Parent Involvement

As the cofounder of a parent-cooperative, early childhood education, community-based program that grew to become a school, I offer some comments about my experiences and the philosophy of education that grew out of these experiences; and I will attempt to summarize my thoughts about schools as places of empowerment for children, their parents, and their communities.

I think it is really important, a primary commitment for Friends in our Spirit-led places of learning, to consider the necessity of having a declaration of the rights of the children in our care. I have used "The Declaration of the Rights of the Child," as unanimously adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on November 20, 1959, as a starting point.

I began my endeavors way back in the mid-1970s in San Francisco. Inspired by the collective intention to place the rights of children as a guiding principle for the many ethnically and culturally diverse families who joined together to create Mission West Parents Cooperative Preschool—a part of San Francisco Community College’s Parent Education Program with six community-based Parent Cooperative Preschools—I simply displayed a copy of the UN declaration front-and-center on the wall across from the entryway to our school. This declaration was placed at eye level for children. It was a humble beginning. And yet, standing next to it and reading to myself on many mornings as I waited at the door to greet the children, their siblings, and parents, I began to notice that more and more parents and children would also stop to read the words in their comings and goings.

I cannot, in all honesty, say that I had the intention to develop a set of guidelines about our educational mission, its purposes, goals, and objectives when I put my "99 theses" on the wall that first morning. But I began to realize that something was stirring in the parents when a bilingual mother, Anna Maria, commented, "I would love to see this declaration in Spanish and several of the other languages that are spoken in our school." I asked her if she would be willing to gather a couple of the other Spanish-speaking parents to do this. She was a little stunned, saying, "Me?" I did not push her, except to say that I thought it was a really fine idea and I hoped it would come to pass.

Several weeks went by, and then one Friday afternoon Anna Maria walked in the door with three other parents and presented me with the declaration in Spanish. And framed, to boot! I was delighted. In the following couple of months, the declaration was translated into Vietnamese and Chinese by two other groups of parents.

Around the same time, San Francisco Community College’s Parent Education Program had a new director, a remarkable woman named Rosemary Darden, who took the vision of this program to heart. As one of her first innovations, she instituted a program-wide policy requiring that a Parent Advisory Board be developed in each of its centers. Because of Rosemary Darden’s commitment, I felt empowered to be proactive, dividing my work between developing a quality child development program, and facilitating and nurturing the role of parents in the daily operation of the preschool. Anna Maria and the six or so other parents stepped forward and offered themselves as an advisory board.

The progress of cooperation between these parents from more than four different cultures, many of whom were recent immigrants, was not always smooth sailing, as they were coming together with one another for the first time in their lives to talk about what their children should be learning and how it should be taught. As a child development specialist with very strong convictions and beliefs in individualized curricula and play as learning practices, as well as a deep devotion to the guidance of that of God in each child, I was challenged to demonstrate how such an approach would benefit the children. Most of the first year was absorbed with the many conflicts, concerns, and collisions that are natural to such a diverse community.

My point is simple: parents need a meaningful, genuine role in the education of their children. They need a medium through which to see, firsthand, what it is that is guiding their teaching staff. They need a sense of participation in their children’s learning experiences. And I believe they need ample opportunities to participate as part of the teaching staff themselves—in the classroom, inclusive of their own children, and mixed with other parents from different backgrounds.

In order to provide a structure where all of this could grow and develop, there were three elements in parent outreach that were crucial. The first was, of course, that they knew they were needed. The second was that a good deal of time and planning was needed for the development of the curricula activities so that the parents could actually function as teaching team members. The third, and most important, was that at the end of each school day, the parents who had participated that day sat down with me and the formal teaching assistant to talk about what had happened during the day for them. In this context, communication about every imaginable issue, sensitive topic, and, most of all, preconception that each of us had, based on our own culture of origin and early schooling experience, was opened. The format that evolved from this daily evaluation was actually a simple one: "What worked well? What didn’t? Why do you think or feel it did or didn’t work?" All principles of early childhood in an intercultural setting were discussed.

The challenge of involving parents as representatives and as fully participating members of their children’s educational learning process is a vital endeavor, second only to developing an educational experience that is truly worthy of each child.

This endeavor of extensive parent in-volvement needs to be nurtured, wooed, and courted, beginning within the entire teaching staff. The leadership of the school community needs to have a genuine commitment to
making this remarkable potential a reality, taking into account the many ways that participating parents can be perceived as threats to the school leadership, and to the teachers’ domain.

It’s my experience and belief that the confidence to undertake this kind of long-term, developmental approach to parents as allies and advocates comes from being open to finding the ways and means to let the process reveal itself. And if there is a genuine openness and receptivity, I have the greatest of confidence that the door will make itself known. Through the door, conflicts of interest and the everyday difficulties that occur when loving, caring adults are gathered to teach children become opportunities for these adults to share in a mutual learning process.

A school is a collective organism. It has a life of its own. It is interdependent upon all of its collective parts and organs. A school community that does not see its parents as an integral, dynamic part of its entire mission, goal, purpose, and function is an organism without one of its basic organs. To me, the organ that is missing without the parents as allies and advocates, is the heart.

Bard Paul Michaels

Bard Paul Michaels was a cofounder of Mission West Parents Cooperative Preschool in San Francisco Community College's Parent Education Program. he now works with the Healing Arts Institute in Portland, Oreg.