Parents as Partners

 Benita and Jen co-presented at Big Bang 2019, with Jen’s son Francis, on the Parent Leadership Training Institute, and the importance of family voice in education. Benita lives in New Orleans, with her two daughters, Logan (18) and Rainah (12). Jen lives in Rochester, NY with her partner and two sons, Francis (11) and Charlie (6). Both are working and educating at home during the COVID-19 quarantine.
(Jen) Each day starts with Charlie climbing into my bed, asking me for breakfast. I stumble downstairs, let the dog out, feed him, pour my coffee and sit down at my laptop to draft out each kid’s to-do list for the day. They include things like fractions worksheets, or articles to read, Schoology work teachers have assigned, Zoom meetings, and things like “write a postcard to a friend of family member,” “make a list of 10 things you’re grateful for,” “put a love note under your brother’s pillow.” We all sit down together, and make up a schedule for the day. They have an hour of “legos and learning games,” 45 minutes of quiet reading, and blocks of “independent work,” where they’re supposed to go through those checklists and get things done. Honestly, the independent work is just so I can do my (paid) job at the National Parent Leadership Institute, where I have meetings via Zoom, do a bunch of writing, return emails, and work to support and learn with other parent leaders who are going through this crisis, while trying to change the world, too. On the good days, the boys and I do science activities together and work out. On the bad days, I barely see them after our morning meeting, except to break up the bickering, or when someone comes into my home office asking for help with an assignment that I can’t give at that moment because I’m on a work call or Zoom with folks in other cities, time zones, with other things they need.

(Benita) Our homeschool daily experience has been one of constant change. Each new day is a new adventure. My daughter's school day does not follow a structured learning schedule, so it has been very difficult for me to set up a daily learning schedule as well. As a work at home mom, I struggle daily to keep my 6th grader on task. It is difficult for me to do my job and monitor what she is doing online.

The night before one of her teachers will email her and tell her what time she should log on for video chat office hours.  On most days she is engaged in "independent" learning. As long as she turns in her assignments by midnight, she has met her requirements.  Her online video chat classes last about 2 hrs total per day, which leaves her with A LOT of free time.

I dream of the perfectly scheduled day focusing on math, writing, social studies, and science. That is not our reality. Every night I try to give her supplemental assignments to complete the next day.  However, completion of these assignments are hit and miss. Honestly, she is blowing them off. As long as her school GPA remains good, I will avoid the daily disagreements.

(Jen) Before I was a parent, I was an educator in a Big Picture Learning school. I poured my heart into the job, and did home visits for every student, communicated with parents regularly, and really thought I had parent engagement right. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized how much of what schools do with families is one-sided. Parent engagement too often looks like schools telling parents what to do -- what your kid should be doing, what fundraiser you need to do, what event you need to show up for. There’s very little ask from schools about what families need, or how they’re doing. I’ve really found that to be true with this crisis. For my little one, teachers are emailing with work for him to do-- the last email I got from his teacher had 19 attachments with worksheets and activities! Nineteen! If you don’t have access to a printer, what are you supposed to do with that? For my oldest, the school is sending home very little. He’s supposed to log into Schoology and do activities, and when I sit with him, it takes the school-issued laptop an eternity to boot up, and sometimes Schoology is just down. All I hear from his teachers is that he needs to “log in and complete assignments.” That’s pretty frustrating because I can’t look over his shoulder all day, so I don’t know what he’s supposed to be doing, or what he’s learning. I receive emails from the school and the district several times a week, and no one has asked how we are doing, what we need, how we would like to be supported. We are really privileged-- we have internet, their homework is in a language that we are fluent in, we can work from home. And it still feels like everything is hard, we are doing it wrong, maybe questioning if anything the school is giving us is worth it. And we are the lucky ones.

(Benita) Before the Covid 19 self-quarantine, I was content with how my daughter's education was progressing. Her school focused on maintaining open lines of communication between parents and teachers. It was easy for me to monitor my child's progress through emails addressing the upcoming week,  missing assignments notifications, and addressing skills that needed reinforcement. Now, emails from her teachers have come to a screeching halt. I feel for her teachers, because they are trying to do the best they can, but as a parent, I feel uninformed.

When online classes started, I expected a full day of instruction via video chat. I worry that the 2 hours she spends daily completing Study Island assignments is not enough.  Will she be prepared for 7th grade? The anxiety I feel when thinking about the success of this final school quarter is overwhelming. I know she will pass her classes with high marks, but what skills will she master?  Most days I avoid thinking about it. I can only imagine how her teachers feel and what other families are experiencing who have a much greater need than I do.

(Jen) If websites and worksheets were cans of food, all of our pantries would be full during this crisis. For families who are juggling family life, work, COVID-19 anxiety and now educating at home, specific, curated communication is key. Limit those websites and resources, and when you reach out, ask us how we are doing, reach out to parents and see what they need. Our schools are our community, too. We’re doing the best we can, but we miss that community. We’re just hanging in there, and we want to be partnered with you on this weird ride. For one of the projects I’m working on here in Rochester, we are surveying families in the city schools about how they are doing and what they need. One of the questions is: “Do you feel like a partner with the teachers at the school in your child's education right now?” I think that’s such a good question. I actually love homeschooling, and wish I had more time to dedicate to it. But I don’t feel that way, I don’t feel like a partner. The only communication from my house to the school is if *I* initiate it. The only “ask” from the school is that we implement activities they assign, not how the kids are doing or how our family is doing. It’s not a partnership.

(Benita) Parents need information! We are desperate for it. We don't know where to turn. Schools should place parental engagement and sharing resources at the top of their to-do lists. Sending emails has been the most used method of communication, but many parents are not comfortable using computers or the internet. Also, most of us do not check our email messages regularly. Text messages and phone calls should be used as well. Families need options to help with free tutoring and homework assistance. These services were suspended at our local libraries and school sites. Surveys should be sent out weekly to parents and students asking for feedback to improve the systems they have in place. How do students get help when their teacher is not available?  What about our special needs students?

As social distancing moves into our third week many families are beginning to feel socially isolated instead of quarantined. The mental health of students who no longer can have play dates is slowly but surely being affected.  One size does not fit all when it comes to giving parents the customized resources needed for their children's success in this current learning environment. Addressing these needs will aid in parents feeling less anxious about their children's growth for the next school year and beyond.

(Jen) My heart goes out to educators, too-- especially those who are now teaching from home and also parenting. That teacher who sent 19 attachments? She has a new baby at home. She’s also hosting a weekly Zoom for her first graders. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen-- twenty-something first graders trying to say hi to each other over and over again on Zoom, while she’s balancing her baby in her lap. That’s tough. I feel like we are in the same boat in that regard -- juggling, walking a tightrope of responsibility and anxiety, and still working to hold learning up there as a priority. I think a lot about how we are going to hand our babies back to the school eventually. Will they ask us then what they’ve been doing? Will they ask us then what they need? Will they just proceed with business as usual when they hit the next grade, or will they stop and take stock of how this experience has shifted what to expect of them, and of us?

Yesterday, for the first time since early March when they could no longer go to school, our district superintendent sent home a survey to parents in advance of a Facebook Live town hall this coming week. He asked what the schools could do. At first, I thought “well, they could ask us how we are doing, for a start.” Then I wrote:

Mental health resources for families. Opportunities for families and school staff to connect via Zoom to check in and share ideas and resources. Maybe teachers could offer Zoom meetings for families on units they would like to share and discuss. The school could offer parents the opportunity to opt-in to a parent email group so they could self-organize virtual meetings to discuss schooling and to socialize.

I got another email the same day from Everett, Washington’s Parent Leadership Training Institute. It had links for unemployment assistance, housing supports, utilities supports, food, mental health resources. I don’t live in Everett, but they are part of my network. That’s what people need right now, that’s what parents need right now. We don’t need worksheets or Schoology, we need a village offering resources for survival and support. I think Big Picture folks know this, I hope Big Picture folks know this. You can’t get to Bloom’s unless you start with Maslow. A smart Big Picture principal I know told me that.

(Benita) Here in New Orleans, families need free resources and supports that are easy to follow. Here are some resources families can use to support their needs:

The Orleans Parish School Board has a resource page links to Behavioral Health Assistance. Distance Learning Tips, Community Resources and ESL community resources on distance learning.

Mental Health guided activity guides- crucial right now.

Resources for families educating students with special needs at home, also very key.

(Jen) The National League of Cities had a great webinar on supporting families in the crisis this past week. They shared this list of considerations, which I think is a great framing. Before reaching out, ask:

  • Is it urgent?
  • Is it important?
  • Is it simple?
  • Is it fair?
  • And … is it tone deaf?
At the National Parent Leadership Institute, we realize that despite any differences we have, we can always unite around wanting something better for our children. When we think about what educators and parents have in common right now, it’s a need for hope. I personally find hope when I can see a way forward. We don’t want to fall into the same trap of recommending too many resources, so here are two websites that I find give me hope and help:
1) This set of resources from Culturally Responsive Education, which includes a fantastic set of tools on listening to families from our partners at NYU’s Metro Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools
2) Wide Open School’s page focused on access for all families during COVID-19. We can still take action to support equity during this quarantine.
When it feels like you are just barely hanging on, and it’s a struggle to put one foot in front of the other, realize you’re not alone. We all need to reach out in the most personal ways we can to support each other right now. When we can’t be together physically, we have to think differently about what it means to be a partner. We all want the best for these kids, and we are most effective when we work together, even (and especially) if we are apart.