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African Americans say ‘parent involvement’ key to school success

survey 600The "lack of parental involvement" is the biggest issue affecting African-American students' quality of education.

That is one of major findings in a new national survey of African Americans on factors in their quality of life. The survey, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) and Ebony magazine, polled 1,005 African Americans on their mood and on issues related to income, housing, health care, relationships, race and education.

Responses to education-related questions made up a large part of the summary of survey findings. When asked to identify the biggest issues in education, about a fifth of respondents said lack of parental involvement, making it the most frequently cited concern. Other concerns included "overcrowded classrooms" (17 percent), "funding differences among school districts" (17 percent), "quality of teachers" (16 percent), and "students with behavioral issues or special needs" (10 percent).

Of those respondents with school-age children or grandchildren, only 37 percent said the nation was "making progress" in efforts to provide "a quality education." About a third said the country is "losing ground" in education and 28 percent said that there has been no appreciable change in educational quality.

Conducted in February, the survey results were released after the launch of two new Obama Administration initiatives on behalf of young people of color. In January, Pres. Obama appointed leaders in education, philanthropy and law to serve on a commission for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The president is also seeking support from foundations and businesses for "My Brother's Keeper," a campaign he announced on February 27 to improve the education and life prospects of young Latino and African-American males.

WKKF is one of 10 major foundations that have agreed to work with the White House to support the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative. However, education has been a priority for WKKF throughout its 83-year history, said Carla Thompson, vice-president of program strategy at the foundation.

Referring to the survey results that cite "lack of parental involvement" as the biggest education issue, Thompson said "that doesn't surprise me [because] everyone has a stake in education and a vested interest in education."

Thompson said African-American focus groups told WKKF last year that education ranked second only to job security as the most important issue to blacks overall. In response, the foundation in August made a request for grant proposals for "innovative" initiatives to engage families in education.

"We received more than 1,200 applications, which broke all Kellogg [application] records," said Thompson. "Family involvement is a foundational element of quality education."

WKKF had planned to provide $5 million for family engagement programs over a three-year period. However, responding to the wave of applications, the foundation has decided to provide $5 million during the first year of funding. Thompson said WKKF will announce the amount it will invest in the second and third years when it identifies the grant winners of a first round of funding in mid-April.

WKKF is already funding some parental engagement initiatives – among them, programs managed by Parents for Public Schools of Jackson (Mississippi) and the Orleans Public Education Network in New Orleans (OPEN).

OPEN Executive Director Deirdre Johnson Burel said more parental involvement is needed but cited "institutional school problems" as a more important factor in the education of African-American students. She said there is a need for more professional development training for teachers and that African-American students are not getting the best instruction because teachers at schools in low-income communities generally have less experience.

Burel said parental involvement is becoming more important as school districts in 44 states begin to adopt the more rigorous Common Core education standards.

"We need to help parents understand this shift," she said. "We need higher education standards, but we also need the resources to meet those standards."

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