WASHINGTON — At Beers Elementary School, the PTA hosts a daddy-daughter dance, a fish fry, and an art auction to raise money.
But this school’s efforts to involve parents start even before the first day of classes, when teachers visit parents at home and build a rapport by asking about their hopes and dreams for their children.
Then, three times a year, teachers host group meetings with parents to explain precisely what their children will learn over the next several months and hand out educational games and activities that reinforce those lessons at home. Throughout the year, teachers e-mail and text parents tidbits of good news — when their child finishes a book or project — so they don’t hear from school only when their children misbehave.
The program is part of a radical shift in the way some schools are thinking about parent involvement. Rather than encourage parents to attend bake sales and spaghetti dinners — which have long been the domain of middle-class families and have no direct link to academic achievement — these schools are effectively training parents of all backgrounds to become informed and confident tutors at home.
Boston, which also struggles to get parents more involved in its schools, has focused more on encouraging mothers and fathers to become active in shaping school policy and also offers free classes in child development, advocacy, and parenting skills.
In Washington, the effort was spurred by a growing body of evidence showing that when teachers and parents trust one another and work together, students tend to earn higher grades and test scores, have fewer absences, and exhibit better social skills.
To build that kind of collaboration, however, schools like Beers, which is predominantly African-American and low-income, must break down deep-seated layers of mistrust between parents and teachers and administrators. That begins with shattering the assumption that parents who don’t attend school functions like PTA meetings simply don’t care about their children’s education.
“Our public school system is one that has not been a welcoming place for decades and decades and decades to people living in poverty, people of color, and people who don’t ‘speak teacher,’ so we start with an assumption that parents love their children and want what’s best for their children,” said Vincent Baxter, deputy chief of family engagement in the Washington public schools.
Rather than wait for parents to show up to a traditional parent-teacher conference, focused solely on a 15-minute review of the child’s report card, “It is our role to take three steps forward to start a relationship,” Baxter said.
The team approach, which has been adopted by 23 Washington elementary schools, is beginning to draw national notice. A study of the program by Johns Hopkins University found that students whose parents participated had 24 percent fewer absences and were more likely to read at or above grade level.
In another study of 71 high-poverty schools by the US Department of Education, students made 40 to 50 percent greater gains in math and reading between the third and fifth grades when their teachers met with their parents face to face, gave the parents materials to use at home, and called them routinely.
Parents at Beers say they’re not surprised by the findings.
They say they now know how to help their children learn, without resorting to yelling at them to do their homework. No longer do they have to ask the eternal question: what did you do in school today? They already know.
“It teaches you exactly what you need to know to help your child,” said Dorothy Jackson, a grandmother who attended one of the recent meetings to review the first-grade curriculum at Beers. “It’s hands-on, and includes the parents a lot more.”
And she said her granddaughter, 6-year-old Shayla Garcia, enjoys practicing her reading and math skills at home.
“She has the family doing the games,” Jackson said. “She includes everybody.”
Emily McNally, a first-grade teacher at Beers, said the meetings work because they show parents exactly what their children need to learn to improve their math and reading scores over the next several months.
It “gives us a chance to say, this is what this looks like in practice,” McNally said. “This is what your child can actually do, and this is a sample of what we want them to be able to do the next time we come back and meet. So I think it makes expectations a lot clearer for parents.”
On a recent Wednesday night, 17 parents sat in their children’s first-grade classroom, hunched over child-size tables. Each parent received a folder with the child’s tests scores, as well as three Ziploc bags with math and reading games that the teachers had designed. Sodas and cookies were passed around.
McNally broke the ice by asking the parents to make animal noises and then to tell another parent what their favorite memory was from school, what their child does that makes them smile, and what area they want their child to improve in during the rest of first grade.
“Make your animal noise, and have that conversation,” McNally said. “We’ll talk for two minutes.”
After the mooing and talking had subsided, McNally projected a slide that showed how the class as a whole had progressed on its test scores since the beginning of the year. She thanked the parents for helping their children improve.
Then she and another first-grade teacher, Karen Faulk, explained the upcoming lessons and the games designed to reinforce them. One game involved cutting up and reciting Shel Silverstein poems, to help children learn to read with expression and follow punctuation.
Another was designed to help children practice word problems in math and a third challenged them to find the main point of a story — not just that it was about “frogs,” for example.
“Ask them to explain more about what they read,” McNally told the parents. “It’s not just the topic, but what did you learn here? What was the most important topic?”
Keisha Smith said she was eager to play the game with her daughter, Kiri, 7.
“It gives you questions and things I would have never thought of doing,” she said. “I’m going to really need to be on top of her to push her and ask her, ‘Well, what about those frogs?’”
Josephine Bias Robinson, chief of family engagement and planning in the Washington schools, said the program recognizes that children spend most of their time at home, not in school.
“So if you don’t bridge that connection between what’s happening in the classroom and what’s happening at home, you’re missing something really vital,” she said. “When you trust and believe in what’s happening in your child’s classroom, you’re more apt to actually be involved, in whatever that involvement looks like. You’re more apt to ask your child what’s going on, and to encourage them and support them.”
The Flamboyan Foundation, a private philanthropy, launched the program four years ago after hearing “pretty significant and pretty bleak” complaints from parents and teachers, said Kristin Ehrgood, the group’s president and board chair.
Parents said teachers didn’t think they were smart, didn’t care about their children, and were just collecting a paycheck, Ehrgood said. Teachers, in turn, complained that families didn’t show up to parent-teacher conferences and blamed them when students misbehaved.
“There was a pretty significant chasm between teachers and parents,” Ehrgood said.
To rebuild trust, the foundation decided to support home visits and the specialized parent-teacher meetings, known as Academic Parent Teacher Teams. The foundation now pays for professional development for teachers who participate and helps to compensate them for the time they spend making home visits.
The approach has been tried in Boston, but only in a few schools. Lori Gover, a kindergarten teacher at Blackstone Elementary School, is one of a handful of Boston Public School teachers who meet parents at home before the school year starts and then hold several academic meetings with them.
Gover told parents at one recent meeting that their children were about to learn hard-to-read “trick words” like “the” and “said.” She also gave them activities to take home, including Play-Doh to roll out letters, and a game that involved tracing and coloring “trick words.”
“Having done it now for two years, I’ve seen such growth in the students’ academics,” Gover said. “In a parent-teacher conference, you’re going over their academics and their social and emotional growth. But for this program, you’re actually going into the curriculum. You’re actually opening up the books, and teaching, and they’re seeing what they’re learning, and the parents become that partner in learning.”
To truly change the culture of schools, however, the programs need to be fully embraced by district leaders, said Michelle Brooks, who was the assistant superintendent in charge of Boston’s Office of Family Engagement from 2008 to 2015.
“The things they’re doing in D.C., we’re doing,” Brooks said. The only difference, she said, is that the D.C. superintendent “has made it nonnegotiable,” while in Boston “family engagement, for some, is still seen as an add-on.”