Mariela Dabbah: Changing the Approach to Parent Involvement

Many of the problems experienced by school systems across the country have changed very little in decades, with one of the biggest challenges being low student performance and high dropout levels. You have to wonder what business would have survived so long without changing its business model in the face of so little change.

One of those intractable problems seems to be the involvement of Latino parents. For a long time it has been high on the list of problems that many superintendents and principals hope to fix but seldom do. I suggest approaching the challenge from a different perspective. One that makes common sense but is often neglected.

Asset based community development is a social movement that considers local assets as the primary building blocks of sustainable community development. In other words, you should look at a community with a “glass half-full” point of view.

The idea is that, rather than defining a community as a “poor neighborhood” or a “gang-infested area,” you look at what it has to offer – things such as a library, a bank, several non- profit organizations, a train station, schools, a park, an abandoned building, etc. Once there is an inventory of assets, it is possible to start building connections, partnerships and programs that leverage what exists in the community.  By working with the community strengths, it is possible to slowly build a place that’s more appealing, where the inhabitants feel useful and respected and take responsibility for their lives.

The same concept can be applied to a school by looking at Hispanic parents as assets of that community. Rather than focusing on stereotypes with statements such as, “They don’t attend parent-teacher conferences,” or “They’re uneducated” or worse yet, “They aren’t interested in their children’s education,” school administrators and teachers should focus on answering the question, “What do Latino parents bring to the table?”

The answer would lead to assets such as strong values, beliefs and family traditions; a hard work ethic; a strong culture; a passion for music, food, and dancing. Generally speaking, these parents provide emotional support to their kids. They make sure that they are respectful and clean and apply themselves in school. Once these assets are acknowledged, the discussion can begin about how to put them to work so parents can support the education of their children.

When you constantly hit people over the head with what they are lacking and what they are doing wrong (when you look at the glass as half-empty), they naturally feel disempowered and less inclined to collaborate.

But when you build on people’s assets… well, then there’s just no limit to what they are capable of doing. And who knows, they might be empowered enough to learn the best ways in which they can help the school system lead their children to educational success.

Mariela Dabbah is a published author and founder of Latinos in College, a not-for-profit organization, and of the Red Shoe Movement, an initiative that invites women to wear red shoes to work on Tuesday to signal their support for other women's careers.

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