How to be a Parent Advocate

Last night I presented a workshop on the topic of “How to Raise a Successful Student” at the Briarcliff Manor Library after which I received particular interest in my advocacy tips and techniques. I’ve also had many conversations over the years with parents who are involved and invested in their child’s academic career, but who don’t necessarily have the proper strategies with which to effectively advocate for their child when it becomes necessary (and it almost always does at some point!). The topic of parent advocacy has long been a passion of mine, as effective parent advocates raise students who are more successful learners. Yet many barriers to participation and advocacy exist and prevent parents from harnessing their full power.

Why Advocate?

Research of the last several decades has shown that parents who advocate for their children and participate in their children’s education to a high degree raise students who perform better in school and achieve greater success. (Read a Research Summary that I authored that goes into greater detail here). It is thus only appropriate that parents, especially of struggling learners, know what is going on in the classroom and what their child is doing in school. Too many parents are “shut out” of the learning process by being inadequately informed of what is being learned, how it is being taught and assessed, how your child is performing, and what you and the school can do to increase student learning.

And many parents seem to be held back by fear of asking too many questions or of “bothering” schools, administrators, and teachers. While I respect and admire the humanity and compassion that parents have for teachers that causes them hesitation prior to sending an email or making a phone call, the reality is that that is part of the job that education professionals sign up for. And good teachers figure out a way to communicate regularly with parents, whether through an e-board or classroom newsletter, blog, or other media, between in-person conferences.

You Are Not the School’s Keeper                                              

As a parent, your first obligation is to your child and family. Parents are not responsible for the well being of the school, rather schools are responsible for the well being of students! As such, you as a parent are entitled to ask as many relevant questions as you need and are also entitled to know what is going on in your child’s classroom and what their learning experiences consist of. Parents of students who attend public schools are paying for their child’s education with their tax dollars while parents of students who attend private school are paying for their child’s education with their tuition dollars. It is only appropriate then, as consumers of education, that parents should be able to know what they are paying for.

“The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Oil”

If there are specific teachers who you want for your child the following school year, request them! Again, many parents are hesitant to “bother” schools by asserting what they want for their child, be it a specific teacher/classroom, services, or simple answers to questions. This creates a situation in which there are a limited number of vocal parents, with districts generally more willing to acquiesce to those outspoken parents. In my personal and professional experience, parents who ask more questions and are more insistent get better results for their children.

Here is a list of questions that parents of students, specifically in a K-5 classroom, should have answers to or should ask of their school administrators and teachers (or themselves-i.e. Has work been returned?), especially in the case of struggling or underperforming students:

– What is the student’s reading level? Specific areas of weakness?

– What content is being taught in all subject areas?

– What curriculum(s) are being used for each subject?

– How often is student assessed and how? Do assessments vary? (i.e. not just tests)

– Is work being returned in a timely manner with feedback?

– How are any learning challenges addressed? What strategies are being taught in those situations?

– How often is student getting small group time with a teacher for a specific subject (i.e. reading)

– What is/are the classroom routines, rules, and expectations? Systems of management and discipline? I.e. Individual reward chart, whole-class system, etc…

– How is the day structured? How much time spent on each subject and in “specials”?

– How much time for independent reading each day?Guided reading? Shared Reading? Read-alouds?

– How and how often is reading progress monitored and assessed? How often do students confer with their teacher?

– What leveling system for books does the school use? (i.e. Fountas and Pinnell, Lexile, Reading Recovery, etc…)

– How do students learn to check out/pick“ just right” books for themselves?

– How often do students get to go to the library and check out books?

–    What does the mathematics curriculum consist of?

– Are games incorporated into the learning? Technology?

When to Seek Outside Help

Most parents can effectively advocate for their children once they know their goals, the right questions to ask, and their legal rights.  However, families dealing with school districts that are attempting to circumvent the law may need the help of a professional to get the school to adequately serve their children. In those cases, it is a good idea to contact a non-attorney advocate, such as myself, to act on your behalf or in concert with you. In extreme cases, a special education lawyer may be needed, though I have managed to accomplish what lawyers have not been able to, in terms of getting schools to provide accommodations and or services to students and families.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for Part 2 of How to be a Parent Advocate, in which I will describe the exact steps for parents to take when advocating as well as some additional resources! Feel free to post a comment on how you have handled a situation with a school as a parent or an advocate!

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