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August 30, 2010 Parent and Family Engagement in Low Income High Schools By Nancy Barile
Grades 6–8, 9–12


    Parental and family involvement has already been proven to be a key component in a student's academic success. However, educators Ã¢Â€Â” especially those in urban high schools Ã¢Â€Â” face a huge problem when they hope to engage parents and families in their children's education.

    Statistically speaking, parental involvement drops off significantly during high school. One of the main issues is that parent and family involvement looks very different in high school than it does in the elementary or middle school. Chaperoning field trips, working as teacher aides, organizing bake sales are all wonderful at the elementary level, but they'd mortify the average high school student. So what can educators do?

    Aspirations play a key role in the academic success of a child. Studies have shown that students are influenced not only by the behavior that their parents model but also by the expectations and aspirations that parents have for them. By working with parents and families to alter aspirations in youth Ã¢Â€Â” encouraging and promoting high achievement and academic goals Ã¢Â€Â” the foundation can be laid for helping high school students.

    Cultural capital, defined as the "general cultural background, knowledge, dispositions, and skills that are passed from one generation to the next" (Bourdieu 13) can be extremely important. Since children born to upper class parents are afforded opportunities to read books, visit museums, and attend other cultural events Ã¢Â€Â” all experiences valued by the dominant and powerful in society Ã¢Â€Â” low income children are at a distinct disadvantage. Therefore, working with parents to increase cultural capital could help counter theories that a child's success is based on his or her social class.

    Providing parents and families with cultural capital through field trips, family reading programs, tutoring, and other experiences can help students obtain the cultural capital their wealthier counterparts already have, helping to level the playing field. I have seen this work at my own school, where grant money has provided free opportunities for students to attend plays, operas, ballets, museums, and other rich cultural events. Further, since student success in the classroom can be predicated on academic resources that parents typically provide for their children, working to make sure that students have these necessary resources can also help.

    Steven Brint has noted that "people who tend to move up are those who have the habits and skills that bring success in school: regularity, diligence, and reasoning ability" (Brint 178), all skills that can be taught by families. "Academic ethos" Ã¢Â€Â” the discipline to study when others are out with friends, socializing and having fun" (178) Ã¢Â€Â” can also be cultivated in children by their parents and families.

    Researcher Nancy E. Hill has uncovered a series of strategies that are differentiated from the elementary model of parent involvement. This "academic socialization" focuses not on what parents do at the high school, but what parents and families do at home to support their children. These techniques included "communicating their expectations for their children's achievement; discussing learning strategies; fostering career aspirations; linking what children are learning in school, or are interested in learning, to outside activities; and making plans for the future" (Viadero 14). 

    Educators who work in schools with large immigrant populations face an even more difficult time in hoping to engage parents and families. Thomas Hebert's study on the success of Puerto Rican students found that strongly encouraging students "to develop their linguistic skills in both Spanish and English and holding children to high expectation" were especially important (82). Parents also encouraged their children to "participate in extracurricular activities and bond with their classmates" (83).

    Patterson, Hale, and Stressman did a study examining the high dropout rates in urban high schools and pointed out that it is "incumbent upon school personnel to reach out to parents of students considered most at risk for leaving school" (13), and it meant that teachers would have to be prepared to work with all types of parents including "single parents, parents with special needs, and parents that don't speak English" (13). Specifically, this meant supplying parents with the "funds of knowledge needed to successfully navigate U.S. schools . . . That might mean helping Latino families understand school expectations, enrollment procedures, attendance polices, and credits and courses their children need to graduate" (13).

    In particular, parents in low income communities often need much more information about how to promote achievement in their children, and it is up to the schools to provide this information. Hill noted that it is essential to "understand each community's unique barriers and resources for establishing and maintaining effective collaborations" (164).

    Specific recommendations for parent and family engagement in low-income high schools would include:

    • Training teachers and administrators to reach out to parents in culturally appropriate ways, such as making sure that school information is disseminated in an understandable language. 
    • Communicating expectations to students and their families so that they can help foster high aspirations in their children.
    • Conducting workshops for parents that help to explain the "funds of knowledge" of academic success, as well as the importance of  "academic ethos" to a student's achievement.
    • Equipping parents with the knowledge to understand the language of success in high school, including such concepts as standards, assessments, rubrics, etc., and how parents should monitor their child's progress.
    • Helping parents understand the concepts and ideas for planning beyond high school Ã¢Â€Â” Advanced Placement classes, the SAT, financial aid, summer enrichment programs, SAT prep programs, etc.
    • Fostering teenager management of schoolwork by encouraging parents to take a supervisory role in overseeing schoolwork. One great book that articulates just how to do this is Parent Guide to Hassle-Free Homework: Proven Practices that Work Ã¢Â€Â” from Experts in the Field.
    • Encouraging parents and families to augment or supplement instruction, where needed, through the purchase of books, enrollment in co-curricular activities, and purchasing study materials (196–197).
    • Finding ways to provide students and their parents and families with the cultural capital that helps students compete with their wealthier peers.  See "Shake the Money Tree" for ideas on how to do this.

    Although written with the younger grades in mind, Easy and Effective Ways to Communicate with Parents: Practical Techniques and Tips for Parent Conferences, Open Houses, Notes Home, and More That Work for Every Situation contains many valuable ideas and strategies that are equally effective with parents of high school students. The Parent Teacher Communications Log is a useful printable designed to help keep track of parent-teacher conversations.


    Berzin, S. C. Educational Aspirations among Low Income Youths: Examining Multiple Conceptual Models. Children & Schools, 32(2), April 2010.

    Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J. Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture. London: Sage, 1977.

    Brint, Steven. Schools and Societies (2nd ed.). Standford, CA, Standford University Press, 2006.

    Hill, Nancy, E. and Chao, R.K. Families, School and the Adolescent. New York: Teachers College Press, 2009.

    Patterson, J. A., Hale, D. and Stressman, M. Cultural Capital and School Leaving: A Case Study in an Urban High School. The High School Journal, 2007.

    Viadero, D. Scholars: Parent-School Ties Should Shift in Teen Years, Education Week. 29(12), 1–14, November 17, 2009.



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