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

Jianzhong Xu


Over the past twenty years, researchers from various perspectives have documented the failure of the public school to pervasively reach those students from less socially advantaged strata, including children of color, recent immigrants, the poor, girls, and second-language learners. A wide range of strategies has been proposed to facilitate learning within each of these groups (Comer, 1988, 1993; Garcia, 1991; Kohl, 1991; Orenstein, 1994; Rose, 1989; Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines, 1988).

Led by Ladson-Billings’ (1994, 1995) study of seven successful teachers of African-American students, the concept of and need for culturally relevant pedagogy are increasingly gaining importance. This rapidly developing field motivated Osborne (1996) to conduct a review of the literature on culturally relevant pedagogy for students who had been marginalized and normalized. Based on Ladson-Billings’ proposition that students must experience success and develop cultural competence and critical consciousness, Osborne organized a body of ethnographies on teaching in cross-cultural and multiethnic settings over the past 30 years. He formulated nine assertions and discussed each in detail, followed by studies that both confirm and disconfirm the assertions. These assertions center on both fundamental understandings (e.g., socio-historico-political realities beyond the school, students’ previous experiences, first languages, and their natal cultural identity) and classroom processes (e.g., instructional approaches, cultural assumptions in the classroom, and classroom management).

Although an increasing amount of attention has been devoted to how to improve the teaching of students from diverse cultural backgrounds, relatively little research has been done on how to reach out and involve their families, even though there is a consensus in the research community that family involvement is desirable and beneficial. For example, in his review of the literature, Osborne (1996) included one assertion on the desirability of involving the parents and families of children from marginalized groups. He found that “those who have investigated the issue have comprehensively supported it.” However, “the issue of parental involvement has not been investigated widely by interpretive ethnographers” (1996, p. 294).

Similarly, in his review Family, Community, and School Collaboration, Arvizu (1996) found indisputable evidence that “when parents are involved, children do better in school, and they go to better schools” (p. 814). Likewise, based on a review of studies done over a quarter century, Hidalgo, Siu, Bright, Swap, and Epstein (1995) draw the same conclusion that children benefit from parent involvement. For them, the question becomes: If family involvement is important, how can schools help more families become involved in ways that help their children succeed in school?

Hidalgo et al. (1995) noted that researchers were beginning to examine what schools and families do together to support and enhance student learning. They identified an area that needs further investigation as “the nature of school, family, and community partnerships for families and children with diverse cultural backgrounds” (p. 499). This area deserves our attention because there is a mismatch between the diversity of American families and the structure of the schools (Lindner, 1987) and because “different types of schools, families, and communities require different strategies for involving parents. Cross-cultural strategies for achieving parent participation have not explicitly been explored in the research literature” (Arvizu, 1996, p. 814).

This area also deserves closer attention because of ongoing dynamic demographic changes in our society. In a special section on parent involvement in Phi Delta Kappan, Gough (1991) observed that “an increasing proportion of parents do not share the same cultural background as the teachers who deal daily with their youngster” (p. 1). This trend continues as the number of students and their families from diverse cultural backgrounds increases and the number of teachers from these groups decreases (Delpit, 1995; Kailin, 1994; Hidalgo, Siu, Bright, Swap & Epstein, 1995; Zeichner, 1993). Since we must increasingly depend on teachers who do not come from the same ethnic minority group as their students, we also increasingly depend on these teachers to reach out to families from varying backgrounds.

To meet this challenge, educators point to the importance of understanding these families. Based on their study of working with culturally diverse students and families in rural settings, Navarrete and White (1994) noted, “Given the nation’s rapidly increasing number of culturally and linguistically diverse families, understanding and learning to work with families who represent varying world views and communication styles should be a priority for school personnel” (p. 55).

Likewise, in her influential book Other People’s Children, Delpit (1995) argued that the answers to better educate poor children and children of color “lie not in a proliferation of new reform programs but in some basic understanding of who we are and how we are connected to and disconnected from one another” (p. xv). Yet, for too long, she observed:

In the educational institutions of this country, the possibilities for poor people and for people of color to define themselves, to determine the self each should be, involve a power that lies outside of the self. It is others who determine how they should act, how they are to be judged (Delpit, 1995, p. xv).

This call for “some basic understanding” is particularly important for reaching out to families from diverse backgrounds. To better educate “other people’s children,” we must understand what is in other people’s minds: How do they view themselves? How do they view the world around them? What is important for them? What do they want for their children?

Influenced by the existing literature discussed above, the purpose of this article is to better understand the issue of reaching out to students and their families from diverse cultural backgrounds. I examine the approaches one urban middle school used, focusing on families’ interpretations of and reactions to these approaches. Furthermore, I discuss how their interpretations and reactions were shaped by their values, assumptions, priorities, and life circumstances.

This monograph is divided into three sections. The first section provides a brief discussion of methodology, the social context of the school, and the varied approaches and strategies the school used to reach out to students and their families. The second section includes four case studies illustrating how these approaches and strategies were interpreted by students and particularly by their families. By comparing and contrasting the interpretations of these case studies, the final section discusses a range of factors that mediated their interpretations as well as the tensions and dilemmas the school faced in its efforts to reach out to families from diverse backgrounds.

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