By Tom Creery
David Moreno* was a great student. In fact, he was one of my favorites. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but we do.
David had been a student in my classes for three of his four years of high school. As a freshman in my 9th grade English class, he had perfect attendance, always did his homework, and came to class with insightful questions about the books we read. As a junior in my AP US History class, he was dedicated to understanding as much as he could about how this country worked. He attended every after-school tutoring session and every Saturday test prep opportunity that I provided.
As a senior in my AP Literature class, he was a voracious reader who took to the internet to read scholarly writings about the novels we were reading and asked for reading recommendations for the summer so that he could be better prepared for the challenges of college literature seminars.
David was the kind of student that teachers dream of having. So it was heartbreaking when David returned to school last December to tell me in person that he would be dropping out of college because the academic challenges were too much for him to handle, and he felt like he was wasting his money.
My experience with David was neither new nor unique. Every year, former graduates would come back to the high school to experience the nostalgia that comes with returning to such places after experiencing the challenges of the adult world. But they would also return to explain to the teachers who had worked so hard to prepare them for college that they would no longer be pursuing higher education because of a self-perceived lack of basic education.
This was, of course, always frustrating to hear, and I would always try to talk each student out of making this unfortunate choice, to little avail. For me, David was the wake-up call. And I knew that I was not alone. For several years, I have worked outside of the classroom doing community organizing with teachers from other schools throughout Los Angeles, and every year I hear stories that echoed my own. Why does this happen?
It is clear that something isn’t working, and students all over Los Angeles are missing a critical component needed to set them up for success once they leave the confines of high school and enter the less structured, but more rigorous world of college.
As the school year came to a close, my desire to explore the root causes of what I was witnessing became more pronounced, and I decided to leave the classroom and focus on community organizing. I believe there is a great need for systemic change. If our students are not leaving schools with the skills and mindsets that they needed to be successful, then clearly there are facets of the entire process of K-12 education that need closer inspection.
There is no magic bullet for something like the opportunity gap, nor is there a surefire way to instill in our young people the self belief necessary to overcome substantial academic challenges. But I believe that a more purposeful approach to building relationships between parents and teachers is an integral step toward preventing students like David from falling through the cracks.
In David’s case, I know that one challenge to his resilience was the fact that David felt he was on this academic journey alone. His teachers were pushing him to go to college and providing him with instruction everyday, and his parents were proud of him, but felt alienated from his academic life because there was little opportunity for them to engage with it. Both of his parents worked, and it was difficult for them to attend Back To School Night (which started at 4 p.m.) or parent teacher conferences (which ended at 4 p.m.). There was little opportunity for David’s teachers and his parents to meet, collaborate or even celebrate his success. Ultimately, his parents were not allowed to be partners in his education, and this had a detrimental effect on his future prospects.
As a former teacher and current organizer, I believe that there needs to be a major shift in how all stakeholders in education approach communication and collaboration. Most importantly, I think that the relationship between parents and teachers needs to be refined.
If the students in our schools are going to be more successful in primary school, secondary school and beyond, we have to start bringing parents into the conversation in a way that is more responsive to the demands on parents’ time. If, as many studies have shown, parent engagement in a young person’s education is one of the biggest predictors of success in college and beyond, teachers and administrators have to make these relationships a top priority.
Parents, who know their kids better than anyone else, believe that advocating for their children at schools is often met with disdain from school staff. While teachers and administrators often believe that if a child is struggling academically, then parents are not doing enough to reinforce what is being taught in the classroom. These attitudes don’t demonstrate sensitivity to the realities of many families in Los Angeles.
Parents must balance the responsibilities of work life, home life and parental life. Time is in limited supply. Complicating this relationship is the fact that schools have a limited number of options for parents to engage with school sites. These options include Back To School Nights at the beginning of the year, parent teacher conferences at times that tend to fall during the workday, coffee with the principal events that also take place during the workday and the occasional cultural or sporting event.
This is not a model of collaboration that supports parent engagement or culturally relevant teaching. Instead, this model alienates parents from school staff and vice versa. This relationship between parents and teachers should be held sacred and it should be responsive to both parties involved.
Parents and teachers want the same things: to help students succeed. And we should be collaborating to make sure that happens. But we live in a world where communication breakdown has led to cataclysmic failures of many federal, state and local institutions.
It is for this reason that I decided to begin working with Speak UP. As an organization. Speak UP is devoted to providing parents with the necessary tools to be active partners in their children’s education and to advocate for their children’s needs. The parents that we work with are also driven enough to demand a change in how schools communicate and collaborate with parents -- to treat parents as partners in the incredibly important work of educating our youth.
Parent engagement is just one part of the process required to prevent students like David from opting out of his brightest options for the future. In an increasingly complicated world, our students need the best possible environment to support their learning and ambitions. Through more purposeful relationship building between parents and teachers, students like David will be able to face the challenges that life brings with the knowledge that they have a collective community behind them, and they will go out into the world and change it for the better.
— Teacher Tom Creery now works as a parent engagement coordinator at Speak UP
*David’s name has been changed to protect his identity