African Americans are a complex cultural group. Although considered to be one culture, many cultural differences exist within this group. That same statement could be applied to any culture, but it is African Americans who have one of the most historically oppressive pasts and who continue to face numerous microaggressions along the lines of colorism, sexism and classism.
African Americans must continually strive for perfection in a society that holds onto policies and systems originally developed to keep them from crossing the invisible line of success. Yet, African Americans have been successful. One of the greatest successes of our time is the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States — at least this is what I continue to hear today, right after the statement that racism no longer exists. Those who assert that racism no longer exists may believe that Martin Luther King Jr.’s hopes and dreams finally have been realized — that children of color are now judged on the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.
This belief that racial inequality no longer exists is untrue. In fact, it continues to permeate every aspect of our lives. Indeed, one of the largest American institutions in which racial inequality exists and thrives today is our educational system. This is evidenced by the achievement gap, a phenomenon in which Black boys and girls continue to lag behind their White and Asian counterparts in academics.
When viewing educational inequality, I argue that inequalities also exist when it comes to inviting and encouraging the involvement of African American parents. Parental involvement is a proven technique in helping children mitigate barriers to academic success, and with the achievement gap still in existence, many school stakeholders have banked on parental involvement to bridge this gap. However, the bulk of research and literature on African American parents continues to depict them as uninvolved in their children’s education.
Parental involvement has been studied extensively in the literature, and it is considered an evidence-based practice, especially when using models such as the Epstein Model of Parental Involvement or the Hoover-Dempsey Model of Parental Involvement. But when looking through a school lens, African Americans are viewed as uninvolved in their children’s education, especially in comparison with White parents.
Because I am an African American mother, this conundrum holds great interest for me. Why do African American parents continue to remain distant from the schools? Is it true that we are not involved? The schools with which I get the chance to interact continue to preach parental involvement as a practice in helping to reduce the achievement gap or as a way to help meet the needs of their school populations. But the notion of parental “uninvolvement” as it relates to African American parents remains a theme across K-12 educational systems.
In my work, I often hear that African American parents are not involved in their children’s education. Even I — an African American mother, a former school counselor and now a counselor educator — am deemed uninvolved in my child’s education. When viewed through one lens, this is true — I do not volunteer in school, I do not donate money for various funds, I am not a part of the PTA, I do not chaperone my child’s field trips, nor do I help out in the classrooms. For all intents and purposes, I am an “uninvolved” parent. Despite this perception, I feel I am a very involved parent. This discrepancy, among other factors, has led to my current research interests concerning parental involvement of African American and Latino families.
Although the overall parental involvement literature depicts uninvolvement by African Americans, the research using solely African American participants tells a different story. To summarize this literature, African Americans are involved in their children’s education in a variety of ways, but their involvement centers more on home- or community-based activities — activities that schools might not recognize as parental involvement. Further, African Americans typically do not hold leadership roles in the schools, which may further alienate these families from involvement in more school-based activities and can also limit the voice of African American parents. Could it be that African American uninvolvement actually stems from the lack of voice that African Americans have in the schools, which in turn leads to less presence in the schools? This question led me to conduct a qualitative study of parental involvement with African American mothers.
‘Unsilencing’ the voices of Black mothers
Using a focus group of 16 African American mothers of elementary and middle school students from an urban-suburban school district, I asked questions centered around parental involvement, including “How are you involved in your child’s education?” and “How do you define and demonstrate parental involvement?” I also asked questions relating to the achievement gap, such as “What do you know about the achievement gap?” and “How can we eliminate the achievement gap?” Because I am a counselor educator of school counselors, I also asked these mothers what they perceived the role of the school counselor to be in helping increase the academic achievement of African American students.
Because of my own personal experiences with the education system, I chose to work only with African American mothers in this focus group, and the framework of Black Feminist Thought,by Patricia Hill Collins, was used to guide the study. Black feminist thought is a critical social theory built on the premise that although Black women have knowledge and a voice, oppression continues to silence their voices. In my study, I argue that although current models of parental involvement are indeed effective in understanding and increasing parental involvement, the voices of Black women, as a whole, continue to remain unheard. My study was designed as a way to “unsilence” the voices of Black mothers.
Findings from my study demonstrate that African American parents are involved in their children’s education but also reveal several factors related to why this involvement is more active at home than it is in the schools. First, as shown in the literature, a fundamental lack of trust continues to exist. The mothers in my study did not feel that the teachers and schools had their best interests at heart. They also did not feel welcomed in the schools. No one in the study could speak to experiencing any overt actions or comments to validate these perceptions; instead, they said it was a gut reaction that began when they walked into the schools. Basically, the African American moms felt the welcomes and greetings they received were different — more reserved and less cordial — than those given to the White moms. The moms in my focus group also felt the teachers were less open with them, that they did not receive the same type of communication or, as one mother stated, “the inside scoop.” According to one mother, although her child’s school was excellent about sending home correspondence, some parents received information that was not made available to all parents. The only way she found out about this was through conversations with different mothers.
Second, the moms felt that their children’s schools did not want their input and did not value their contributions, which left them with the impression that they were not really wanted in the schools. Mothers from one school said that although their elementary school espoused the need for more parents to come out and run for leadership roles, they believed this was insincere rhetoric. These same mothers commented that they were not invited to be room mothers, to run for parent advocacy boards or to plan grade-level outings. Instead they were sent general invitations to volunteer for menial tasks such as setting up for or cleaning up after events, bringing food, stuffing envelopes and counting papers — all tasks that anyone could do. When they asked other mothers (meaning White mothers) how they happened to be involved with grading homework or serving on the school advisory board, these mothers said the teachers had approached them personally. The entire group of African American mothers in this study felt insulted and slighted because personal invitations such as these had never been extended to them.
Other results showed that the African American mothers in the focus group understood the achievement gap but believed it was a problem experienced only by those families living in poverty. Interestingly, the mothers in my group were all highly educated, financially stable, very articulate and well-dressed. I add this to point out that my focus group was not composed of a population of parents that usually has difficulties being a part of the school. But here, in the safe environment of this group, 16 African American mothers, all with bachelor’s degrees or higher and fairly affluent, acknowledged feeling devalued and cast aside by those put in charge of educating their children. These mothers, all with academically and emotionally successful kids, did not feel welcomed in their children’s schools, nor did they trust the schools to educate their children.
So what does this mean for school counselors? The mothers in this study said school counselors should take a more proactive role in helping African American children and their families and in advocating for equality in the schools. These mothers want someone on their side — someone on the “inside” who can fight for them and their children — and they thought school counselors could take on that role.
Advocacy strategies that build trust
Taking this and other research to practice, I teach my students to advocate not just for African Americans, but for all underserved populations. Because advocacy can take many forms and the needs of different populations can vary, school counselors should first provide a forum for parents to voice their opinions on happenings in the school. This forum needs to take place in a safe and confidential environment and with similar cultural groups. When I talk about this with my students, they are resistant to this idea and question the need to have separate groups. I explain that having separate groups at this point can foster more open communication, allowing those voices that are normally silenced to be unsilenced. Such groups can also cultivate a sense of trust and camaraderie that might not happen otherwise. Out of these forums, an advisory board could be developed that includes at least two parents from each cultural group represented in the school.
School counselors should also work in conjunction with cultural brokers. Cultural brokers are minority individuals who are part of the culture and who can serve as a bridge to assist the school in understanding the family culture, while also helping the family to understand the school culture. Cultural brokers may also possess insight into community resources that families can use. In working with a cultural broker, school counselors can begin to go out into the community and garner the trust and respect of families who are deemed to be uninvolved in the schools.
This is an important aspect and a much-needed first step in working with African American parents. Parents might not come into the schools, but that should not prevent school staff — counselors, teachers or administrators — from venturing into the community. Indeed, when applying a historical lens, African American parental school involvement was very high during segregation. The school staff lived in the same community as the children they taught and worshipped at the same churches where these families attended. Only after segregation did school staff stop being a part of the communities in which they taught. Although I do not believe that we must all live in the same communities where we teach, I do believe that community involvement moves us one step closer to parental involvement because it facilitates the fundamental level of trust that largely seems to be missing today.
One way to meet new parents and begin building trust is to engage with the parents of transitioning students — those first entering kindergarten, middle school or high school. Schools typically hold open houses for these parents, and school counselors generally set up a booth and wait for parents to approach them to ask questions. School counselors should be more proactive and involved at these meetings, going to the parents, introducing themselves and starting conversations. Handing out questionnaires that ask parents to discuss any concerns or issues they might have may be a good start as well. Follow-up is also important. One parent in my group mentioned that she does not advocate because “nothing will ever change.” It is important that the school staff attempts to address the issues of parents who do respond and voice their concerns. This will demonstrate to parents that 1) you did listen, 2) you care about their issues and 3) you will follow through.
School counselors can also host focus group meetings with parents to uncover their concerns about the school and then use that information to propose systemic changes. In these meetings, school counselors are also modeling how families can advocate for themselves. Indeed, the mothers in my research group mentioned the need for advocacy but lacked a clear vision of what that might look like in the schools. Likewise, in my yearlong research with 20 Latina mothers, they also voiced the need for advocacy but also lacked a clear conceptualization of what advocacy looks like in the schools. As school counselors, teaching parents how to advocate for themselves could entail showing them how to draft petitions, how to communicate with school stakeholders about their concerns or even how to research and write an argument. This is important because we want parents to be empowered rather than to rely on someone else to advocate for them.
What would you do for your child?
Feedback from my students and other professional school counselors concerning these suggestions has been lukewarm at best. I have been told that advocacy strategies sound good in theory, but in practice, they could never be implemented in the schools. As school counselors, they have no time, no support and a myriad of other duties that must be completed just to keep the day-to-day operations of the counseling department up and running. Although I hate to admit it, eight years have passed since I last worked in a public school, and I wonder if I am too far removed from actual practice. But I am reminded that the people who develop and implement the policies and procedures of schools might be resistant to change, especially if that change does not have a direct link to educational outcomes, such as implementing a new program that focuses on math and literacy achievement. I also remind myself that when good things happen in schools, it is because a major change occurred, such as implementing a new way of overcoming systemic inequalities and opening the doors to success for all students. So, when I hear the number of reasons that school counselors cannot participate in more advocacy and leadership roles, I ask them one question: If your only option was to send your child to one particular school but your child’s needs were not being met, what would you do?
Advocacy is one of our most difficult duties as school counselors, especially when our jobs and livelihoods are on the line. Even if we do not feel we can advocate on behalf of others, we still need to teach and empower the parents with whom we work to advocate on behalf of their children. In school systems, parents have power and they have a voice. Typically, the parents who use that voice have the most power. We need to teach those who are traditionally underserved, including African American, Latino and low socioeconomic status families, how to properly raise their voices and advocate on behalf of their children.
Advocacy is not something that should be done independently, however. Parents need to come together and work in unity. I have conducted research with a majority White rural sample of parents, a Black urban and suburban sample of parents, and a Latina suburban sample of parents. They all have the same perceptions and the same issues and problems with the schools — namely, a lack of trust in the schools and a lack of communication and acceptance from the schools. These groups of parents all say they want to advocate for their children but that nothing ever changes. But they choose to fight separately and to stay within their own cultural groups. This makes it easier for those in charge to look at the problem in isolation and to conclude that the concern is isolated to the African American population, for example, and doesn’t affect the school population as a whole. I wonder what might happen if all parents came together and raised their voices as one.
“Knowledge Share” articles are adapted from sessions presented at past ACA Annual Conferences.
Dana Griffin is an assistant professor and clinical coordinator of the school counseling program in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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