Secondary schools grapple with how to attract parents

Published 12:08 am Tuesday, December 18, 2007

NATCHEZ — Some challenges have tangible results. Others run deeper than anyone would like to admit.

For the Natchez-Adams School District, in the grand scheme of things, it’s fairly simple to buy new computers or outline a new curriculum.

But when the problems are born outside the school walls the solutions are likely bigger than even the top district administrator’s reach.

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Parental involvement in the higher grades of the Natchez schools isn’t good — everyone agrees on that.

Finding the solution is something with which no one wants to be charged.

Contributing factors

The majority of students in the Natchez schools have a low socioeconomic status.

They live in an area that has struggled with economic growth and development for years.

And the countywide functional illiteracy rate is 35 percent.

“We have to take that on,” Superintendent Anthony Morris said of the problems. “A large group of working poor is doing all they can to keep the lights on.”

For many, that means working a second job at night, and missing the monthly PTA meeting. For some, it means worrying about what will go on the dinner table, not whether or not they’ll make tomorrow’s parent-teacher conference.

And yet for other parents, school wasn’t something that was a priority during their childhood. It’s no different now.

Maybe a few parents can’t read the note from school advertising a meeting.

Or maybe they just don’t care.

That’s the challenge. The solution is more difficult to identify.

Making headway

Parents tend to coddle their children throughout primary and elementary school. They’ll find a way to be involved, no matter what.

But when middle school and high school roll around it becomes easier and easier to slide further and further out of the picture, administrators said.

“At the secondary level children are perceived as able to take care of themselves in essence,” former middle school principal Bettye Bell said. “They move from that set where parents hold kids’ hands to children that are seeking independence.”

When children pull away in their teen years, parents tend to back away as well, Bell said.

So the first step to bringing those parents back into the school realm means convincing them they are needed, Robert Lewis Middle School Parent Liason Joyce Newell said.

Newell’s job is parents. She meets with them, educates them, sends them newsletters, provides them materials and, if necessary, goes to their houses.

“We just try to let them know how important it is to be there,” Newell said. “The problem stems from parents trying to give children more responsibility, but (parents) need to stay closer.”

Paula Woods is one of those parents who is trying to stay close.

Her daughter moved from RLMS to Natchez High School this year, and Woods signed up for the PTA.

Woods saw at first that her daughter didn’t want her involved in things, but she pushed through that.

“She’s at a (PTA) meeting when I go,” Woods said. “She’s aware of what’s going on at school. Once she saw how accepted I am at school, she was OK.”

But Woods wishes more parents pushed past the pressure too. NHS PTA meetings usually draw approximately 30 parents. The school’s enrollment is more than 1,000.

RLMS meetings draw about the same numbers, President Angela James said.

“We still don’t have the participation that’s needed to really turn this school around,” James said. “Parents have to get involved. They want teachers and administrators to do a job that they really need to start at home.”

All district schools have begun to have parent workshops, family nights and meetings at a variety of times in order to accommodate those parents who aren’t coming to the regular meetings. But the parents have to commit to changing their schedule sometimes too, James said.

“During school hours most parents are at work,” James said. “We need to set aside some time and say, ‘OK, this day, I’m going to make it my business to come to RLMS.’ Just take off for a couple of hours. Come on your lunch break.”

Getting outside the box

But what the district is doing isn’t showing results yet.

The numbers aren’t growing yet, and all the meetings in the world won’t decrease the poverty rate.

If the answer to parental involvement is bigger than the schools, there’s only one more place to look — the community.

“We need to go outside of the school system to set up parent centers in the community,” said Bell, who now works in the district’s central office. “The public library should be a place where you could have something going on all the time. It should be open so parents can go.

“Civic and social organizations could play a part in parenting classes. We need to put centers in locations where parents can reach them, in churches.”

And parents need to see their leaders taking a step too, James said.

“It takes everyone in this community doing what they need to do. You see the political people when they are running for office, but then you never see them again,” James said.

“We never just have police officers, supervisors or aldermen come and make themselves visible.”

But who is going to make the first move? The challenge remains on the schools: increase supportive parental involvement at the secondary level.

“It’s a Catch 22,” Bell said. “The only think we can do is ask everybody to pitch in.”