By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON—Stepping into the cozy Parent Center at Orr Elementary School in Southeast Washington, D.C. is like grabbing a cup of coffee with an old friend. On one ordinary morning long after the 8:45 a.m. late bell, three mothers chat
and laugh over a light breakfast from the take-out spot across the street. Another mom who doesn’t seem to know anyone in the room quietly pores over a database at the computers table. A dad in the corner of the room helps himself to coffee.
Adults aren’t the only ones in sight. Little ones stream by just outside the door on their way to recess, stretching their necks for a longer look into the room, searching for familiar faces. The moms reign in adult giggles and wave at the passing students, calling a few out by name.
Ten minutes later, a boisterous first grade girl in braided ponytails pops into the room and declares, “Mr. Ray says he needs somebody to help with recess.” Two moms hop out of their chairs. One assures the other, “I’ve got it.”
What was once a small windowless office has now become a reliable resource for parents and caregivers who need information about social services, continuing education, and employment, basic computer access, a few words of advice, or, simply, a welcoming place to spend their free time in a worthwhile way. Parents who linger here operate as a corps of on-hand volunteers called “P-WAP”—Parents With A Purpose.
This type of synergy might not be expected at a school like Orr, where 99 percent of the mostly-black student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. But including parents and families as partners in academic success has proven benefits.
As education expert, Karen Mapp explained, “We now know from the research that engaging families and community partners is an essential ingredient to the improvement of schools. When this happens, families are more likely to engage because the link is made clear between their engagement and results for kids and schools, and school staff are more likely to want to cultivate partnerships with families because they see that family engagement is… an essential component of the improvement process.”
Mapp, a consultant for the Department of Education, goes on to cite “Organizing for School Improvement,” a longitudinal study that found that “strong parent-community-school ties” was one of the five pillars of successful elementary schools. Across 15 years of data, researchers discovered that 40 percent of schools that reported strong parental involvement also reported substantial improvements in student reading assessments, compared to the 10 percent of schools that improved without the help of families.
Under No Child Left Behind, Title I schools (schools that have a high population of low-income and/or educationally disadvantaged students) receive additional federal funding to support and supplement their students’ learning. Title I schools are required to use at least 1 percent of their federal funding for parental engagement.
Teaching for Change, a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., is one of many organizations working to help schools include and engage parents.
“Successful parental engagement is built around supporting parents and engaging them to help the children academically—not just their own kid, but the whole school environment,” said Teaching for Change Associate Director Allyson Criner Brown. “It’s not one-sided, it gives parents the opportunity to take the lead and participate. The school should be a village of all adults working together to support the students.”
But getting all those adults to operate as a harmonious village often proves challenging, and all parties—parents, administrators, and teachers—bring their own concerns to the table.
There are also other barriers.
“Some people really have serious things going on in their lives, and they want to do well by their kids but have basic needs that need to be met,” Brown explained. “They’re dealing with poverty, and inequalities… and other forms of support are not clear or available to them.”
And, schools themselves have internal obstacles toward effective family engagement. Often, teachers, staff, and leadership are at odds about the role of caregivers outside the home. At worst, some see parents as a hindrance that must be fixed or excluded. At best, some want to partner with parents, but lack the time, support, knowledge, and human resources to do so.
In 2008 when Orr hired retired union representative Deborah Thomas as its parent coordinator, the school was a different place. The parent center was simply Thomas’ office—and by all accounts, parents barely came past the security desk. There were few opportunities for them to lend a hand at school, and when meetings and activities did occur the attendance was dismal. In 2010, then-Principal Michelle Edwards invited Teaching for Change to partner with Orr and support Thomas’ efforts.
“We met with Ms. Edwards and she was familiar with work we had done with other schools,” Brown recalled. “There was the thought that parents needed to be involved, but at the same time they didn’t want parents in classrooms, or interacting with teachers.”
Thomas began offering parent workshops on life skills and understanding the public school system. Principal Edwards and many of the teachers toured their students’ neighborhoods, and began doing home visits to meet with parents. Slowly, Edwards, Thomas, teachers and parents began to work together.
Today, Orr is in transition, having welcomed a new principal, Niyeka Wilson, to their village. While there is still work to be done, especially in terms of standardized testing, the school is well on its way to being the best version of itself. Retention of highly effective teachers is at 100 percent (compared to the 83 percent DCPS average). Student proficiency in math and reading grow each year; math jumped 20 percent in one school year. The teacher-student Garden Club grows flowers and vegetables on premises, and the school maintains partnerships with more than 10 community organizations. At the start of this year, Orr made national news when First Lady Michelle Obama, Olympiads Allyson Felix, and Dominique Dawes, and Shaquille O’Neal visited as part of the “Let’s Move” campaign.
Watching it all unfold has been Pamela Wilson, head of security. She came to Orr in 1987 as an educational aide and switched over to security in 1992. Her desk is right outside the Parent Center, steps from the main entrance. As the first person most people see when they enter the building, she’s done a lot to funnel parents to Thomas.
“The teachers are dedicated, hard workers. Parents are younger now, and the kids are not the same as in 1987. But we’re family. We gel together and try to get these children to learn and be respectful,” she explained. “People come in here to volunteer and they say, ‘Oh, this is really nice!’ We’re the best kept secret.’”