“We do have hopes and dreams for our children. But no one ever asked us about them and we did not know how to help our children.” Those were the words of a grandmother raising her grandchildren in a rural Black township in South Africa. The group of some 50 family members came to be part of a parent engagement project I had the great fortune to lead. They made a quilt for the school, with each family creating a square about their hopes for their child. As they came together, they learned about ways to support and advocate for their children.
The teachers in the school, while dedicated to educating the children, had little expectations for the families. After all, they are poor and largely illiterate. Yet when I asked the families about their dreams, there were many.
Unfortunately, that’s the way it is in too many schools around the globe, including the United States. Hard-working teachers feel parents don’t care if they don’t show up for parent meetings. Yet parents without formal education, or immigrants who don’t know how to traverse the complex U.S. school system, often keep their distance from their children’s school as a sign of respect. They trust their children’s education to the teachers and show their respect by not becoming involved. Parents aren’t valued for what they do know — insights on their children, a lifetime of experiences.
As was clear with these parents in South Africa, they do care, and they care intently. Once given the opportunity to become a part of school in a project that valued them, they could see that they do have a role in school. Based on a model called Tellin’ Stories from Teaching for Change, the quilt project creates a non-threatening place for parents to gather in the school. While they are sewing, they learn about school expectations and resources both in school and in the community.
In South Africa, I was honored to work with these incredible families in the school where my husband and I have volunteered the past two years. Over the course of the family meetings, the families learned how to support their children’s learning at home. And they became empowered to advocate for the children at school, just as many of them had fought so hard against apartheid years earlier. “We need to give you name in Xhosa,” said one of the parents. So I was called Nosango, or “gate” in their mother tongue. ?”You have opened the gates of freedom, the gates of learning to us,” said the parent. Certainly a moment I will never forget.
How many families in our schools have dreams no one is asking about? How many are eager to help their children reach those dreams, but they don’t know what to do? We need family engagement outreach strategies that respect their personal experiences, their culture, their knowledge. Then we can build true partnerships with families that help out students be successful and our schools thrive.
Eileen with Principal Z.A. Thambo