers voluntarily joined parents and children), and a fair where the children and adults learned many of each other’s stories.

All involved felt this collaboration was a great success — parents and teachers were able to craft a more enriching educational experience than either would have alone; and parents, students and teachers all came to know each other better encouraging greater collaboration in the future.*

From these and many other experiences over the years I’ve gleaned the following tips:

  • Talk to each other! Talk to your teachers about your kids and your community and listen to teachers about your kids. For all parties to really understand the children, their needs, and the obstacles they face they need to hear each other’s information and perspectives.
  • Start by working together on ONE project. You will begin to make connections, see the pay off and can build from there.
  • Take advantage of opportunities when teachers and parents are in the school building at the same time to bring them together. (For example, Anna and I seized on the opportunity provided by the fact that our PA and ELA department meetings coincided to get a group of teachers and parents in the same room — from there, things took off.) If this is not going to happen by chance, recruit an interested teacher or administrator to help you arrange it.
  • The key things to bring people together on the table always is listening to them and giving them the opportunity to be engaged at any level — hearing their input, and making sure they feel valued, is key for parent engagement.

* To read more about this project, click here for an article originally published on Chalkbeat New York.