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Parent Engagement: A Strategy for Promoting Social Equity and Enhancing Academic Achievement in Youth of Low Socioeconomic Status [PART 1]

Parent Engagement: A Strategy for Promoting Social Equity and Enhancing Academic Achievement in Youth of Low Socioeconomic Status [PART 1]

Article written by Ms. Meagan LaPointe | B.A. Hons. [Philosophy], University of Saskatchewan | B.Mus. [Piano Performance], University of Calgary

Introduction: Youth of low socioeconomic status (SES) are at a statistically higher risk for lower academic achievement and dropout than other youth (Cheung & Pomerantz, 2012; Cummins, 2001; Dearing, Kreider, Simpkins & Weiss, 2006; Hutchinson, 2014; Ormrod & Jones, 2015). Low achievement and dropout are commonly referenced educational issues impacting diverse populations within the low SES classification. As a result of ongoing discrimination in the community, the low SES population intersects with minority groups (Cummins, 2001; Ormrod & Jones, 2015; Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012). In Canada the low SES population intersects with immigrant, refugee, and Aboriginal groups, as well as individuals in the community who live with disabilities. In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, impoverished families and youth are overwhelmingly of Aboriginal descent (Jackson, 2004). Underachievement and dropout impacts the future for these developing young peoples as well as the larger society to which they will one day contribute.

Many scholars have asserted that parent involvement is important in the academic lives of all youth, especially those who are at-risk such as those coming from low-SES populations. Generally speaking, parents’ involvement helps to bring about positive academic outcomes by modelling the value of education to their children so that their children will come to personally value education (Cheung & Pomerantz, 2012). Some have argued, however, that parent involvement supports existing oppression against impoverished communities (Pushor & Murphy, 2004; Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). Parent engagement, by dramatic contrast, can greate a much greater and lasting impact for low SES youth and families. Actively promoting equitable collaboration between parents and the school goes straight to the root of underachievement: social inequity. As such, educators should seek to engage parents, rather than simply involve them, to bring about more positive academic outcomes for the youth of low SES in their classrooms.

The goal of this article is to propose that educators must tackle the root of the problem, social inequity, to deal with underachievement in youth of low SES. Parent engagement is an inclusive, equitable means of challenging oppression against low SES youth and families, and of helping them to negotiate new identities whereby they see themselves as valued and able to make a difference in their community. The term “youth” will encompass both elementary and middle school children, as well as adolescents in high school. This article will draw from research conducted by Pushor & Ruitenberg (2005) on the parent engagement philosophy and practices that were successful at Princess Alexandra Community School in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Princess Alexandra is situated in a low-income community and serves a primarily Aboriginal population. This particular school’s philosophy and practices serves as models to support underachieving youth of low SES through equitable and inclusive relationships built between school staff and families.

Main issues and contributing factors

Achievement gap

It has been well documented that youth of low SES have statistically lower academic achievement than other youth (Cummins, 2001; Dearing, Kreider, Simpkins & Weiss, 2006; Hutchinson, 2014; Ormrod & Jones). Furthermore, underachievement puts such youth at risk for dropout (Hutchinson, 2014; Ormrod & Jones, 2015). The achievement gap predicts significant negative implications for at-risk youth on their journey towards becoming adult members of the community. Low achievement and dropout both limit and prevent youth from achieving their personal potential. Without necessary literacies, these individuals are much less likely to pursue post-secondary education (McMullen, 2011), and it can be difficult for them to obtain and maintain work, much less jobs and careers that align with their interests and passions (Yoshikawa, Aber & Beardslee, 2012). Underachievement in youth of low SES also predicts negative implications for the community as a whole. The absence of their contributions deprives the community of new insights, knowledge, and innovations. In addition, the cycle of underachievement and low SES is perpetuated when those who have poor educational outcomes lack the essential literacies to pass on to their own families, thus perpetuating the achievement gap (Yoshikawa, Aber & Beardslee, 2012).

Social inequity in the wider society and in the educational context

The achievement gap is a visible issue related to the education of youth of low SES; however, it is symptomatic of underlying social inequity (Cummins, 2001), which is invisible and taken for granted (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). As a microcosm of the macrocosm, the school climate tends to replicate the host of issues present in the wider society (Cummins, 2001; Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005l Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012). The social and cultural norms that are deeply engrained in an environment dictate how individuals in that environment must think and act (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012). In our society, prejudice and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, class, ability, religion, gender, sexuality, and other factors such as individual differences are the reality, and have been learned and passed down through the socialization process (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012). Various messages communicated by the values, attitudes, behaviours, and structures in youth’s learning environment, including educators’ words, actions, or lack thereof, reflect society’s hostile tendencies within the school setting (Cummins, 2001; Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005; Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012).

The climate in many schools can make youth, and families of marginalized groups feel unwelcome by pushing educator perspectives and interests and ignoring the most vulnerable youth and families (Cummins, 2001; Hands, 2013; Pushor & Murphy, 2004; Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). Inequities can be observed through families’ varying degrees of power in the educational context. Upper class families have power to influence the school, whereas those within lower classes do not share that power; furthermore they often find it difficult to participate in the ways that educators typically expect (Hands, 2013). Schools that perpetuate society’s existing narratives of discrimination and stratification disempower youth and families of low SES (Cummins, 2001). Therefore to address the surface problem, underachievement in youth of low SES, educators must begin with the deeper problem of inequity that underlies it (Cummins, 2001).

Educators contend with their own beliefs and assumptions

Research has shown that educators tend to perceive families of low socioeconomic status in terms of what they lack rather than recognizing that they have much to contribute (Cummins, 2001; Hands, 2013; Pushor & Murphy, 2004). These perceptions are barriers to examining the underlying problem of inequity, since it is much easier for educators to concentrate their efforts on programming to fill in for what is lacking, rather than to change their own beliefs, assumptions, and practices with the intention of bringing about equity for their students (Cummins, 2001).

Educators’ misperception of parents and youth of low SES as deficient reduces them to a “single story” (Adichie, 2009) whereby ‘deficient’ or ‘incompetent’ is ‘who they are,’ completely overlooking their qualities, knowledge and skills. Such a narrow perception can lead educators to put all of their energy into programming to provide youth of low SES with literacies that they lack (Hands, 2013), rather than on examining and overcoming root causes of their underachievement (Cummins, 2001) and helping their students to build upon the valuable qualities, knowledge and skills that they already possess. Beginning with the assumption of deficit can also lead educators to dismiss vulnerable families as being incapable of providing valuable knowledge and insights to the educational system. Educators’ perception of parents of low SES as deficient is often the most concentrated in perceptions of Aboriginal parents, with the added assumption that Aboriginal ways of knowing are deficient in comparison with dominant Western ways of knowing (Cummins, 1996; Pushor & Murphy, 1994). Perceptions of youth of low SES that reduce them to a “single story” (Adichie, 2009) related to their social class paves the way for lowered expectations of those youth (Ormrod & Jones, 2015), despite the implementation of programming that highlights students’ deficiencies over their strengths. Educators who hold lower expectations are less likely to pursue methods of supporting those youth to succeed, such as engaging parents.

As a further issue, some parents’ lack of engagement in their child’s education may be mistaken by some educators as a lack of care for the child’s success and well-being, especially when those parents come from marginalized groups (Hands, 2013; Pushor & Murphy, 2004; Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). As will be discussed in the next sections, families of low SES face various difficulties related to their circumstances and carry their own assumptions about schools, which may complicate their degree of engagement in their child’s education. Due to lack of understanding or failure to identify and bracket their personal biases related to the parents’ social and cultural background, educators might misconstrue families’ response to stress for lack of care. The idea that a parent is careless can lead educators to have lowered expectations of that parent, which can contribute to narratives of viewing low-income parents only in terms of their deficits. Thus, educators who hold this misconception of parents of low SES may be less inclined to communicate with them or invite them to engage in their child’s education.

In addition to these harmful perceptions, an especially concerning issue is that some educators do not support parent engagement (Hands, 2013; Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). Reasons for this may include lack of knowledge and understanding, uncertainty about sharing power with individuals outside the school, and un-checked bias and assumptions. Such educators can potentially create conflict or opposition where school staff seek to implement whole-school parent engagement practices. Educators’ rejection of parent engagement perpetuates power structures, which alienate families from the school.

Families of low SES face various difficulties

Parents in low-income circumstances face difficulties related to financial instability, which may include unemployment, lack of proper nutrition and healthcare (Santiago, Wadsworth & Stump, 2011). Higher stress on families due to financial instability contributes to higher rates of mental illness (e.g., anxiety and depression), addictions, domestic violence, and abuse (Yoshikawa, Aber & Beardslee, 2012). Also, divorced and single parent households, which are prevalent across all social classes, can either cause or compound the circumstances that many low-SES families experience. Low SES communities have higher rates of single parent families (Jackson, 2004) and relationship problems (Santiago, Wadsworth & Stump, 2011).

Parents may not possess the tools to support their child’s learning or to create a literacy-rich home environment. Perhaps the parent did not complete their schooling and missed acquiring important knowledge and skills. Or, perhaps they did not receive supports during their own schooling and underachieved or dropped out as a result. The various stresses that they face can distract parents’ attention away from engaging in school as their circumstances necessitate urgency in attending to their livelihoods (Yoshikawa, Aber & Beardslee, 2012).

Social factors contributing to low achievement in youth of low SES

Instabilities in family life tend to be manifested as instabilities in the classroom environment, and can be obstacles to learning (Hutchinson, 2014). Youth of low SES may have less support in the home as a result of their parents working multiple jobs, a struggling single parent, and/or parents’ lack of English literacy skills. Due to various stresses, including financial, poor relationships, mental illness, and addictions in the home, youth may not receive proper nutrition, impacting their energy levels and ability to sustain focus at school (Hutchinson, 2014; Ormrod & Jones, 2015). Improper health care can lead to more absences due to illness, impacting school performance (Ormrod & Jones, 2015). Chronic stress related to the quality of their home relationships can further implicate their ability to concentrate, and can manifest itself as negative relationships with peers and educational staff (Ormrod & Jones, 2015) or as learning disabilities (Hutchinson, 2014).

Research suggests a positive relationship between low SES and self-esteem (Twenge & Campbell, 2002). Lower self-esteem can be an obstacle to youth, limiting their ability to engage in learning. Youth with low self-esteem are also more likely to have negative relationships with peers and teachers (Ormrod & Jones, 2015). Educators who hold youth of low SES to low expectations, which may lead to failure to provide appropriate supports, can feed the youths’ own narratives that they have less value and are less capable than their peers; thus contributing to lack of engagement in their learning and resultant underachievement.

Parents’ assumptions impact their children’s assumptions (Cheung & Pomerantz, 2012; Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). Parents may have had negative experiences during their own schooling that caused mistrust (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). They may view the school as hostile and judgmental to their social position and contributions, and may not feel like they belong, or assume that they are unwelcome in the educational context (Hands, 2013; Pushor & Murphy, 2004; Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). As a result, they may be resistant to involvement and engagement, and may unintentionally model their mistrust and internalized oppression to their children. Parents who pass on to their children the above assumptions can lead children to believe that it is useless for them to participate in learning activities. These ideas can prevent children from taking pride and ownership of their learning. Educators viewing this pattern through the lens of socialization can potentially continue to marginalize these youth and families.

Not all youth from low SES households are negatively affected by their social and economic circumstances, especially where low-income is a temporary situation (Ormrod & Jones, 2015). Youth can excel academically when they face few of these challenges, but their risk of failure increases the more challenges they face (Ormrod & Jones, 2015). When educators create equitable relationships and educational context, they can help youth excel regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances (Cummins, 2001; Hutchinson, 2014; Ormrod & Jones, 2015).

Negotiating new identities

Jim Cummins (2001) speaks of identity as being “negotiated”; as something dynamic or in-flux, rather than something fixed. As dynamic, it is defined through relationships. This places educators in a position of power:

[E]ducators define their own identities through their practice and their interactions with students. Students likewise go through a process of defining their identities in interactions with their teachers, peers, and parents….Thus, educators individually and collectively have the unique potential to work toward the creation of contexts of empowerment” (Cummins, 2001, p. 653).


Hence, educators always have power, as individuals, to create change, despite an often oppressive system; aside from their obligations to teach the curriculum, they have the freedom to determine how they will impact the youth in their classrooms, as well as the community, through their own choice of actions and interactions (Cummins, 2001—p. 653). Empowerment is not something that educators “give” to youth, but rather something that the youth negotiate for themselves in an educational context that is collaborative and reciprocal (Cummins, 2001).

With the goal of targeting the social inequities that underlie underachievement in impoverished youth, Cummins’ tripartite framework suggests three “images” that predict how power structures play out in educational contexts: image of the educators’ own identity, image of the identity options that educators highlight for youth, and image of the society that educators hope those youth will shape (2001). Interactions with families, in addition to the inclusion of youth that educators must also aim for in the classroom, can help to impact the youth such that they view themselves as more than who social norms dictate that they are; in doing so, educators can move towards supporting the creation of a more inclusive society. By developing positive relationships and engaging parents, educators can empower parents and youth to negotiate, and re-write new identities for themselves.

Parent engagement leads to social change

Through engagement, rather than involvement, parents more strongly influence their children and promote the value of education through their leadership in the educational context. Educators who engage parents provide them an opportunity to step out of the roles that society ascribes to them, and re-write a new identity; modelling to their children new possibilities for their identities. Pushor & Ruitenberg (2005) highlight parent engagement as a transition from marginalization to leadership: “Everyone…..has the potential to be a leader” (p. 67). This is the message that families, youth, and the community can receive through parent engagement practices. As equitable practice, parent engagement helps parents, and therefore youth, of low SES to re-write their identities and see a future of new possibilities. In doing so, it helps these youth to be empowered to gain tools and literacies to fulfill their potentials, and move towards creating a more equitable society.


[Watch out for The Impact of Parent Engagement…..Part 2]



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