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Parent Engagement: A Strategy for Promoting Social Equity and Enhancing Academic Achievement in Youth of Low Socioeconomic Status – Part 2

Parent Engagement: A Strategy for Promoting Social Equity and Enhancing Academic Achievement in Youth of Low Socioeconomic Status – Part 2

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

The impact of parent engagement: A distinction between involvement and engagement

Pushor & Ruitenberg (2005; Pushor & Murphy, 2004) have identified a clear distinction between involvement and engagement. Parent involvement includes activities such as helping their children with homework, chaperoning field trips and school events, volunteering at the school library, reading with individual or groups of students, helping with bake sales, raffles, and assisting with the coordination of events or trips. Whereas involvement positions parents at the service of the school and the goals of educators, engagement enables them to take on a collaborative role alongside educators (Hands, 2013; Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005), influencing the educational context through their relationships and potential contributions to policies, instruction and programming (Pushor & Murphy, 2004; Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). With this model, parents are recognized and respected as first and primary educators of their child (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). As collaborators, parents share power, authority, and agenda with educators (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005).

Involvement increases achievement; engagement leads to social change

Researchers have found that parent involvement increases achievement in low SES youth by influencing youth’s motivation to learn (Cheung & Pomerantz, 2012). As central and fundamental figures in their child’s life, parents’ interests, attitudes, and values matter to their child (Cheung & Pomerantz, 2012). Ultimately, through the process of socialization, the child appropriates their parents’ values into their own personal values system (Cheung & Pomerantz, 2012). Parents’ involvement models their support of school and the value of education to their child (Cheung & Pomerantz, 2012), thereby facilitating their child’s development of values regarding education and increasing their child’s motivation to learn.

To involve parents, educators do not need to change their beliefs and assumptions, since involved parents serve the existing, traditional power structure within the school. Engaging parents, however, requires educators to regard parents in terms of their value, not in terms of their deficits (Cummins, 2001; Pushor & Murphy, 2004; Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). Engaged parents do, of course, participate in activities considered ‘involvement,’ but they do so within a radically transformed relationship with the school, one that is equitable and characterized by shared power with educators (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005).

 Parent engagement at Princess Alexandra Community School in Saskatoon

The philosophy of parent engagement at Princess Alexandra Community School was to create a climate of invitation, build relationships, and to provide parents and families with responsibilities within the school context and opportunities to influence the school (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). The school created a climate of invitation by displaying pictures of families and children within the school, thereby giving parents and families a deliberate a place in the school. Staff ensured that visitors felt welcome, and sought to get to know families on more personable level. Not only did staff make the effort to make families feel welcome in the school, but staff also made the effort to visit families in their homes (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005), thus forming deeper relationships that extended beyond the school. Pushor & Ruitenberg describe how the implementation of the above strategies enhanced the educational context for the students:

“[T]hey are working to get to know parents, to build trust, to develop relationships with them, to listen to parents’ stories of children, themselves, and their family life. This new story of trust and relationships, in interrupting the taken-for-grantedness of the school landscape, offers possibility for parents and teachers to work side by side in the schooling of children.” (p. 50-51).

Furthermore, school staff always took opportunities to invite families to school events, directly and through word-of-mouth. An effective strategy for drawing parents into the school, especially reluctant parents, was to have them invite each other, or to ask another family member to invite their parents and family (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005).

Much of the relationship-building between the school and families centered around First Nations traditions, such as powwows and sweat ceremonies, as well as inviting Aboriginal knowledge into the classroom, since Princess Alexandra served a primarily Aboriginal community (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). For example, grandparents came into the school to share their knowledge with students, an especially holistic practice since the sharing of culture is important for elders as well as for promoting the continuation of Aboriginal culture and knowledge. The school staff and parents also worked together very closely. School staff invited parents to take on leadership roles within the school, and they were empowered to be strong leaders. They contributed to the sharing of knowledge in the school, were part of staff meetings, planned professional development for staff, and coordinated activities, including a sweat ceremony for parents and staff. Educators recognized that inviting parents to share their knowledge helped to nurture youth’s development of positive identities and enrich their learning context. Taking on a leadership role, parents could view themselves as respected collaborators, as having a new identity not defined by their “single story” (Adichie, 2009) related to their social class; as having the power to influence the school and their child’s education. Their leadership and empowerment within the educational context modeled to their children the value of education at the highest level, thus modeling leadership as a new identity option for their children (Cummins, 2001).

Educator beliefs and assumptions at Princess Alexandra

The philosophy of inclusion at Princess Alexandra began with the assumption that parents and families were equals in the school, whose knowledge and ideas made a difference to their children’s education (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). Many scholars have noted that educator beliefs and assumptions are often problematic because they perpetuate the ongoing oppression of youth, and families of low SES (Cummins, 2001; Hands, 2013; Pushor & Murphy, 2004). Pushor & Ruitenberg (2005) describe how staff at Princess Alexandra “looked inward” in determining how to improve parent engagement, and examined the quality of their relationship with parents and how their own contributions to those relationships (their beliefs and assumptions) either encouraged or discouraged engagement (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). Looking inward, the staff asked themselves:

“Who am I as a person? What kind of respect do I have for the parents I work with? How do I see them? [These educators] speak of looking inside themselves in regard to what personal beliefs and assumptions they may be unconsciously conveying to parents that may cause parents to feel unwelcome at the school, uncomfortable, or judged lesser in some way” (p. 29).

By looking inward and reflecting upon their own beliefs and assumptions, these educators recognized the power of their own positioning in the school and the need to bracket beliefs and assumptions that were obstacles to reciprocal and collaborative relationships with parents and families. Furthermore, their reflections highlighted their openness to changing their own practices rather than expecting change to come about solely in the parents and youth.

It is evident that, through these practices, the staff aimed to overcome barriers of social inequity and foster the development of a school climate and community that was inclusive and equitable. By engaging parents, Princess Alexandra staff empowered, rather than disempowered, parents, allowing these vulnerable families to appropriate new identities for themselves as leaders. This is an exemplary model for educators to examine when reflecting on the course of their own inclusive practices moving forward.

The model of parent engagement practiced at Princess Alexandra was not perfect in engaging all parents or sustaining their engagement, due to various factors such as complexities of the community, struggles of individual parents and families, and staffing changes at the school (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). Most worthy of note from this school’s example, however, is the staff’s implementation of a radical, inclusive philosophy that invited parents into equitable, collaborative relationship with the school. Their commitment to engage parents demonstrated recognition of the need to remediate deep inequities that impact children and the wider society. Pushor & Ruitenberg (2005) placed more emphasis on the beliefs, assumptions and actions of educators in implementing this radical model than on the response of students and parents to the model. While further research is needed to determine the effects of parents’ engagement on the youth at the school, their equitable practices provide a starting point for parent engagement practices to become adopted in more schools. It is necessary that educators view their own responsibilities in building an equitable educational context. Notwithstanding, educators’ practices can be modelled on the philosophy and practices outlined by Pushor & Ruitenberg (2005). The philosophy and practices at Princess Alexandra were indeed equitable and inclusive and would therefore promote an equitable and inclusive educational context for youth of low SES, as is important for improving their academic outcomes.

Moving Forward

 Some challenges

Educators face challenges in engaging parents. Pushor & Ruitenberg acknowledge that not all teachers wish to engage parents: “[After speaking with] co-researchers, it became very clear that Princess is not the right place to be for every teacher or teacher associate” (2005, p. 62). This highlights the reality that both pre-service and in-service educators, as well as assisting staff, require more training to understand the depth of the issues and to work more equitably with diverse groups of people (Hands, 2013; Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). Training at post-secondary institutions and through professional development can provide clarity on theories behind parent engagement, as well as strategies for developing practical communication skills. Much literature has been published on communication strategies that can assist them in developing positive relationships with parents and creating a welcoming school climate. More training can help educators to come to embrace, rather than reject, parent engagement.

 As an additional challenge, the model of parent engagement that Pushor & Ruitenberg’s (2005) articulate may be difficult to achieve. Aside from the challenge of educators rejecting parent engagement, the model also demands significant changes from traditional school structures. Educators must become aware of how their own beliefs and assumptions impact their relationships with low SES families, “look inward,” and recognize the need to change fundamentally oppressive structures that underlie underachievement in their students of low SES. Furthermore, Princess Alexandra is a full-school effort, requiring administration, educators, and support staff to make a commitment to engaging parents. Much time and planning would be required to develop a whole-school initiative to invite parents into a relationship of equal power. Taking parents’ perspectives and challenges into account, it will also be difficult for some parents to remain engaged in the school or to engage at all, even despite continued invitations, as Pushor & Ruitenberg (2005) noted to be a challenge at Princess Alexandra. Being aware of these challenges and the realities that families of low SES face can help educators to maintain fair assumptions, thus maintaining an equitable relationship with parents who still struggle to engage.

Educators should deliberately engage parents

Given that power structures and patterns of discrimination are deeply embedded in society (Cummins, 2001; Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012), educators must be intentional about understanding the impacts of social inequity, reflecting on their own beliefs and assumptions, and approaching parents. Both pre-service and in-service educators must ask themselves whether their work should reinforce norms that keep peoples divided within a community, or whether they should in fact work to overcome existing structures that run contrary to fundamental values that we wish to see played out in society, such as equality, social justice, and freedom (Cummins, 2001). It is the latter that aligns with the overarching goals of education. In Saskatchewan, these goals are outlined in the curriculum across all grade levels: the goals that children and youth will become lifelong learners; that they will develop a sense of self, community and place; and that they will become engaged citizens (Ministry of Education, 2010). To meet these goals, educators must be concerned with challenging traditional oppressive structures, so that those marginalized members of the community can see new identity options for themselves, feel valued, and thus become contributors to their fullest potential.

Individual educators have the power to engage parents through their own professional practices, regardless of whether their school has made a commitment to promoting parent engagement. Since families of low SES may be reluctant to engage, the responsibility is always on educators to initiate and build relationships with parents (Cummins, 2001; Hands, 2013). They should be persistent in making parents feel welcome in their classrooms and in inviting parents to collaborate (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). Their collaboration with parents promotes equity within the school and the wider society, and is also an equitable practice that has the success and wellbeing of youth as a focus.


Targeting social inequalities is the strongest means of addressing the more symptomatic problem of underachievement in low SES youth. Parent involvement is insufficient and ineffective because it perpetuates the patterns of discrimination and disempowerment that are seen in the wider society. Parent engagement can lead to deeper social change than involvement, impacting not only the families but also the future of their children and society. It creates an equitable model of community that we wish to see in the larger society, and empowers children, youth, and families by creating conditions for them to re-write their identities, envisioning new possibilities for who they are and who they can be. Consequentially, these conditions allow children to improve their achievement.

The staff at Princess Alexandra Community School recognized the importance of parent engagement as equitable practice, and as foundational for enhancing youth’s learning context. Their practices, which persistently invited parents into collaborative relationships of shared power, were intentionally aimed at remediating social inequities in the community and thus in the school. The practices at Princess Alexandra serve as examples of how individual educators can engage parents and help to remediate social inequities in the educational context and in the wider society, even if their school has not formally committed to a school-wide parent engagement philosophy.

Since parents and families of low SES are less likely to engage with the school, the responsibility is always on educators to initiate and invite (Cummins, 2001), and to keep inviting and building trust with the families (Pushor & Ruitenberg, 2005). With more knowledge of the social inequities underlying achievement, and with more knowledge of their own power to empower youth and families, educators can be emboldened to invite parents into shared power and to break down social barriers that limit the development of vulnerable youth to their fullest potential.



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