Blog: Frank Nardelli

Detroit Public Schools' high school graduation rate was an abysmal 38 percent in 2005, ranking it 48th out of the nation's 50 largest school systems, says a recent America's Promise Alliance study. Others have pegged it as low as 25 percent. Frank Nardelli, principal of Detroit's Dove Academy, a K-7 charter public school, is waging a turnaround one campus at a time. His lesson plan? Parental involvement, a club that goes beyond the usual extracurriculars, and visions of the Big Ten dancing in children's heads.

Post 2: Empower the Disempowered Parents

Parents often take the blame for academic failure and are criticized for not being involved, not supporting their children, and not making education a priority.

We may as well say, "You, Ms. Parent, don't love your child enough.  You don't care about his future like you should."  

That's ludicrous.  I've met thousands of parents in our city, and they all love their children.  They want the best for their "babies", and they'll sacrifice to find it. They don't always know the best ways to help, but they're willing to learn when we're willing to teach.

The question is whether parents are respected partners and welcome in our schools. Do they receive clear, timely information about their children's strengths and issues?  Do principals and teachers make time for them and value their input?  Are they graciously coached on how to guide their children?

If our schools are to work, we must re-empower our disempowered parents.  That doesn't mean having one event, recording 10% participation and then saying they didn't respond.  Rather, we must engage our parents and grow their participation over time.

A Michigan Department of Education summary of the nation's parental involvement research reports family participation in education is twice as predictive of student success as socioeconomic status.  Intensive parent participation programs can have 10 times the positive impact on achievement that other factors have.

At Detroit's Dove Academy, a tuition-free charter public school, many parents are surprised and relieved when we ask to talk about their child.  Communication is frequent, starting with a discussion of their child's strengths during the first two weeks of school.

Parents must sign their child's planner nightly after reviewing the day's homework, and many parents and teachers use the planner to write notes back and forth to each other.

We have two mandatory conferences each year.  While we can't force anyone to show up, setting the expectation fuels a participation rate greater than 80 percent.  Teachers follow up with the remaining families to schedule subsequent meetings.

Further, if a child is achieving less than 70% by late January in reading, writing and/or math, the teacher, parent and student plot a detailed Student Improvement Plan together.  Everyone walks away knowing what lessons and help will occur in school, parents have strategies for at home, and students know what actions they'll take.  

We also started a Parent University last year, with periodic workshops and guest speakers who help parents explore educational, community, and family issues.  Last year, we averaged 15 to 20 participants per session.  In October this year, we had 30.  That's not enough, but we'll keep going, and the numbers will grow.

As principal, it's my job to be available.  I'm in the halls, talking with students, parents and teachers.  Sometimes I'm down the street, meeting with a home bound parent.  Sometimes I'm in the lunchroom, or giving a tour, or on the playground … because that's where I find the students, parents and staff I serve.

All of us here are mentors, coaches, counselors, and sounding boards.  I've had parents, frustrated by the same behavior at home that we see in school, ask me for help.  That tells me our efforts are working and progress is imminent. It's rare I find a parent who won't talk about his child, and rare to find a parent who won't help create strategies to help her child excel.

These parents say our talking and working with them is like a miracle, and they thank us for caring about their children as much as they do.  

Don't blame the parents.  Join me.  Make no excuses.  Accept none either.   Respect parents as partners and see what happens.