Let’s Debunk the Poverty of Ambition Myth and Talk About Family Engagement Strategies

When I say family engagement, I don’t just mean volunteerism or the compliance based family engagement structures like Schoolsite Council or LCAP meetings. In underserved and low income communities, family engagement should mean so much more. 

There is a myth that has been coined the “poverty of aspiration,” which in this case suggests that parents lack ambition for themselves and for their children. But that is far from the truth! During a study, Dr. Morag Treanor, a senior lecturer in sociology at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland found that “…all parents want the best for their children but lower-income parents are less likely to know what is possible or how to achieve it. They are also less likely to know how to support their children’s education.”

I have heard people in my personal and professional circles say things like, “I don’t get why parents just don’t want to be involved,” or “Parents just don’t care about their child’s education.” Believing and saying things like this perpetuates the idea that parents don’t have ambition or high expectations for their children.

In low income communities, public schools cannot be successful without having the bigger picture in mind. This includes mental health services, trauma informed care and meaningful and intentional family engagement. Below I describe a few ways in which any public school can strengthen its family engagement and actively fight the “poverty of aspiration” myth.

1. School leaders and teachers build relationships with parents: It only takes 15-20 minutes to have a one-on-one that can lead to amazing relationship building and partnership between the school and parents. When you are able to learn and connect on a human level, beautiful things can happen. For example, if a teacher knew that one of their student’s parents each held two jobs, maybe the teacher would understand why those parents haven’t been able to make it to an after school conference and would be able to work around their schedule to ensure that they had an opportunity to be involved.

2. Host Parent Ed workshops on campus: When I was an office associate, the biggest question parents had for me was: “how can I get in touch with my child’s teacher?” Email was the easiest form of communication for teachers, but I soon realized that some parents didn’t have an email or didn’t know how to use a computer to begin with. I created a 6 week course to show parents how to use a computer, browse the web, sign up and use an email. It is our responsibility as educators to ensure that we provide parents and families with the tools and resources they need to support student learning and student achievement. 

3. Schedule interactive meetings for teachers and parents throughout the year: Students are at school for most of the day nine months out of the year, I promise you that parents want to know who is teaching their children, who they are spending most of their day with and who is helping them raise their children. Interactive meetings help build relationships. Some ideas to encourage this interaction:

a. Host house meetings between teachers and their class parents in the beginning of the year.

b. Host a back to school night at the beginning of the school year and another similar event in the middle of the year where parents are welcomed to view their child’s projects and progress. 

c. Host a family night every month where teachers take turns to lead and facilitate informational meetings for families. For example: a math night, science night, literature night, etc. 

d. If you have a PTA, teachers can co-lead committees throughout the year where they work together with parents on big events or initiatives. 

The opportunities are endless. But the most important thing is that we break up the mindset about families not caring about their student’s education or that they do not prioritize it. We must create these spaces and be intentional about how we do family engagement in the communities we serve. Family engagement should be meaningful and support student learning and achievement. At the end of the day, the students are the common denominator in the important work educators do.

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Melissa Salgado

Melissa Salgado

Melissa Salgado, raised in East Los Angeles by her single mother and older siblings. She graduated from James A. Garfield High School and received her Bachelor's degree in Chicana/o Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2013. She currently works at KIPP Bay Area Schools as the Community Engagement Manager and provides families with the resources and tools they need to advocate for their children’s education and other important local initiatives. Through her work she hopes to activate power within each parent and/or guardian. Her ultimate dream is that all children will have access to high quality education no matter what zip code they live in.

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