ANN ARBOR, MI – Washtenaw County parents spent Monday, Feb. 12, in class with their children for the 23rd annual National African American Parent Involvement Day.
Schools held student programs, provided meals for parents and brought in special speakers for NAAPID, which was started by the late Ann Arbor educator Joe Dulin. The event will continue with NAAPID @ Night on Monday evening at Eastern Michigan University.
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Parents and educators agreed it’s important for parents of all races and ethnicities to invest in their children’s education as part of NAAPID and throughout the year.
“We want to be as welcoming as we can for all of our families, but in particular for families who may not be part of our majority,” said Dawn Linden, executive director of elementary education for Ann Arbor Public Schools.
Students at Ann Arbor’s Mitchell Elementary School used NAAPID to share what they have been learning through the school’s social justice unit.
Classes read the book “The Youngest Marcher” by Cynthia Levinson with illustrations by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. The book tells the true story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, who was arrested at the age of 9 for participating in the civil rights protest in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 and spent one week in jail.
In art class, Mitchell students created pieces that illustrated social justice ideals, protest signs, the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and quilts, with assistance from the African American Quilters Network. Their artwork hung on the walls of the school gym, where students performed songs for a social justice celebration on Monday.
“In their classroom, they were inquiring into what it means to be an activist in your community. So this project coincided with that unit really nicely,” said art teacher Kathryn Williams. “We talked about why an artist would make art about something that needs to change in the world. We talked about how puting words and symbols in your art helps share that message.”
Parent Julie Payne said she appreciates the diversity of Mitchell’s student body, and she has seen her two sons – who are in first and second grade – make academic progress as well as learn positive values during their time at Mitchell, she said.
“I just think historically sometimes academic systems have catered to a certain type of parent and a certain type of home. I think that it’s really important to invite all parents to be involved and to get that opportunity,” Payne said.
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At Ann Arbor’s Logan Elementary School, parents were invited to a multicultural potluck – featuring foods representing the myriad cultures included in Logan’s student body – and a “Diversity in Verse” school assembly, where each grade level presented a poem or song related to diversity. Flags from the more than 45 countries represented in Logan’s student population hang around the school’s cafeteria.
“We want to see what (teachers) use to teach them and how they engage with the students,” said Gustavo Mendonca, who sat in on his son’s kindergarten class on Monday with his wife, Daniela Mendonca. Gustavo and Daniela Mendonca both are faculty at the University of Michigan.
Many parents said scheduling demands are the main factor preventing them from being more involved in their children’s school, especially for parents who work full-time, are single parents or have multiple children involved in extracurriculars.
“Just having that time to be involved and still be able to maintain the day-to-day at home, I think is one of the barriers,” said Tierra Jackson, a third-grade teacher at Logan who organized the school’s NAAPID events with third-grade teacher Natasha Stewart.
April Weber, who coordinated Logan’s multicultural potluck, agreed. She is a single mother of two who works full-time, and she took Monday off work to be at the school.
“We do have a lot of support from our community, even the working parents,” Weber said. “I myself am a working full-time mother and still come and make sure I support my child as best I can. We have a lot of parents who give financially because they can’t give time.”
Doris Fields, a communications professor at Eastern Michigan University who has studied interracial communication, said parents who had a negative school experience themselves may be hesitant to get involved at their children’s school.
It’s important for teachers to understand their students’ family and cultural background and to communicate with parents on a regular basis – not just when their student is in trouble, Fields said. She also is the daughter of NAAPID founder Joe Dulin.
“It has to be a working relationship with the parents ,” said Fields, who is the director of undergraduate studies at EMU. “If we started communicating better with the parents, that would help them feel more involved.”
In public schools in Washtenaw County and across the country, there is a persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color.
For example, about 58 percent of Washtenaw County’s white third graders tested as proficient or advanced in English language arts on the 2017 MSTEP, compared to about 23 percent of the county’s black third graders, according to data from the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information.
In eighth grade math, 57 percent of Washtenaw County’s white students and 16 percent of black students tested as proficient or advanced on the 2017 MSTEP.
When it comes to college, 63 percent of white students hit college readiness benchmarks on the SAT in 2017, compared to 16 percent of black students, and white students in Washtenaw County’s Class of 2016 were more likely to go on to college than their black peers.
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Parents and educators pointed to individualized academic support for students as a key way to start narrowing that achievement gap.
“There is no silver bullet in education that solves all problems, so we do a lot of work to customize and individualize for each student,” said Logan Principal Will Wright. ” … We look at the individual circumstances of every single child and try to design programs for each child.”
Dion McCrary, whose daughter is in fourth grade at Mitchell, said the school does a good job of identifying students’ needs early and providing them with additional academic support, giving the example of her daughter receiving extra help with reading.
Robin Gatson, who has a son in second grade at Mitchell and a daughter in seventh grade at Scarlett Middle School, said making sure all students have the same opportunities and educational options will help close the achievement gap between students of different races.
“Some kids need more help than others and that’s OK, so you have to be able to help and put in the work. That also goes with the parents. Just because you send them to school, when they come back home to you, you’re like a teacher too,” Gatson said. ” … As a community as a whole, everybody has to put in the work and have the same opportunities for everybody.”