Parental involvement at D.C. school in a class by itself

Principal Niyeka Wilson fires up teachers before the first week of school. (Photo by Marlon Ray).

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Stepping into the cozy Parent Center at Orr Elementary School in Southeast Washington, D.C. is like grabbing a cup of coffee with an old friend. On one ordinary morning long after the 8:45 a.m. late bell, three mothers chat and laugh over a light breakfast from the take-out spot across the street. Another mom who doesn’t seem to know anyone in the room quietly pores over a database at the computers table. A dad in the corner of the room helps himself to coffee.
Adults aren’t the only ones in sight. Little ones stream by just outside the door on their way to recess, stretching their necks for a longer look into the room, searching for familiar faces. The moms reign in adult giggles and wave at the passing students, calling a few out by name.
Ten minutes later, a boisterous first grade girl in braided ponytails pops into the room and declares, “Mr. Ray says he needs somebody to help with recess.” Two moms hop out of their chairs. One assures the other, “I’ve got it.”
What was once a small windowless office has now become a reliable resource for parents and caregivers who need information about social services, continuing education, and employment, basic computer access, a few words of advice, or, simply, a welcoming place to spend their free time in a worthwhile way. Parents who linger here operate as a corps of on-hand volunteers called “P-WAP” – Parents With A Purpose.
This type of synergy might not be expected at a school like Orr, where 99 percent of the mostly-Black student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. But including parents and families as partners in academic success has proven benefits.
As education expert, Karen Mapp explains, “We now know from the research that engaging families and community partners is an essential ingredient to the improvement of schools. When this happens, families are more likely to engage because the link is made clear between their engagement and results for kids and schools, and school staff are more likely to want to cultivate partnerships with families because they see that family engagement is…an essential component of the improvement process.”
Mapp, a consultant for the Department of Education, goes on to cite “Organizing for School Improvement,” a longitudinal study that found that “strong parent-community-school ties” was one of the five pillars of successful elementary schools. Across 15 years of data, researchers discovered that 40 percent of schools that reported strong parental involvement also reported substantial improvements in student reading assessments, compared to the 10 percent of schools that improved without the help of families.
Under No Child Left Behind, Title I schools (schools that have a high population of low-income and/or educationally disadvantaged students) receive additional federal funding to support and supplement their students’ learning. Title I schools are required to use at least 1 percent of their federal funding for parental engagement.
Teaching for Change, a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., is one of many organizations working to help schools include and engage parents.

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