Reaching Out to Other People’s Children in an Urban Middle School: The Families’ Views

Jianzhong Xu

Discussion and Conclusion

The school used three interrelated approaches to bring home and school together: building a school community, attending to students’ emerging personal and social needs, and emphasizing learning by experiencing. It had become an extended family by respecting and taking a genuine interest in students, by helping everyone learn to get along, and by creating a variety of learning opportunities that resembled and built upon students’ home experiences. Students felt the school became a place where they could gain a level of acceptance and a sense of comfort and intimacy, a place they could turn to when they needed help. Three teenagers from the four families studied explicitly mentioned that they liked the amount of freedom they had, ranging from allowing students to leave the school for their daily lunch to the staff not always “watching them behind their backs.” Two boys (Greg and Derrick) mentioned specific classes they liked, especially playing basketball in gym classes, but the most appealing aspects to the two girls (Allison and Sandra) were the social climate of the school and their sense of connection with the staff and other students.

The parents, unlike the children, came to the school with other agendas in mind. These case studies reveal that all of the parents from the four families sent their children to this specific school purposefully. Three of the families were referred by elementary school teachers; the parent in the fourth family visited over a dozen schools before she decided to send her child to this school. The school’s small enrollment and its proximity to home were the main reasons shared by two of the families. Furthermore, the parents from all four families had unique agendas in mind. Mrs. Lynch finally decided to send Greg to the school after being told that some graduates had been accepted by highly selective high schools. Mrs. Curry enrolled her daughter, convinced that the school would help her as a student with learning disabilities. Ms. Lenard—the only parent who did not reside within walking distance of the school—justified her decision because of the ethnic diversity of the student body and its effort to help students interact and get along.

Despite these varying agendas, all of the four families found that the school specifically emphasized student life, seeking to build a tight-knit community where students were encouraged to “be together and be there for each other.” The parents were very appreciative of this initiative. Some parents said that they were particularly impressed with the commitment and devotion of the director and other staff members. For example, Mr. Brown pointed out that this was not a typical junior high school where the principal only knew your child’s name because the child’s file happened to be there on his (or her) desk. Mr. Brown found that the amount of interest, effort, and energy that the staff showed Derrick was extremely positive. Other parents liked the school’s personalized approach of getting to know and being intertwined with students and their families. Ms. Lenard applauded the school’s family atmosphere and the resulting nurturing and homey feeling. Reflecting on Sandra’s illness at school, Mrs. Perry said she was grateful that staff members showed such genuine care for the needs of her child. Sandra was treated not just as “a number,” but as “a human being.”

Perhaps opening its doors and embracing families from diverse backgrounds and with different agendas presented the school with potential challenges in how to serve each of these families well and to live up to their expectations. It appeared that one challenge did manifest itself in the area of parent expectation related to academic learning.

Some of the parents from the four families felt that the school’s attention to academics was inadequate, while other parents felt it was balanced. For example, Mrs. Perry did not think that the attention given to meeting the student’s social and emotional needs compromised its academic rigors. She observed the school’s focus on academics, whether it was the way teachers taught their classes, their expectations of students, or the type of homework they assigned. Mrs. Curry liked the broad variety of learning opportunities offered by the school. Especially, she cheered the approach of taking students outside the school to learn from experiencing other settings, which was similar to what she observed as a common approach to learning used in her neighborhood.

On the other hand, a feeling prevailed among most of the parents that the school paid more attention to social and personal concerns than to academic matters. This issue appeared most evident in Sandra’s case. For Mrs. Curry, the priority was how Sandra was doing at school—her high school applications, her report card, and her status as a student with a learning disability—not her personal life. She believed that more detailed feedback from the school would have helped Sandra learn better, increasing her chances of being accepted at the high school of their choice. Thus, she could not understand why the school paid much more attention to Sandra’s prom date than to her high school application.

Similarly, Mr. Brown was concerned that the teachers did not closely monitor Derrick’s academic progress, failing to provide timely feedback on what he needed to improve, especially in basic skills. Mrs. Lynch wondered whether academics might have been sidetracked with so much emphasis given to building “a nice, chummy community.” Judging from all the conversations she had with school personnel, she had yet to hear a conversation on how to bolster academics. Even Mrs. Perry, who thought the school did focus on academics, worried about the school’s afternoon schedule, because she felt that most of these classes were not about “academic affairs.”

It seems that we could find explanations for these families’ concerns about the academic process by treating them generically, without considering them within the context of their experiences. We can even find justifications for doing so by applying their own reasoning. In addition to relatively less attention given to academics, as some of these families contended, another reason was that they felt that efforts invested in the social/emotional area were undermining academic progress. Mrs. Curry felt that as the school tried to understand and accommodate its students’ needs for identity, comfort, and belonging, it changed the nature of the relationship between teachers and students. As teachers became more like friends to students, it became increasingly more difficult for teachers to consistently place academic demands on the students. Mr. Brown pointed out the same perceived undermining dynamics from a different angle. By spending so much time and energy knowing the children personally, he wondered whether the school had much time or energy left to use this knowledge as a leverage to promote academics.

In the discussion that follows, I go beyond this level of analysis by focusing on how these families’ concerns about academics were shaped by who they are, where they came from, and what their expectations were for their children.

The Role of the School

One of the factors that mediated these parents’ concerns about academics were their expected goals for the school. While Mr. Brown held a balanced view that academics were the other half of the package, and they were just as important as building a nurturing school community, parents from the other three families believed that the school should focus primarily and decidedly on academics. Mrs. Curry explained: “Some situations do require teachers to get more involved in children’s personal lives, but that should not be their main focus....That’s for the parents.” Teachers should be teachers, more geared to school work. Mrs. Lynch strongly believed that “academics should be in the forefront, not in the background,” because high schools were going to look at math and reading scores more than anything else.

The school viewed its role differently. For the school, the importance of getting involved in children’s personal lives extended well beyond “some situations.” In fact, it became a focal point, a precondition. As the director argued, if the school did not deal with the whole child at this age, students were not able to learn. Also, part of the school curriculum was about how to learn to get along with each other. Consequently, a high priority was to create a sense of community among the children, not just as students but as people, which was considered not only a learning experience in and of itself, but it was also considered necessary to make other types of learning possible. It may be argued whether Mrs. Curry raised a valid point when she stated that it would not “hurt the school to pick up the phone” and let her know that Sandra had a problem in math or reading and offer her suggestions on ways she could help her daughter. Mrs. Curry rarely received individualized feedback about her daughter’s work in specific subject areas in the resource room, but she received immediate and intensive feedback about the choice of her daughter’s prom date, which appeared to suggest something about the school’s priority. On the other hand, the issue was more complicated than first appeared, as explained by a student-intern who was present at a meeting in early January, 1997:

Our priority looks to be a different place. Is it true that our priority is in a different place? I wouldn’t say that. I would say that in a situation there had been a go-round about high schools, and it had been going back and forth about the high schools. And frustration maybe on someone’s part in terms of: “You know, there’s no other choice.” It’s the reality of the system out there. We can’t control that.

Then something comes up into our faces where there’s going to be a real problem at the prom in terms of behavior. So we have to deal with that. I wouldn’t say that the priority was the social being more important than academic. I would say that the priority was what was in our face and what was going to happen right then, was the priority over the long term. It’s more manageable to get that done and they could get that done.

The Role of Parents

Closely related to the differing views about the role of the school, the school and the parents also held differing views about the parents’ role in their children’s education. It appeared that the parents from all four families wanted to have more input into their children’s education than the school wanted, although both sides shared the same good intentions. For example, although Sandra’s advisor thought there was no need for her to meet with Mrs. Curry before the parents meeting, she [the advisor] noted that she had spoken with Sandra about her high school application. After the meeting, the advisor again took the initiative and talked with Sandra about her choices for high school. Similarly, during the intense communication regarding Sandra’s choice of prom date, the person the school wanted to talk to was Sandra, not Mrs. Curry. Mrs. Curry became involved only because Sandra was not at home initially; later, she became intrigued by the intensity and content of the phone calls to Sandra. On the other hand, as a parent, Mrs. Curry felt that she should have a final say in the high school Sandra might be attending. In fact, she was deeply disturbed by what she perceived as the school’s attitude toward her as a parent, that is, “we’re not going to worry about you if we could just work it out with your daughter.”

The perceived difference regarding the appropriate role of parents was also evident in Derrick’s case. For example, during a teacher/parent/child conference, the school director repeatedly asked Ms. Lenard to “back off” because she [the director] wanted Derrick to take full responsibility for writing his contract. Mrs. Lenard agreed that Derrick’s education was his responsibility, but she felt that, as a mother, she also needed to be involved in tracking Derrick’s progress, especially with his inclination to find every excuse possible for not doing his work. In Greg’s case, in response to Mrs. Lynch’s inquiry about how to help her son obtain extra work from his teachers, the advisor wanted her to “back off” by implying that Greg was the one who should take this initiative, not her as a parent.

These divergent views about the role of parents and children resulted from different perceptions of the degree of trust and freedom each side thought would be appropriate to allocate to adolescents. Influenced by progressive education, the school emphasized trusting children and viewed education as a process that children construct for themselves. On the other hand, these parents viewed it quite differently. Whereas parents in two families explicitly stated that they liked the trust and freedom the school gave to their adolescents, all of the parents from the four families wondered if it gave too much freedom to them, if they were capable of dealing with these autonomies. For example, Mrs. Curry believed that these adolescents would go along with anything if it meant less work. Thus, she strongly believed that “as kids, they need to be treated as kids.” Mrs. Perry went so far as to say that the reason many children are “lost” in this country today is because they have too much freedom.

Racial Consciousness

These families’ views of the role of the school, the parent, and the child were further mediated by their racial consciousness as well as the gender of their children and their own economic status. These case studies revealed that all parents from all four families were keenly aware of who they were, especially their own racial and ethnic identities. Partially, it had to do with their experience and status as members of a minority in this country. For example, Mr. Lynch’s comment on the importance of education was obviously from this perspective. He firmly believed that “the only way minorities are going to make in it in this country is to be educated,” because both he and his wife were “brought up that way.” Mrs. Perry’s commitment to help Allison “become someone with a future” by structuring the family’s free time at home was undoubtedly shaped by her beliefs about what was best for Allison, resulting from her own experience growing up in Ecuador and as a first-generation immigrant to the United States. Her awareness of family racial identities, along with the desire to teach her son how to get along in life with people from different races, prompted Ms. Lenard to send Derrick to a middle school that enrolled students from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Racial consciousness may also be related to the fact that their children were in a school where the staff was predominately Caucasian, even though Caucasian students represented only eleven percent of the student body. Even when Mrs. Curry applauded the school’s approach of encouraging students to experience some of the things they were learning about, her racial consciousness was clearly evident. For example, “To me you can help Black children more by taking them outside.” “We learn more by actually doing it than to just read about it or hear about it.” Her racial consciousness also was evident in the misunderstandings that arose over the differing roles expected of the school, the parent, and the child; over discrepancies between report cards and standardized tests; and over the new policy of filling out high school applications. For example, “With Black people, you’ve got to tell them point blank from day one what the deal is.” “We get offended when somebody else is trying to have more authority over our child than us.” “How could they just assume that they can take that responsibility and fill out the application for us?” “I just don’t understand how they feel that they know our kids better.”

Mr. Lynch’s reaction to the “Cops and Kids” program clearly illustrates how his judgment was influenced by his racial consciousness. Mr. Lynch strongly opposed his son’s participation in the program on the grounds that Greg is an African-American teenager. For example, “The police treated African Americans differently.” “Black children cannot go up to the police and say, ‘Mr. Officer?’” As a teenager, Greg looked more Chinese than African American, although in this situation (e.g., running into a police officer in the street), what counted more than anything else was what Greg looked like, not what Mr. Lynch thinks he is.

In another situation, Ms. Lenard and Mr. Brown were deeply concerned about Derrick’s encounter with a Latino boy over name-calling. The school did nothing to prevent this from escalating into a fight—why? How important is it for the school to make time for a dialogue on racial acceptance among staff, students, and parents. For example, “With all that’s going on in the world and all that’s going in our communities, this takes just as much precedence as getting algebra right?” They also wondered whether the staff knew that, as an African-American teenager, Derrick was often seeing if he could get away with his lax behavior.

In the Perry family, perhaps because Mrs. Perry belonged in the category of voluntary minorities (Ogbu and Simons, 1998) and, as an adult, immigrated to the United States seeking educational opportunity in a new land, her sense of racial or ethnic consciousness differed somewhat from the other families. She was more concerned about how to fit in this country and how to get a better education for Allison and her sister, for example, by exerting strong control over the children’s free time in the evening. Nevertheless, her desire did not prevent her racial or ethnic consciousness from emerging. This is illustrated by her not wanting to be assimilated unconditionally. Instead, she wanted her daughters to value and keep “our roots.” Even though she wanted to fit in, she also wanted the school to reach out to Latino parents, like herself, who held different assumptions about the role and rights of parents in their children’s education. She wanted the school to provide a Spanish translator for parent association meetings for those parents who had difficulty understanding English.

Parents’ racial consciousness lent weight and emotion to the existing concerns resulting from different views about the role of the school, the parents, and the children. For example, in responding to advice on his report card that Derrick seek counseling for his emotional frustration and depression, Ms. Lenard wondered whether the advisor did not understand that Derrick was probably acting up as a typical African-American boy. She was puzzled why Caucasian teachers wanted African-American parents to deal with this behavior in their way. Ms. Lenard’s racial consciousness served to distance herself from the school and, accordingly, from the approach suggested by the school. Similarly, in criticizing the school’s approach to handling her daughter’s report card, Mrs. Curry injected her own racial consciousness (e.g., “Black people,” “they,” and “our kids”). By explicitly connecting the issues raised by this approach to the racial group she identified with, Mrs. Curry was making value judgments not only about the approach itself, but also from someone else’s viewpoint. Because these families focused on the point that they were from a different racial group and were displeased with the approaches used by another racial group, these assumptions added to their displeasure. They doubted the approach themselves and those who used the approach.

Gender and Class

Closely related to their racial consciousness, these case studies show that the parents from all four families were concerned about their children as teenagers, both in the school and in their own neighborhoods. Thus, in a sense, the issues of race, gender, and class became intertwined, contributing to the existing differences over the role of school, parents, and children.

First, although all of the parents from the four families were concerned about their adolescents’ safety in urban settings, it seemed that the concerns of parents with teenage girls differed from the concerns of parents with teenage boys. The parents of teenage girls were less influenced by their children’s racial identity. As parents of teenage boys, Mr. Lynch and Ms. Lenard were mainly afraid of potential police brutality on the streets, related to their perceived identity as African-American teenagers. On the other hand, Mrs. Perry and Mrs. Curry were more concerned about the safety of their daughters in school and in the neighborhood, simply as adolescent girls of whatever race.

Second, the degree and intensity of these differences about safety between teenage boys and girls were further mediated by the neighborhood where a family could afford to live. Although both Mr. Lynch and Ms. Lenard were concerned about the police brutality their sons might encounter, it concerned Ms. Lenard more because she and Derrick had actually witnessed or heard about similar incidents in communities where they had previously lived. Mr. Lynch’s concern was derived mainly from historical and legal facts that indicated that police tended to treat African Americans differently. Similarly, while both Mrs. Perry and Mrs. Curry were concerned about the safety of their teenage girls, this was more of an issue for Mrs. Curry because of her economic status and the physical threats associated with living in a ghetto. Because she had been unemployed for several years, she had to settle in a housing project where drug activities and violence, such as rape, were rampant. As a result, her main daily concern was the safety of her two daughters (e.g., “I’m scared, I really don’t want nothing to happen to them”).

Mrs. Curry’s concern over Sandra’s well-being, which transcended everything else she wanted for her, played out in interchanges with the school staff. For example, a major reason she wanted teachers to assign more homework was that, she reasoned, more time needed to do homework would leave less time for her daughter to hang out on the streets, thus less probability of getting into trouble. During the meeting for parents of children with learning disabilities in early January, 1997, the only question Mrs. Curry asked was whether teachers checked out the surroundings and the safety of the high schools they visited. When she noticed that three high schools recommended by the school required Sandra to pass through drug areas on her way to and from school, she was deeply concerned. “That’s like telling her to go and get into trouble.” She wondered about the teachers’ priorities and judgment (e.g., “What are they looking at when they check these schools?”). She didn’t think that teachers were trying to willfully place Sandra in drug-infested areas. Still, she felt that the teachers were not members of “we”—race-wise and class-wise—and knew little about the dangers of walking through drug-infested areas and would feel little sense of urgency to try to avoid them. As a result, the issue of checking the high-school neighborhoods further alienated her from the school and became another area that made her wonder why the school took away “the privilege” of filling out the high-school application from her, as a parent, if the teachers were unable to address its implication on her daughter.

We have just discussed how the intense concern about the safety of early adolescents was mediated by the families’ economic class, intertwined with their racial and gender consciousness. In addition, these case studies indicated that perhaps related to economic class another somewhat different variable that shaped the families’ views of the school’s approaches was their social class, as indicated by their general knowledge and understanding of their children’s educational system. Such influence was especially manifested in their perception of the role of the school and their own role as parents.

Three families (the Perrys, the Lynchs, and the Lenards) were very much aware of the middle school their children attended and the larger context of the urban educational system. As parents, this awareness led them to be proactive toward their children’s education. For example, Mrs. Lynch was aware of the importance of the citywide standardized tests on Greg’s high school application. Although her son had attended the school for only three months in sixth grade, she was eager to find out what she, as a parent, could do to help prepare him for the tests.

Similarly, Mrs. Perry was also proactive toward her daughter’s education, based on her understanding of the educational system: the number of schools she could choose in New York City for middle and high school for her daughter, what she wanted for her daughter, and what the middle school could offer her daughter. She did so by looking for a middle school for Allison when she was still in the third grade and by structuring constructive activities, with a particular emphasis on academics, for her daughter during the evening.

The Curry family, on the other hand, seemed to be less aware of the emphasis of this middle school within the context of the city educational system. This lack of awareness led the family to be less proactive about Sandra’s education in her three years at this middle school and more reliant on the school to take care of everything for Sandra. This was most evident in the family’s initial response for almost two and a half years toward her report card, followed by subsequent shock over what it meant for her high school application.

To summarize, this monograph examines how the school’s strategies and approaches were perceived by the students and their families from diverse backgrounds. The data indicate that the students perceived the school’s initiatives more favorably and more in line with its intended purposes than did their families. Unlike their children, the families shared a heightened concern about academics. These concerns were shaped by their expectations relating to the roles of the school, the parent, and the child, further mediated by their racial consciousness and intertwined with gender and class.

The data point to the prominent role that racial consciousness plays in shaping families’ interpretations of school practice, especially in the face of divergent viewpoints and resulting differences. These findings support Gay’s (1998) stressing the central importance of paying attention to the issue of race in educating minority children. In addition, the data illustrate the importance of investigating the complex interactions of race, class, and gender (Banks, 1993) and how these intertwined variables shaped the families’ interpretations. It also reveals that we face an immeasurably confounding task as we attempt to communicate across racial, cultural, and social lines, or lines of unequal power (Delpit, 1995).

This present study suggests that a school cannot separate itself from the perceptions and experiences of the families it seeks to engage. Instead, the school needs to move beyond its assumptions, to hear families’ interpretations of and reactions to its initiatives and on an ongoing basis, no matter how good the embedded intentions.

This study further suggests some of the potential challenges a school can face in its effort to reach out to families from diverse backgrounds, probably more so than reaching out to students. This is a research hypothesis that warrants further investigation.

In their recent work on voluntary and involuntary minorities, Ogbu and Simons (1998) state that for involuntary minorities “much of the mistrust of schools comes from the community and students’ parents” (p. 182). The data from this present study seem to support this statement, whether it is about Mr. Lynch’s decision to take Greg out of the “Cops and Kids” program or about Mrs. Curry’s displeasure with the school’s decision to take care of Sandra’s school applications without communicating with her. Obgu and Simons further state that “the community and parents play a substantial if not controlling role in producing the mistrust that students bring to school” (1998, p. 182). This current study did not observe that these families reproduced mistrust in the minds of their children. This was perhaps due, in large measure, to the school’s impressive effort to connect with its students rather than the validity of the statement made by Obgu and Simons.

Families’ attitudes toward school can be shaped by their children’s attitudes toward their school. This study confirms that belief. Yet it also reveals that the children’s predominately positive attitudes toward the school still did not prevent their parents’ mistrust from emerging. This observation only adds to the argument to support the hypothesis that a school faces more challenges in its effort to reach out to families from diverse backgrounds than to their children.

For efforts to reach out to families from diverse backgrounds to be more meaningful and purposeful, we need to have a better understanding about how these families perceive and interpret these efforts and of how their perceptions and interpretations can be shaped by their experiences. More studies are needed in this area to expand our knowledge of culturally relevant approaches for reaching out to families, paralleling culturally relevant pedagogy for students, to better address the needs of educating an increasingly diverse body of students and their families in the next century.

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