To Improve Student Health, Some California Schools Move to Educate Parents

Sandra Flores, a parent volunteer for the Bakersfield City School District, helps other parents who want to learn more about the school system or acquire more strategies for helping their children. Photo: Bakersfield City School District.
Sandra Flores, a parent volunteer for the Bakersfield City School District, helps other parents who want to learn more about the school system or acquire more strategies for helping their children. Photo: Bakersfield City School District.

It’s not just students that are trekking off to school for another year of learning. Many parents will be headed to class as well, as schools are ramping up their efforts to make sure they see parents more often than at the beginning of the year or back to school night.

The goal isn’t to find volunteers to make copies, but to partner with parents in helping to improve student nutrition, sleep and other health habits that can impact school performance.

Schools are now required to address parent engagement as part of the state’s Local Control and Accountability Act, a law implemented in 2013 that gives school districts more autonomy over their own funds.

Some districts, particularly in the Central Valley and Los Angeles area, are taking advantage of the new law and hoping parent outreach translates into better student health and academic performance. The thinking is that parents who are more involved will feel a greater tie to the school and will motivate students to be more engaged.

Parents often confused by educational requirements

Esperanza Rodriguez, a mother of two children in the Bakersfield City School District, works full-time, but carves out a few hours per week to volunteer at one of Bakersfield’s 18 Parent Resource Centers.

The Bakersfield program, which recently expanded from 10 sites, offers training on parenting strategies, homework tips, computer skills, and learning the ins and outs of the school system.

“The volunteer work I’ve done, being able to network within my community and school has opened so many doors for me and I’ve met so many people here and in the school district,” Rodriguez said.

The district opened its parent centers two years ago using the new Local Control funding. Because the Bakersfield district is large, administrators hope that the parent centers create pockets of familiarity for parents. The district is the largest K-8 district in California and had 30,076 students enrolled in 2015, according to the Education Data Partnership.

“That’s been the great thing with creating this, it was reaching out to every single parent that we have in the district,” said Dee Dee Harrison, the district’s family and community engagement coordinator. “We work closely with them side by side and we’ll bring them in for parent sessions, offer classes for the liaisons and the parents, and provide a wide variety of resources.”

For many students in the district, moving through grades and programs can be a complicated affair. Those who are learning English, for example, have numerous hoops to jump through in order to be reclassified as fluent in English. It involves annual testing and tracking by schools, which many parents may need help understanding.

“We may have parents interested in reclassification,” Harrison said. Other parents that use the resource centers include migrant families looking for health information and other resources, and parents who are confused by the process of enrolling in a new district when their child graduates from eighth grade, she said.

The increasing complexity of the school system and the growing number of migrant families — Bakersfield serves about 7,800, Harrison said — means that schools need to help educate parents in addition to students.

A ‘university’ for parents

Other California school districts are also working to educate parents.

Fresno Unified School District offers a program called Parent University, where parents can come and find their way through the labyrinth of Common Core standards, the state’s English Learner requirements, or who to get in touch with at a school for specific questions. The program, which is in its fifth year, also seeks to help parents who may not speak English and thus may have trouble communicating with teachers or school administrators.

Zuleica Murillo, executive director of community and family services for Fresno Unified, said a primary goal is to help parents feel that they can come to the schools, volunteer and get resources that they may not be able to attain elsewhere.

“It’s really bringing them back to the school site,” she said. “We work on closing that loop. We don’t want to just make phone calls. We want to make that personal connection.”

There’s research that backs this approach. The Positive Student Outcomes in Community Schools report from the Center for American Progress in 2012 found that when Redwood City School District in the Bay Area, engaged in parent outreach, their students generally performed better.

Students who were learning English and had parents who were “consistently engaged” at school showed improvements in English language development test scores. Also, students whose families were involved with their elementary school were more likely to say when entering middle school that they had a “supportive environment” during their grade school years.

These are the type of results that Tou Her, a program manager with the Fresno County Office of Education, wants to see from his district’s parent engagement efforts. He conducts trainings for parents, administrators, and teachers at various schools that are often in Fresno County’s rural areas and have a high population of migrant families.

He tries to show parents how to communicate more openly and support learning at home.

“We try and work on the three-way relationship between the community, administration and parents,” Her said. “We want to make sure the parents have the right to volunteer at that school, make sure the school is welcoming.”

Sometimes parents come to the centers specifically requesting health resources, said Ruben Castillo, an administrator with the Fresno County Office of Education. He estimates that 23 percent of the kids who attend county schools have some type of unmet health need.

“It’s from glasses to dental work to just basic maintenance because sometimes there’s a lack of consistency in getting adequate health care,” he said. “Part of our program does identify that and provide them with free resources so they can access from nonprofits, insurance plans that may be of no cost to them, free healthcare clinics, and we focus a lot on nutrition and diabetes education.”

Reaching into the neighborhood

A University of Southern California program is also trying to engage low-income parents in an effort to help their children.

The university’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative program focuses on communities near the university, a working-class neighborhood. Student participants, who are in seventh through twelfth grades, must apply to the program and be willing to attend weekend classes to prepare themselves for college.

But the students’ success, according to executive director Kim Thomas-Barrios, often hinges on the work the program does with their families. The program pushes parents to become involved in the process, learn more about what it takes to prepare for college, and help their children with study habits and by providing space in their home for studying.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a parent who did not care about their child finishing school or doing well,” Thomas-Barrios said. “They just lacked understanding of the process and resources.”

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