How Family Involvement is Helping in Utah
If it hadn’t been for parental involvement at Glendale Middle School, a large group of girls would be failing gym class for one simple reason – they couldn’t wear the uniform.
Nearly a quarter of the student population at Glendale is Muslim, and for religious reasons, Muslim girls are unable to wear short-sleeved t-shirts or shorts, the standard uniform at the Salt Lake City school. But thanks to Glendale’s Refugee Task Force – a group of families who fled their country because of political turmoil and settled in here – the girls are now able to participate in P.E.
The task force was formed last year, and they meet monthly with the staff at Glendale to discuss concerns and strategies for increasing their involvement in the school.
Glendale is a target site of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, which works to transform low performing schools through a number of measures, including developing family and community partnerships. Research shows that parent, family, and community involvement in education correlates with higher academic performance and school improvement. When schools, parents, families, and communities work together to support learning, students tend to earn higher grades, attend school more regularly, stay in school longer, and enroll in higher-level programs.
“I went into the first meeting with my own agenda, thinking I knew what we’d discuss, but it quickly turned into a “Three Cups of Tea” moment,” says Glendale’s Assistant Principal Jennifer Mayer-Glenn, who convenes the monthly meetings in collaboration with other educators at the school. “There were two interpreters and they explained to me that the community of refugees had already decided on the topics for discussion at the meeting. Topping the list was P.E. uniforms.”
After several Google searches, Mayer-Glenn finally found an appropriate uniform — a long sleeve t-shirt dress with pants that could be worn underneath. She took photos of it to the sewing club, another parent group consisting of mainly Latina mothers, and within a week, they had a prototype.
The task force was thrilled and asked only that they change the color from white to black.
Parents Welcome in School
In addition to the sewing club, Glendale Middle also holds an after-school and evening knitting club. Mothers bring their small children, socialize with fellow parents, and create beautiful hats and scarves that help keep their families warm during the long, frigid Utah winters.
“We want parents to feel welcome and comfortable in our schools,” says Salt Lake Teachers Association President Susan McFarland. “When they feel welcomed, they’ll get more involved, which helps their children succeed academically.”
It wasn’t long ago that parents were afraid to become involved at Glendale Middle School. The school had a bad reputation for gang and drug activity and violence. A serious incident of racial violence once broke out in the school cafeteria and parents began pulling their kids out of the school. Enrollment eroded, and along with it, achievement.
But with a dedicated faculty and brand new administration – a new principal and two new assistant principals – along with the help of the Priority Schools Campaign, the school has developed strategies to make the school safer and bring in more parents.
This year, enrollment was up by 50 students, and Glendale is expected to make AYP for the second year in a row as students now focus on their studies rather than gangs, fights and crime. There’s been a 50 percent decrease in referrals for fighting and a 50 percent drop in referrals for bullying.
Many of the changes were simple – the school added safety features like more patrol staff at crosswalks on the main road, where gang activity had been reported. They identified other problem areas and assigned more school staff to help monitor them. Now there are teachers at every door during class transitions to cut down on fights in the hallway. And there are “trackers,” which are school staff assigned as secondary sweepers in the hallways and around the school grounds to make sure all students are in class rooms and not wandering unsupervised. As a result, tardies and discipline referrals are down by 30 percent.
Maria Garcia is the single mother of three kids. Her 11-year-old daughter is a student at Glendale Middle School and Garcia was at first afraid to enroll her in the school. But now she’s delighted with the way the school is run and is proud her daughter is a Glendale student.
“I wanted to see changes, and I did with the new principal and new programs the teachers are leading, and I’m so happy,” she says. “My daughter is doing so well, she’s involved in more activities at school, and so am I. I’m a regular volunteer at the school for recess and field trips and things, and I come to every Pastries for Parents meeting.”
Pastries for Parents
Pastries for Parents is held on Thursday evenings from 5:30 to 6:30 and Friday mornings from 8:45 to 9:45 — times when parents, many of whom hold two or more jobs, could make it to the school. The meeting, held in both English and Spanish, provides school updates and offers tips and strategies for parents to become more involved and help their children with their studies.
Gilberto Rejon Magaña runs the meetings as a volunteer through University Neighborhood Partners, a program of the University of Utah that partners with schools throughout Salt Lake City’s West End to help at-risk youth and their families.
When Magaña saw that parents were taking their kids out of Glendale, he knew he had to do something. “They were pulling out the smartest kids. Our best future,” he says. “I said, this where we live, this is our school! Let’s make it better together.”
That’s when he agreed to help involve parents, help them become familiar with the school and show them it’s a great place for their kids to learn.
At the first meeting, he brought boxes of donuts and Mexican pastries with bright pink icing. But he waited in the room by himself. Nobody showed up, and he wound up taking the donuts and pastries home.
At the next meeting, he had two parents. By the following week, there were five. Before long, word of the meetings spread throughout the community. This year the room is always crowded with parents, who also bring their young children, and the boxes of donuts and pastries are always empty by the end of the meeting.
One way to measure the meeting’s success is by the number of pastries left in the boxes. But a better way is by the number of issues that parents bring up, Magaña says. Recently there was a discussion of what would happen if undocumented parents were taken away while their children were at school.
“This is a real concern out there, and one that’s not talked about openly, so that was an indication to me of trust,” says Magaña. “I told them that they could find information at the Mexican Civic Center, and said that we’d all work on a way to figure it out because we are a school and a community built on trust. And if you have trust, you have everything.”