- Associated Press - Saturday, May 3, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Quanta Smith opens the door to Mrs. Tran’s classroom, and 9-year-old Kia spins around in her chair. It’s mom.

The Mendota Elementary School third-grade class scrambles to the floor in front of a rocking chair Smith assumes for story time. It’s her class for the moment.

“They are always on their best behavior when parents come in,” whispered teacher Desiree Tran as Smith read aloud “Be Boy Buzz” to an attentive audience. “I think it’s really nice to bridge that connection between school and home. When parents come in, I think that happens for them.”

As part of Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham’s school improvement process, the Madison School District expects all schools to build relationships with parents like Mendota has with Smith and to find ways to increase their involvement in the students’ academic work. Cheatham says it’s a crucial part of improving student success.

But educators say while it’s one of their top goals, figuring out how to increase parent involvement is not an easy thing - especially as the district seeks to close a dramatic achievement gap.

Poverty, lack of transportation, a parent’s trust level of schools and single-parenting all can affect levels of involvement, officials say.

“How we define family is changing - not just here in the Madison Metropolitan School District - but just sort of generally in society, and we need to change our approach accordingly,” Cheatham told the Wisconsin State Journal (http://bit.ly/1hJ29Wj). “(One way) is to better acknowledge the assets that our families bring to us as well as some of the unique challenges our families face in supporting our students and being successful.”

Smith, a mother of four girls, knows where the books are kept in her daughter’s classroom, and she doesn’t need to ask where to find the school’s supply room. She stops to chat with nearly anyone who passes her in Mendota’s hallways.

She said much of the reason she was able to connect with the school quickly is Sonia Spencer, Mendota’s parent liaison - one of four liaisons in the district.

“It didn’t take any time at all,” said Smith, 36.

Spencer’s days are meant for connecting parents with teachers. She sees her job as also helping parents provide a stable life for their children. She often runs parents to doctor’s appointments or job interviews on top of navigating what can sometimes be sensitive waters of parent-teacher relationships.

Sometimes, she said, it’s difficult to see parents who don’t know how to advocate for their children.

“It’s hard sometimes when you want to help someone and they don’t want the help,” she said. “The other challenge is when you have a disconnect between the teacher and a parent, when a parent feels like the teacher is not engaged or giving them the respect they deserve as a parent.”

Anne Henderson, a consultant for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, helped develop family engagement standards for the National PTA, from which Madison modeled its standards.

She said what makes a school inviting is communicating what’s happening in the classroom and why. She said going beyond things like fundraisers, and linking activities for families to academics is crucial to seeing family involvement produce better academic achievement. A teaching staff that reflects the school’s demographics helps, too, as does using culturally sensitive teaching strategies, she said.

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