Maine Schools in Focus: Partnering with Parents? But More and More, They’re at Work
Editor: Gordon Donaldson
The vital role parents play in their children’s education has been reinforced by research in recent years. Parents make a difference when they talk with their kids regularly about school, engage with them over homework, and make their homes “literacy rich” (National Literacy Trust, 2011). But as Maine schools seek to increase parents’ engagement in learning activities, they’re bucking a trend: more parents are working than ever before and getting to school or reserving time at home to reinforce what’s going on in school is harder than ever.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau:
- 66 percent of Maine children under 18 lived with both parents in 2014. In 70 percent of those families, both parents worked (an increase since 2005).
- For children living with only one of their own parents, that parent worked in about 85 percent of the families with kids living with single fathers; and in about 80 percent of the families with kids living with single mothers.
- These rates of parent employment are only slightly lower for Maine households with children under six years old.
- A startling 54.7 percent of female-headed households with children under 5 years old had incomes below the poverty level in 2000.
As schools push to bring all students up to proficiency, they’re acknowledging that they can succeed best by reaching out to parents. But, with nearly two-thirds of Maine parents working, a call home is likely not to reach anyone during daytime working hours. A call to a cell phone may disturb a parent at work. An email is likely to be read after parents have put kids to bed or, perhaps, be overlooked the next day.
The challenges in engaging parents are monumentally larger in the cases of our poorest families, particularly those headed by single parents. Most such families are headed by women; 80 percent of single mothers with school-aged children were working in 2014. The impoverishment of such families with children under six means that more Maine youngsters are likely to start their school careers facing significant learning challenges.
How are Maine educators, school boards, and policy makers responding to these issues? Many districts, with modest support from the state and federal sources, have instituted Pre-K programs. Schools are investing in software that parents can access to follow their children’s assignments and progress—if they have wifi. Some schools are trying to sustain weekly phone or email contact between educators and parents where parents can learn how they can assist and staff can enlist the partnership of parents. The National Parent-Teacher Association provides “family engagement tools” in this regard (See: pta.org).
But increasingly schools are filling the void left at home by working parents by extending the school day and year. Many Maine districts now provide after-school programming, school activities during vacations, and summer school. These are often grant-funded initially with, for example, federal “21st Century” dollars, then transitioned to local budgets. These efforts to substitute for the missing attention of working parents are noble indeed, and they often bring more parents into our schools after hours. Many view them as essential for the many lower-income children living with single parents. But they are extending our teaching staffs, our students, our school buildings, and our budgets in ways that may not be sustainable.
As our economy and standard of living compel more parents to work and imperil the educational foundation of more Maine children, our schools will be challenged to carry even more of the burden for academic, social, and personal development. What can be done to remedy this situation?
Clearly, our schools must continue to reach out to parents—especially parents of our youngest children—to offer advice, feedback, and ongoing consultation. But district and state leaders must recognize the additional effort this requires of staff. If parent-teacher partnerships are to be a priority, we must provide teachers and principals the time, training, and material resources necessary to build these crucial relationships.
To address these issues on a societal scale, state policy makers can pursue a two-pronged strategy. First, devise ways for the social service and early education systems to engage and support new parents immediately in understanding their roles as “early educators.” Second, take on the daunting task of intervening in economic conditions that force young parents to work in order to fend off poverty. If businesses and state leaders want a highly educated workforce, then make family-supportive employment policies “the way life should be” in Maine.
Finally, educators, school boards, MDOE, and the State Board of Education should evaluate the costs and benefits of after-school and extended-school programming. Is this strategy of “more school” paying off? Is it just “more school”? Child care? Or do these programs use innovative learning practices that can be replicated, even within the school day?
Sources: A Research Review: The Importance of Families and the Home Environment. National Literacy Trust, 2011); factfinder.census.gov (see American Community Survey data); commerce.gov (see Maine QuickFacts); National Parent-Teacher Association (pta.org); maineafterschool.net.
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Contact: Gordon Donaldson at firstname.lastname@example.org.