TOPICS > Education

Parents study up on how to improve college prospects for their children

October 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
While their elementary school-aged kids are being taught the basics of reading and math, some parents are learning how to prioritize their prospects for higher education. The NewsHour's April Brown reports on the "Parent College" program that is working to improve graduation rates for underprivileged students in Los Angeles.
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GWEN IFILL: Now: how some Los Angeles schools are trying to improve students’ college prospects by focusing directly on their parents.

One organization is committing substantial resources to teaching parents how to make higher education an important goal for their offspring.

The NewsHour’s April Brown has our report, part of our American Graduate project.

APRIL BROWN: It’s a lovely Saturday morning at Markham Middle School in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. And Nadia Solis is taking 8-year-old Darlene and 6-year-old Alexander to a classroom on the campus.

While her oldest children and other kids play in a large room, Solis and her mother, Sofia Orgeta, are starting their second year of college, Parent College.

NADIA SOLIS, mother: My kids came home with a brochure and they were like, you need to attend this workshop.

APRIL BROWN: Darlene and Alexander had one motive to get their mother into the classroom. If she went, they would earn a day to wear street clothes and not uniforms at school.

But, as it turns out, Darlene and Alexander are getting much more than they bargained for, including a mom enthusiastic about homework.

NADIA SOLIS: We shouldn’t give them the attitude, oh, come on, let’s do homework. You know, like, hey, let’s do homework so we can spend time together.

APRIL BROWN: And they now have a mom who talks about college.

NADIA SOLIS: I never thought I should introduce college right about now, but I should have when they were kids, when they were babies, for them to have an idea of what they are going to expect of life.

APRIL BROWN: Raising expectations and graduation rates are why Solis, a single mother and high school dropout, joins dozens of other parents from her community here. They spend one Saturday each month during the school year at Parent College learning about learning in classes that are held in both English and Spanish.

Martha Maitchoukow, an English teacher at Markham during the week, leads the one Solis attends. Maitchoukow covers a lot of material, including the importance of reading and college preparedness. But there is one thing in particular she stresses to every parent.

MARTHA MAITCHOUKOW, Parent College: The success of your child depends on the strength of our triangle, you, the parent, your child and me. I cannot do it by myself. You cannot do it by yourself. Your child cannot do it by himself or herself.

APRIL BROWN: Research over the past 20 years and conventional wisdom have both held that parental involvement has a positive impact on a child’s education.

But a report out this year has linked it directly to higher academic achievement, the outcome Parent College is striving for in this community.

Sociologist Toby Parcel of North Carolina State University co- authored the study:

TOBY PARCEL, North Carolina State University: The bonds children have at school, the school environments, the positive relationships between teachers and principals, those are important things.

It turns out, though, that the bonds that the parents form with their children around the subject of schoolwork, those bonds are three to four times more important, and I think that’s maybe what parents don’t always understand.

APRIL BROWN: The key, according to Parcel, is continuous involvement, and the sooner the better.

TOBY PARCEL: Prioritizing this type of activity and continually reinforcing that the parent feels the school is important and expects the child to put out effort and engage beginning early in the child’s schooling, that’s where I think we get the greatest dividends.

APRIL BROWN: And that is precisely the aim of Parent College, which primarily serves families in Watts, Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles.

In 2007, some of the lowest-performing schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District were slated for turnaround efforts. Educating and empowering parents became key strategies in improving academic achievement in these 17 schools, which serve 16,000 students.

Solis’ children attend 99th Street Elementary, one of the 17 schools now managed by the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. The organization works within the L.A. Unified School District, but has more autonomy and leverages support from outside funders and partners; 89 percent of children in Partnership schools are Latino; 95 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and nearly a third are English-language learners.

Saskia Pallais, the partnership’s director of family and community engagement, says parents often don’t know how to help children reach their full potential.

SASKIA PALLAIS, Partnership for Los Angeles Schools: What we wanted to do with Parent College was address some of the basic needs that our parents were experiencing.

Many of them never went to college. Many of them don’t know the U.S. education system. Many of them never graduated from high school. And so we wanted to make sure that they understood what the U.S. education system is like and what are the requirements for their child to be able to graduate from high school and go to college.

APRIL BROWN: Claudia Ramirez teaches eighth grade English and Parent College at Hollenbeck Middle School. She uses a class exercise to illustrate just how large an educational challenge their community is facing.

First, Ramirez asks all the parents to stand.

WOMAN: You’re representing the high schoolers in LAUSC.

APRIL BROWN: Then she instructs roughly half to sit down.

WOMAN: So, half of you guys, this half sitting is not graduating.

APRIL BROWN: As the exercise continues, just one remains standing.

WOMAN: The only that was able to graduate from college.

APRIL BROWN: Ana Rojas, a student in the class, is here to make sure her two kids buck that trend.

ANA ROJAS, mother (through interpreter):I want to learn more every day. I want to use what I learn to help my kids at home, be like an additional teacher at home. Today, I learned I have to be more attentive so that they will go to university one day and distinguish themselves as good professionals.

APRIL BROWN: Still, there is a long way to go before the Rojas children and all those attending partnership schools will be ready to graduate high school. But CEO Joan Sullivan says significant progress has been made.

JOAN SULLIVAN, Partnership for Los Angeles Schools: Over the past five years, the partnership is the highest-performing system in the state among all mid-to-large systems.

APRIL BROWN: Sullivan believes investing 10 percent of the partnership’s budget on family and community engagement is money well spent and one of the reasons test scores are improving.

JOAN SULLIVAN: The reality is that our parents really are our students’ first and most important teachers. And unless we invest in embracing and developing a relationship with them, we’re not going to find the kind of success we ultimately want.

APRIL BROWN: It turns out Nadia Solis has had a success of her own since starting Parent College, earning her GED. Daughter Darlene provided a much-needed push one day after Solis stressed the importance of studying hard and going to college.

NADIA SOLIS: Her answer to me was, if you didn’t finish high school, why are you telling me? Well, what is this that I have to do it?

I just gave her a simple — a simple answer of, well, I just couldn’t. But the minute that I had Parent College the next week, it was my first question to my teacher: What can I do to get my GED?

APRIL BROWN: Solis is now looking forward to Parent College’s big event in the spring, Family University Day, where they will tour a local campus and learn about qualifications and financial aid.

JUDY WOODRUFF: American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.