Early childhood centers striving for ‘engaged parents’

About three years ago, the staff at Carver Early Education Center had a vision that they needed not only to involve their parents, but engage them with a view toward making them true partners in their child’s education.

The result was Academic Parent Teacher Team meetings, which Carver Principal Sherry Palmer said have also begun at Lamar Early Education Center. Carver and Lamar serve prekindergarten students in morning and afternoon sessions.

“There’s a difference there. When you engage your parents, you’re going to a mile or two further down the road than you are when you just involve them,” Carver Principal Sherry Palmer said.

“We want them to be a part of the decision making. We want to engage so them that every time they come to something, they learn something that they can (take) home and it helps them at home with their kids to either teach their kids academically, or emotionally so families are better for us having engaged them,” Palmer added.

She said Carver has taken its math, science and literacy nights and retooled them to enable teachers to model activities for parents and prompt parents to read and do activities with their children.

“So then we decided that we really wanted to start a revolution because our district needs engaged parents, they don’t need just involved parents,” Palmer said. “So how to do you start that? You start that on the corner where you are. … I can’t do anything about anybody else’s school because I’m not the boss of that school. It’s not my responsibility, but I can do something about this school.”

The help improve things in its corner of the district and help it spread to rest of Ector County ISD, Palmer said Carver started academic parent teacher team meetings. Parents are invited in twice a year and teachers show them data.

It was determined that if parents helped with letter sounds at home, for example, “we could move our school to a different place,” Palmer said.

As a group, parents are shown how the students are performing, but parents also are given folders with their own child’s data, she said.

“Then the teacher talks to them about the importance of the skill or … our pre-k guideline in terms of the overall success of kids. Then they model some activities that can be done at home. Then we give the parents an opportunity to practice those activities and we brainstorm with parents activities that they might … (do) with their children to teach letter sounds, to practice their numbers, or whatever it is,” Palmer said.

The parents then network with other parents in their classroom and the parents set a common classroom goal, like more children knowing more letter sounds.

“… They make a commitment to one another,” Palmer said, and as a team of parents to work with their children toward achieving the goal the group sets.

She added that it’s a way to give parents a voice in setting objectives for Carver and a way of giving them some tools to help them ask questions at their child’s future school.

Lamar Principal MaryJane Hutchins said they started the academic parent teacher team meetings this past year and there was a lot to learn, but they did see benefits.

“One of the biggest benefits my teachers noticed was the students whose parents attended the first meeting knew more letters/letter sounds earlier in the year than students whose parents did not come,” Hutchins said in a text message.

“We also saw that parents who attended were more confident in their abilities to work with their children and seemed to be more involved with their children’s education. We believe we truly empowered parents to work with their children,” Hutchins added.

Hutchins noted that solid relationships among teachers, staff and parents developed.

“I believe the relationships were stronger as a result of the meetings. At our spring meetings we focused on reading strategies. The teachers modeled a read aloud and gave parents ideas on how to make reading with their children more fun and beneficial. I loved watching the teachers and parents interact with one another during the read aloud. I know the parents truly enjoyed this activity and now we have new ideas on how to work with their children at home,” Hutchins said.

“I am excited about continuing these meetings next year and how it will change parent engagement on the campus,” she added.

Additionally, Carver offers the Parent Leadership Academy, which has four sessions a year. Each one has a topic.

Palmer said the parents are told about things like state prekindergarten guidelines, given brochures produced by parents on how to enrich their children when they’re at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, or just driving down the road.

Parents also were taught how to ask “really good questions,” parents leading parents, which offered skills on how to become parent leaders, and going back to the pre-k guidelines, parents were shown how those would translate into Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills once the students hit kindergarten.

TEKS are the current standards that outline what students are to learn in each course or grade, the Texas Education Agency website said.

Palmer said they also bought in Debbie Lieb, community liaison specialist for ECISD’s Volunteer & Partners program. Campus coordinators from all the campuses in town also were invited.

“We’re trying to grow a community of parents that are engaged in schools at a good level — one that will be helpful in schools when we send them out,” Palmer said.

Kimberly Price-Schiff’s son attends Carver. She worked for the Austin school district as a teacher’s assistant before moving back to Odessa.

 “This is my first child and my only child, so I wanted to be as active as possible in his schooling and his development so I decided to volunteer,” Price-Schiff said.

She added that volunteering helped her keep abreast of what was going on at school. Then Academic Parent Teacher Team meetings started and she found those very interesting. Although she previously worked for a school system, Price-Schiff said it’s different when you’re on the other side of it.

“And I felt that it would give me a leg up on being an advocate for my son and fighting for his needs and what he needs and making sure he gets the best education possible,” she said.

When she found that Carver was going to be her son’s school, she did some research, found things that pleased her and it calmed her.

“Ms. Palmer and his teachers, I talked with them and they assured me that everything was going to be OK and it’s been great. So far, he’s become a social butterfly,” Price-Schiff said.

Special education teacher Anita Ibarra said the team meetings have been effective and it also gives parents a chance to talk to each other and share resources, ideas and frustrations.  

“I’ve seen our numbers grow in the last two years,” Ibarra said. “I’ve had at least 95 percent of my parents show up.”

Celina Butler, a pre-k teacher, said parent engagement has to be a partnership.

“… You just differentiate for everybody because everybody’s not going to be on the same level, but we all have the same common goal because they’re there for their child and I tell them it starts now because you’re going to have to do it in kinder; in first. It’s never going to stop and if you’re always going to be a part of that child’s life … you (need to) be involved; you ask questions,” Butler said.