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Mapping Low-Income African American Parents’ Roles in Their Children’s Education in a Changing Political Economy

by Stuart Greene - 2013

Background: Much discussion and debate has surrounded the role that low-income minority parents can play in their children’s education. Research focusing on parents’ roles has stressed parents’ sense of self-efficacy, cultural background, socio-economic factors, and the context of school to explain not only what motivates parents to become involved in their children’s education, but also how, why, and in whose interests. However, few researchers have examined parents’ roles in the context of race and a changing political economy or the less visible roles that parents’ play in fostering their children’s intellectual and emotional growth.

Purpose: This research examined the roles parents constructed for themselves in their children’s education and the assets they brought to bear to support their children at home, at school, and in the community. This study also focused on the extent to which their roles changed over time through interacting with their children, other parents, and educators in parent involvement workshops.

Participants: 11 parents participated in the study. Of these 11 parents, 7 were females and 4 were males. Their average age was 36. Three had completed high school, two had passed their GED equivalency exams, and two had completed college. One parent was Caucasian, one Latino, and nine were African American.

Research Design: Qualitative methods were used to examine parents’ legacies of schooling, the ways parents were involved in their children’s education, and the challenges parents faced in their efforts to support their children. All data from interviews and focus groups were transcribed and analyzed to address the central questions motivating the study. Identifying categories of parent roles was an evolving and iterative process based on grounded theory and guided by prior research.

Findings: Findings revealed that parents supported their children’s emotional well-being at a time when their children were perhaps most vulnerable. They worked patiently with their children when instruction in school outpaced their children’s levels of understanding, when teachers did not provide clear instructions for completing homework assignments, and when parents needed to find programs well suited to their children’s education.

Conclusion/Recommendations: Listening to parents’ voices helps us see the extent to which what matters most to families is often not visible to educators. Parents did not limit their involvement to supporting their children’s performance on standardized test scores, but adopted a broad conception of education. Therefore, it is important that educators understand more fully who parents are, what parents are already doing to support their children, and develop models of parent involvement that are reciprocal and collaborative.

Much discussion and debate has surrounded the role that low-income minority parents can play in their children’s education.  This discussion has accelerated with some urgency, particularly in the context of widening achievement gaps, efforts to stabilize financial markets in the United States and Europe, and educational policies designed to ensure that children are prepared for a new economy.  Research focusing on parents’ roles has stressed individual factors, such as parents’ sense of self-efficacy (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997; Hoover-Dempsey, Walker, Sandler, Whetsel, Green & Wilkins, 2005), cultural background (Delgado-Gaitan, 1992, 2001), socio-economic factors (Lareau, 2003), and the context of school to explain not only what motivates parents to become involved in their children’s education, but also how, why, and in whose interests (Auerbach, 2007).  This body of work has helped bring into relief the extent to which the roles parents adopt is best understood within an ecological perspective (Barton, Drake, Perez, St. Louis, & George, 2004). After all, the lives of children and families are nested within the broad socio-cultural landscape of neighborhoods, communities, institutions, and policies that are local, national, and global.  

Although researchers stress the interconnections among parents’ roles, culture, agency, and structural factors, studies of parent involvement are typically limited to the relationships between home and school. Researchers tend to understate the structural problems that often inhibit low-income minority parents’ presence in school (e.g., Epstein, 2010; Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Hoover-Dempsey, Ice, & Whitaker, 2009).  Therefore, the broader contexts of parents’ lives, including a changing political economy is often left in the shadows. As a result, little attention is given to the neighborhoods and communities where parents must navigate both opportunity and risk to gain advantage for their children. Indeed, few researchers studying parent involvement have examined parents’ roles in the context of race and a changing political economy or the less visible roles that parents’ play in fostering their children’s intellectual and emotional growth (but see Cucchiara, 2008; Cucchiara & Horvat, 2009; Lipman 2004, 2011; Nespor, 1997). To complicate parents’ roles within this broader socio-cultural and economic landscape has the potential to make visible the strategies parents use to educate their children and to address the lack of access and equity for low-income minority families.  Moreover, listening to parents’ stories can contribute to productive home-school-community partnerships.

Three primary questions informed this qualitative study of low-income African American families: (a) how did parents construct the roles they played in their children’s education, (b) what were the assets they brought to their children’s education, and (c) to what extent did their role change over time through interacting with their children, other parents, as well as educators in parent involvement workshops? As Graue (1999; Graue & Hawkins, 2010) pointed out, the roles educators and parents adopt have an ethical dimension that few researchers have examined in efforts to create home-school-community partnerships. What responsibilities are connected to parents’ roles?  What are parents’ and teachers’ ethical responsibilities to one another and who has the power to determine the nature of the relationship between parents and teachers? There is much at stake in understanding how parents construct roles within the context of race and a changing political economy.  Authentic, meaningful partnerships require that educators know who parents are, what they value, and what their priorities are in trying to create a space for themselves in an economy that has left them behind.

My primary aim was to draw a conceptual map that placed parent involvement and the roles they adopted in a broad social, cultural, racial, and economic landscape. Specifically, I have taken a micro-level approach that focused on the roles that parents constructed in the context of interacting with their children, teachers, and administrators.  For Hoover-Dempsey and her colleagues (1997, 2005), parents’ roles reflected their sense of personal or shared responsibility for their child’s educational outcomes and their belief that their actions could make a difference (e.g., that they could change the school’s decision to place their child in special education).  In addition, the notion of self-efficacy was a significant factor in parents’ decisions about the goals parents choose to pursue, as well as their persistence in working toward the accomplishment of those goals.  I have also taken a macro-level approach that brought into focus the ways in which parents’ histories of schooling framed the roles they constructed for themselves.  Moreover, their roles were shaped by policies that limited their access to adequate resources in the neighborhood where they lived and where their children attended school. Taking a micro- and macro-level approach to parents’ roles reflected the ecological approach that Miller (2011) took in mapping opportunity zones to understand both school and non-school factors on children’s development and that Barton and her colleagues (2004) developed to explain parent engagement as a dynamic, interactive process that occurred across the multiple spaces where children learn.  Parent involvement existed in the context of relationships with their children, educators, families, and the community.

Adopting an ecological perspective, I have sought to understand the complex relationships that parents forged with their children as well as with educators.  Therefore, traditional distinctions between home and school were not as useful as an analytical tool for identifying the nature of parents’ involvement. Measuring parents’ support and efforts to advocate for their children against traditional models of parent involvement (e.g., Epstein, 1995, 2010) has limited our vision of what parents are able accomplish outside the institution of school. As Auerbach (2007) observed, the strategies that may not be visible to educators are often the very strategies that low-income minority parents teach their children (e.g., pride, resilience, the importance of family and community, navigational strategies, aspirations) to protect themselves against the corrosive effects of institutional racism.

For the purpose of my analyses, I shifted away from an instrumental view of parent involvement that limits definitions of parents’ involvement to supporting their children’s academic achievement in school.  Parent involvement is as much about parents’ orientations to the world and includes the multiple spaces of their lived experiences. Prins and Torso (2008), among others, have challenged a dominant discourse of parent involvement that is universal and that treats difference from the norm as a deficit.  As they argued, a socio-cultural view of parent involvement forces educators to consider the historically and culturally situated nature of family structure and the principles that define what it means to be involved.  Culture is a fluid concept that encompasses the lived experiences of students and their families (Li, 2010). Parents’ beliefs, values, and worldview give meaning to their lives, but Howard (2010) and others have emphasized individual variations within families and argued that culture is neither bound by race nor ethnicity.  What “works” for one family at one point in time within a given context will not necessarily work with other families in other contexts, especially when, as educators, we consider the fact that not all families have access to the same economic and educational resources. Lopez and Stoelting (2010) also cautioned that it is a mistake to place the burden of children’s success on families.  Educators cannot, they argue, remove the “onus” of students’ learning from schools.  

Invoking a history of Black activism, Tillman (2004) has observed that educators cannot ignore the lack of trust and commitment to schools that have long failed to educate students of color through deficit models of teaching and learning—that treat difference as a deficit—and have been complicit in reproducing inequality. Although “cultural, social, and economic differences may position African American parents as outsiders in school as they are presently structured, it is not necessarily the case that these parents are uninterested” (p. 169).  It follows that parents need to know educators are listening and that they count in any effort to build parent-family-school partnerships.


To map out parents’ roles, I have relied on Auerbach (2007) who explained that parent roles and social position were best represented along a continuum. These roles can be characterized as “less proactive to more proactive” within the broader categories of “supporters and advocates.” Importantly, Auerbach’s research has brought into sharp relief the extent to which parents’ roles existed in a context of “broad inequalities” (p. 251) that can silence and marginalize low-income minority parents (e.g., Cucchiara, 2008; Lareau, 2003).  Moreover, parents adopted multiple roles that evolved over time as they negotiated ways to gain advantage for their children at home, at school, or in the community (see also Barton et al., 2004). Thus parent roles were both fluid and socially constructed in different contexts.

I also drew upon Yosso’s (2005) conception of “community cultural wealth” to make visible the strategies that people of color use to confront institutional structures to maintain or improve upon their own social positions. Indeed, Yosso argued that oppression has long engendered a sense of agency in African American families, as well as self-reliance and resistance in their effort to gain access and equity in education. By focusing her research on the experiences of families and their children, Yosso revealed the accumulated assets and resources many families possessed, but which educators can easily ignore. These assets can include, but are not limited to, aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, familial, and resistant capital (see also Auerbach, 2001).  Still, inasmuch as Yosso’s framework offered a significant point of departure from prior studies that examined parent involvement, additional research is warranted to understand the kinds of capital that low-income minority parents use to support their children’s education at home, in school, and in the community.

Finally, I drew upon Critical Race Theory (CRT) to press the questions of whose knowledge counts and whose knowledge is discounted in studies that overgeneralize about family background and educational success (Delgado Bernal, 2002; Ladson Billings, 2000). Rooted in an activist tradition in the struggle for racial justice, CRT has theorized the extent to which race and racism are a permanent, enduring part of American culture and the ways law and policy have reproduced inequality (Crenshaw, 2010; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, 1993). Most relevant to my study of parent involvement, CRT centers the voices and counter-narratives—mestiza knowledge—of marginalized groups to learn about the rich cultural knowledge that socially marginalized groups possess, to challenge dominant narratives that leave unquestioned assumptions about low-income families, and to critique deficit theories of teaching and learning (Ladson-Billings, 2000).  

For some, the lack of opportunities available for minority families may seem like class issues, not the consequences of race.  However, Lewis (2003, 2008) argued that it would be a mistake to talk about one without the other given a long history of state-sponsored segregation and policies that have limited African Americans’ access to wealth and material resources (e.g., Massey & Denton, 1993; Squires & Kubrin, 2005). Fiscal disparities and state-sponsored racism contribute to what Ladson-Billings (2006) has described as the “education debt.”  She invoked the notion of an “education debt” to challenge current discourse about the “achievement gap.” For Ladson-Billings, the dominant discourse has placed responsibility on students and families of color to change in ways that will narrow that gap.  However, placing the burden on families alone ignores the structural inequalities that have placed low-income children of color at a disadvantage in schools lacking the material resources that children need to flourish.

If the goal of increased engagement is to strengthen families and communities, then doing so will require that educators and teachers listen to families’ voices—to their counter-stories—and recognize the complexity of the problems that families seek to address in their day-to-day lives.  That is, whether or not parents will be partners in children’s education is a function of a school’s willingness and ability to recognize, respect, and address families’ needs.  Moreover, learning how to cross cultural and racial boundaries seems essential to the ways that educators train teachers to develop partnerships with families as a shared responsibility.


This study was conducted at Ida B. Wells Primary Center. (All names are pseudonyms).  Built nearly sixty years ago in the Art Deco tradition, the school is set back just about one hundred feet from a busy thoroughfare that connects the northeast neighborhood to downtown.  It’s not uncommon to see children crossing this busy street bathed in darkness when school begins, sometimes with a parent close behind, sometimes not.  Just to the north of Ida B. Wells is an angled road, a state highway, that is one of the area’s most frequently-travelled intersections where high-speed traffic and congestion create “hazardous” conditions for pedestrians (Development plan, n.d.).

The entrance to the school faces the neighborhood where there is a park and neat rows of houses whose occupants live at or below the poverty line.  However, according to a recent development plan, the surrounding neighborhood has been vulnerable to negative economic and social forces, including White flight and slow economic growth. As the authors of this report explained, disparate commercial and residential structures show signs of “disinvestment” (Development plan, n.d.). Families near Ida B. Wells had limited access to goods and services, such as a full-service grocery store, pharmacy, health-care providers, a library, employment opportunities, or reliable public transportation.

Beyond the busy intersection to the north and slightly west of Ida B. Wells is a neighborhood that city planners, the neighborhood association, and others have sought to rehabilitate (see Figure I).  Large single-family homes have begun to replace rental properties and vacant, deteriorating houses across a sixty-acre section of land in the neighborhood.  Older, cottage-style homes have been refurbished.  Within sight of Ida B. Wells directly to the north is a university and the transformation of a once-impoverished neighborhood that now serves mostly White, high-income professionals who live in quarter-of-a-million dollar condominiums and townhouses, and dine in upscale restaurants.  As Anyon (1997) has suggested, it is hard not to translate spatial demographics like these into racial disparities.


Since an average of 86% of students attending Ida B. Wells qualified for free lunch, it was categorized as a Title 1 school. Data for the years when this study was conducted indicated the following racial make-up: 48% Black, 21% Hispanic, 15% White, 12% Multiracial, and 4% Asian.  According to the 2008 Census Bureau Report, 19.4% of children under 18 in the main census tract within the school’s boundaries were living in poverty, a percentage that was above the national average of just over 15% at the time of the study. The No Child Left Behind Report Card for Ida B. Wells from 2004-2008 showed passing rates below both district and state rates in every category except one. Moreover, large gaps in achievement existed between free lunch and paid-lunch students and between African American and White students.


After reviewing 2nd and 3rd grade standardized test scores, the principal of Ida B. Wells was disappointed in the children’s performance. An African American woman who grew up in the neighborhood surrounding Ida B. Wells and later taught there, the principal identified what she believed was one source of children’s low performance. “If only parents were involved, I just know their children would do better in school.” She wanted the families to know the value of holding high expectations, to use literacy to forge relationships with their children, and to gain access to resources such as the library and cultural centers to enhance children’s learning.

The principal’s response to parents’ seeming “lack of involvement” was to reach out to university researchers, the director of a community literacy center, and other educators who formed the core of an education collaborative that met monthly for several years. In keeping with Compton-Lilly’s (2003) research, the principal and others agreed that we should begin by listening to parents’ stories of growing up, going to school, and supporting their children. With another researcher, I documented parents’ and teachers’ conceptions about what it meant to be “involved” (Greene & Long, 2010).  Subsequently, the principal decided to create a space within the school where parents could have weekly conversations with one another and with teachers.  The context of weekly meetings, or workshops, would also help parents build a network of support, share stories, and provide educators with an opportunity to learn from parents about their priorities, beliefs, values, and aspirations for their children. What started out as a 1 semester, 12-week workshop, became an on-going series of workshops for 2 years in collaboration with another primary school.  


The principal initially identified 25 students whose scores were close to passing, sent letters home, called parents, and visited with parents at their homes to solicit parents’ participation in workshops.  From this larger pool of 25 families, 11 parents agreed to participate in the study and consistently attended 12 90-minute workshops on parent involvement. Of these 11 parents, 7 were females and 4 were males. Their average age was 36.  Three had completed high school, two had passed their GED equivalency exams, and two had completed college. One parent was Caucasian, one Latino, and nine were African American.  Nearly two-thirds of the parents were unemployed when the study began. Parents who were employed worked in areas of service. Only one parent was employed full time.  


In-depth interviews were conducted with each of the 11 parents who agreed to participate in the workshops.  Conducted two weeks before the workshops were scheduled to begin, each interview lasted up to 45 minutes and helped document parents’ life histories. The script of questions, based on Fine and Weis’s (1998) study of adults living in poverty, prompted parents to reflect on their own experiences at school, their parents’ education and involvement in their education, the neighborhoods where they grew up, and their lives now as parents, including their working lives, neighborhoods, and relationships with their children.  These interviews were recorded by video camera and audiotaped in a classroom at the school. (See Appendix A for a complete list of questions.)

Each of the 11 parents also participated in a focus group held at two different times to accommodate work schedules a week before the parents began to attend workshops. As a method, focus groups (Berg, 2011‬) were particularly helpful as a complement to interviews.  In this case, they provided a supportive environment for parents to describe the ways they were involved in their children’s education, as well as the challenges they faced.  Parents’ stories also served as a springboard for discussions in workshops. (See Appendix B for a complete list of questions.)

Informal conversations with each parent, recorded in field notes, strengthened the portrait of parent involvement that evolved during a two-year period.  These conversations took place at school and other settings such as the library and a local museum that parents visited with their children as part of the workshops, or over meals that preceded weekly meetings. In addition, parents maintained weekly logs to record any changes that occurred in the ways they interacted with their children, at school, or the community.


All data were transcribed and analyzed to address the central questions motivating the study: How did parents see their role in their children’s education and to what extent did the parents’ views change over time?  I parsed interview and focus-group transcripts into T-units, which consisted of independent clauses and any embedded subordinate clauses (cf., Greene & Long, 2010). By coding transcripts at a syntactic level of meaning, I sough to account for more of the data in the interviews and focus groups than researchers typically analyze. The brief excerpt below, taken from a focus-group transcript, exemplifies what a parsed transcript looks like. In this case, a father explained how he helped his son after school:




(I make sure that before he goes outside, or he do anything, you know, and he take off his coat, I say homework, homework, homework.)  (You know, to let him know that's instilled in his mind, homework.)  (Get that work done.) (What I do now is let him do it himself,) and (then I check it) and (see if it's done right.)  (Most time it is done right,) (Sometime I have to, you know, [inaudible] and show him words that he missed) and (stuff like that,) (but he, you know, instill in him homework, you know).  (Before you go outside and play, homework).  (He does a good job at that now, you know.) (At first, he wanted––the first part of the school year he wanted to, you know, he wanted to just come home and play, play, play.)  (I said no.) (Homework first 'cause he has to get something up here.)  (He's learning more about that now.)

I took a grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) approach to interpreting the transcripts.  I then identified the categories of parent roles as an “evolving and iterative process” (Barton, et al., 2004).  More specifically, I read all of the transcripts, wrote narratives that captured the individual differences among the 11 parents’ life histories and approaches to parent involvement, and then merged my analyses to develop categories.  The typology of parent roles that Auerbach (2007) developed also served as a guide for my analysis. These roles ranged from moral and emotional supporter to supporter and advocate. Auerbach characterized parents’ strategies as existing along a continuum from passive (e.g., indirect, behind the scenes, hands-off) to proactive (e.g., direct, instrumental, hands-on).  For Auerbach (2007), advocacy (i.e., “struggling advocates”) was a proactive role that was more often than not connected to parents’ presence at school.

In the excerpt above, the father adopted the role of a supporter (S) in which he monitored his son’s schoolwork. He wanted to ensure that his son completed his assignment before going outside to play.  The kind of support was coded further as taking “responsibility for learning” (rl).  Taking a hands-on, direct approach, he then checked the accuracy of his son’s work. This kind of hands-on direct approach was characteristic of supporters who took responsibility for their children’s schoolwork.  I include examples of each category in the coding scheme in Table I and a coded transcript in Appendix C.  Two independent coders analyzed 20% of the data in order to identify the roles that parents had adopted and to ensure reliability. There was 90% agreement in assigning a given category. An extended period of fieldwork and converging methods of analysis also contributed to strengthening both reliability and validity. As with other qualitative studies, findings are not generalizable to other populations. Instead, this study sought to refine theoretical frameworks for describing the roles that parents constructed for themselves.

I was very much a part of the research that I conducted and have an unambiguous investment in seeing the families and children whose lives I chronicled flourish. I have spent a great deal of time with them inside and outside of school, and have a perspective on their lives which teachers and administrators do not. Still, I recognize that I am a White male researcher, and a professor with all of the power and privilege that my status carries with it.  I can’t erase the power differential, the differences in race, gender, and class, or the access I have to resources. Given my role as researcher, it is possible that I may have inadvertently influenced some parents’ views. Moreover, despite the best of intentions, I recognize that I can can slip into objectifying parents or children in ways that implicate the unequal power relations between researcher and researched.  With Peshkin (2000), I would argue that although researchers can never really eradicate these unequal relations of power, researchers can and should “be forthcoming and honest about how we work as researchers” (p. 9).


Analyses revealed some variation in the ways that the 11 parents in this study constructed their roles.  At the same time, the parents’ approaches also clustered around a number of common areas in the approaches they took to supporting and advocating for their elementary-aged children. For this group of parents, support manifested itself in allowing their children space to make decisions, to see that they had choices, and that these choices had consequences.  Allowing children to have space may seem like a passive strategy, but parents who adopted such a view were mindful that they were teaching their children to become independent and self-reliant, even at a young age. The same parents also provided hands-on strategies of helping their children with their schoolwork and guided their children with a clear understanding that they expected their children to succeed in school. Thus parents cleared away distractions so that their children could do their homework as soon as they came home every afternoon.

Categories overlapped and flowed into one another, so that support can at times be construed as advocacy. For example, home literacy (e.g., monitoring or helping with homework, reading together) is a form of support that can also be understood as a form of advocacy (i.e., acting on a child’s behalf to gain advantage).  One parent also spoke of doing research to find the best school for her child, relying on friends and family for advice before drawing her own conclusions about where to send her child.  Identifying appropriate resources is a form of support that took her into the community, but not into the schools to get the information she needed. In the end, many parents came to recognize the value of communicating with their children’s teachers to clarify what teachers expected and to impress upon teachers that they cared about their children’s education.  

In what follows, I describe the range of meanings that parents attached to supporting their children. My aim is to provide an inclusive view of parent involvement that focuses on parents’ awareness, proclivities, and predispositions in adopting one role or another.  I did not simply examine their behaviors or presence at school.  In the section, “Parents as Supporters,” I relied on interviews and focus groups conducted before parents participated in parent involvement workshops. In “Parents as Advocates,” I explain some of the changes in parents’ approaches to helping their children gain advantage in school.  I suggest that parent involvement workshops created the conditions for parents’ agency.


Monitoring and Helping with Homework

Parents were uniformly aware that they needed to monitor their children’s homework and ensured that their children took their time to complete their assignments with accuracy and precision.  The routine for all of the parents was to tell their children to start their homework as soon as they came home from school.  Most had created spaces in their homes with a desk and chair where their children could work quietly, but the lure of older children playing outside, video games, music, and television were distractions that could turn a one-hour assignment into three hours.  One parent’s description of getting her daughter started and then coming back to help was fairly typical of the challenges that parents faced: “As long as I was there, she could get everything done on that paper.  But as long as I walked away she couldn’t get anything done.  So I make it a system. I’ll help you read the directions and we’ll do one and two but the rest has got to be on you.  And then I’ll come back and check stuff.”  A common refrain was that the children wanted to “just hurry up and get it done.”  The parents were well aware of their children’s capabilities and were disappointed to see that they rushed through their homework so that they could do other things.  

Parents were vigilant about what their children needed. As one parent put it, “You have to feel your children out.”  That is, the extent to which parents were involved and the role they constructed for themselves often depended on what their children needed at the time. In all but two cases, parents adopted a hands-on approach to helping with homework by listening to their children read aloud, playing math games, or writing with their children if they saw that their children felt the work was too difficult or they did not understand the instructions.  For example, one parent explained, “My daughter brought home some homework and I was looking at it this morning and she had missed like seven.  She said these are new problems that are hard.  I said, well I'll go through this and then we'll pick out the problem that you're having a hard time with and then I'll make up some problems for you and we'll go through 'em and get you going.”  

Similarly, another parent explained that she realized that her daughter was having difficulties in school, and this parent started to go to school to motivate her: “I started getting a lot more involved about two years ago when Sonia felt like she was losing her motivation for school.  She was 7.  She was always excited about school.  But then she started to lose her motivation.  We didn’t know what was behind it so I just started being at the school.”  This parent soon realized that her presence at school provided the motivation her daughter needed; in turn, her daughter’s response to her mother’s presence reinforced the reciprocal nature of parent involvement, with both parent and child influencing each other’s actions: “I was excited about coming to the school and I was here all the time and I used to sit in class on test day and eat lunch with her and go to breakfast with her and whatever I can do because it seemed like the more excited I was the more excited she was.”  Unemployed at the time, she used the opportunity she had to support her daughter.  Hourly service jobs do not provide the flexibility that parents need in order to be a presence at school.

At times, parents’ efforts to support their children’s needs were frustrated by their perceptions that teachers didn’t give their children enough time to learn.  They uniformly believed that teachers were more concerned with covering the material than with their children’s ability to understand the material.  Reflecting the disconnect she felt, Therese explained,

“I feel like I teach them a lot more at home than anybody because I’m constantly at the dinner table with them or at their desk.  And it seems like I had to reiterate everything they learned.” Another parent, Devon, observed that “the way the schools are set up, they’re rushing them so fast.  Like, Michelle was doing addition and then they were introducing subtraction but she hadn’t mastered addition and then they moved on to multiplication and she still wasn’t okay with the addition.” One could argue that teachers often operate under a level of stress in a climate of increased standards, accountability, and standards.  A focus on outcomes can also negate the rhythms of students’ learning and the kind of teaching that follows children’s developmental paths in culturally relevant ways.

Listening and Building Children’s Self-Esteem

Parents responded to their children’s needs and helped build their self-esteem.  For example, Marc’s efforts were directed at helping his six boys believe in themselves and persist: “I try to teach 'em don't ever give up.  Whatever you do don't give up because there's somebody somewhere that can help you with whatever it is that you need help with.  If you're not getting it, if I can't help you, we'll find somebody that can help you, and I'll do that.  And I think that's important.”  Similarly, Amy tried to be a model for her children and worked tirelessly to help her youngest who attended Ida B. Wells develop confidence despite a slight speech impediment: “I have to constantly encourage her that, you know, that's just part of who you are, don't let that discourage you from anything, you read just as well as the next person, so I have to push her a little bit more than some of the other kids.” Her efforts to create a learning space for her daughter existed apart from any encouragement at school.

Amy recognized the need of children in the neighborhood and with other single mothers reached out to nurture them in ways that contrasted with her own experiences of growing up.  Such an approach also supported her daughter’s learning and created a social network among a group of mothers who relied on each other for help, including day care and some supervision for academic work.

We sit all the kids down in a room and we pass around a chapter book and everybody has to read a page, and if you're a good reader and you're sitting by one of the younger kids, then you have to help them sound out the words very patiently, very kindly, very lovingly, not talking down to them.

Amy learned to create what I would describe as a learning community—modeled not on her own mother’s approach—but on one of the foster families she grew up in. In fact, her mother often intimidated her and fueled Amy’s insecurities as a reader. Amy also explained a significant source of her commitment to others:

I grew up in a single family home and I made myself a promise that no matter what [we go through] if I’m there or not that my kids will never go through it.  I know how hard it is being a single parent.  Most kids that grow up in broken homes aren’t really successful.

Parents’ efforts to be involved and foster children’s learning occurred within the context of children’s interests and sense of identity. As one parent explained, “It depends on where that kid's at, you know, you know all your kids and where they at, so you know to discipline 'em on different things, so some things is good and some things is bad, so every parent know their kid.”  Another emphasized the value of finding different strategies to support children in ways that reflected what they believed their children needed. “You kinda have to feel your children out, when one thing won't work for 'em, don't give up on 'em, find another avenue.”  All of the parents in this study seemed to understand the importance of listening to their children and establishing an emotional bond through conversation.

This sense of “finding different ways,” “disciplining them,” and “find[ing] another avenue,” challenged assumptions that some researchers have about low-income families’ involvement. For example, Lareau (2003) has characterized low-income and working-class families as inattentive to their children’s needs.  They rely on a “natural growth” model to parent involvement in contrast to the strategies of “concerted cultivation” that middle-class families use. However, the binary that Lareau (2003) creates is misleading.  I would argue that the distinction is more fluid than she would allow given the proactive strategies that parents described above used in responding to their children.  

Providing Children with Room to Learn

Parents recognized that they needed to support their children in strategic, intentional ways, but they also took a hands-off approach. For example, Beatrice emphasized the necessity of giving her children space to learn and support in life by making sure they were aware that their decisions had consequences:

They can keep each other company and do their own little thing when they want to.  They can have their space when they want to.  I think the biggest thing is, I just make my kids deal with the consequences of their actions.  I mean, let them make decisions that some people feel like at that age they shouldn’t make, but you know what, you’re going to have to deal with the consequences, you might as well let them know at a young age because you’re going to have to do it all your life.

This type of life lesson applied to what Beatrice tried to teach her children about school and the intrinsic motivation she wanted them to develop in making the right decisions. She offered this rationale for taking such an approach:

You’re going to have to sit there and get it done anyway, you know?  On his own, my son is going to have to say “I’m going to do my homework because I don’t want to have after school detention,” instead of me sitting here you know, giving him the answers and doing it for him.

Beatrice also provided structure to help her children see that she was committed to supporting their education.  Mirroring Amy’s approach, Beatrice gathered her children around a “big giant dining room table” and relied on her children to help each other out:

If they need help go get your brother or sister I mean, you know and it teaches them how to take care of each other and look out for one another so when they get older, you know they already watch out for one another. They’ve got that bond.

Therese took a similar approach by providing her children with the space they needed, although her work schedule, opposite her husband’s, forced the issue. She let them be on their own.

I come home or when they see me and, you know, to show me their homework, after they're done I'll go over it, and then after that they're pretty much just go do their own thing. Then their dad gets up, because I work in the evening.  When they're home from school I basically go to work.

Despite Therese’s seemingly hands-off approach to supporting her children, Therese cared for and nurtured them.  She read to her youngest daughter when she could and expected her older children to help one another with their schoolwork.

Serving As a Role Model

Parents’ awareness was not limited to school-based assignments.  Like other parents, Keisha explained that she “pushed” all of her children to succeed. “I kinda give them my story and that kinda make ‘em go a little further, kinda give ‘em inspiration.”  Marc, whose background was, in his words, “hard,” also expressed the importance of serving as a role model for his children—especially as an African American father.  Having grown up in a single-parent family with a strong mother, he wanted to be a presence in his sons’ lives.  “I can only do the best I can do,” he explained. “I try to give my children what I didn’t have.” He wanted his sons to have an “affinity for others’ well being” and a strong sense of faith. Therefore, he expected them to contribute to the local community:

We had them see what the homeless shelter looks like.  We let them serve food on Christmas, you know.  We take baskets around to people who don’t have food.  You kind of got to have them see the world for what it is.  So that’s our system.

Providing his sons with experiences such as working in a homeless shelter or delivering meals to people reflected Marc’s commitment to building his sons’ character.  He wanted his sons to be kind and care about others even if they were facing their own struggles.  

Marc taught his children “morals, values, you know, what’s important, what’s false, what’s true, that’s something that I’m working on.”  After all, he explained that it was

important to teach kids, and some people don't, but I think it is because I mean you always, as a parent you always want your children to do a little bit better than you've done.  I mean, at least I do.

Norton (2010) argued that it can be quite easy to ignore the ways children and their families use faith to develop a sense of strength needed to transform seemingly painful situations into opportunities for spiritual growth, adequacy, and direction in their lives (Comer, 2004). It is also important to understand how parents and their children move in and out of multiple spaces. Participating in events at church or a local homeless center shed light on the ways families helped their children develop a sense of place, identity, and belonging.

Marc also reached out to others to instill in other youth the values that he has embraced and that he taught his children.  Like the other fathers in this study, he was aware that “guys that have children that’s totally just abandoned.” Therefore,

I’m a mentor at a middle school.  I’ve mentored this student who’s in the sixth grade.  This is a really wonderful experience for me to kind of tap into another, you know, just another youth, another youth and invest some, maybe some positive things that I may be able to interject and, you know, just sit back and read with him, spend time and then tell him what I tell my own boys, that you’re something, you’re going to do something great one day.  

He was committed to helping African American youth focus on their education and flourish. In addition, he wanted to give back to a community that helped him, especially Habitat for Humanity, which built the house that he lived in with his six boys, his nephew, and wife of eleven years.

Building Resilience, Creating Hope

Like many of the families in this study, Marc said that he was trying to survive.  “We’re like, okay, how do we survive, how do we survive in a society with the economics just crashing down and just from going to work and coming home to a house filled with eight people.”  In doing so, he taught his children that they mattered. This was exemplified at the Fellowship dinners they all attended at church and his presence, at the sporting events they participated in, or the piano lessons he secured for his son.

Amy’s words echoed Marc’s.  Amy taught her children to persist in the face of the struggles they have experienced:

We need to struggle together [rather] than everybody trying to pull their separate ways.  I try to be honest with my kids, you know, this is where we're at and this is what we're going through and this is what we gotta do to get to the other side, and you know, when we lived in those projects I would tell 'em, you know, I know it's really crampy in here and I know it's just, I said but you know what this is just a stepping stone. This isn't the end, you know, it each time it'll get better.

Amy could not help but draw upon a wellspring of hope that helped her complete classes in high school, while also taking care of an infant and maintaining an apartment.  She taught her children important lessons of surviving together as a family.

Creating Safe Spaces

Finally, parents supported their children by protecting them in a neighborhood where both economic and educational policies fragmented any real sense of community.  Like other parents participating in the study, Maya spoke of protecting her children and creating a “safe” place.  She grew up with her aunt, a brother, and her cousins after her mother and sister were murdered.  Maya lived near Ida B. Wells, but she has not been able to escape the violence of the city she grew up in or the social isolation that fear brought about:  

It's a good neighborhood but it's the people in the neighborhood, it's like it's dark down there and then they work their way down here where it's good, and it's sometimes I'm scared to let my kids play outside 'cause last summer right at the corner somebody was shooting at somebody and I'm like should I let my kids go outside, or should I make 'em stay in the house.  

Latrise, too, lived in a neighborhood close to Ida B. Wells. Her main concern was that few children her sons’ age lived near them.  She was equally concerned about the amount of drug activity that they saw on their way to school.  Unemployed for three years, she accompanied her youngest to school, but not all of the parents had that luxury and worried about their children walking on narrow sidewalks alongside a busy corridor to downtown. The high-traffic area near the school was particularly worrisome for parents in the winter when few people cleared the sidewalks and children would be forced into the street.

Devon walked with his daughter to Ida B. Wells Primary School and his reflections underscored the challenge of staying connected to other families:

So you’re not involved, you know, you don’t have that close knit relationship like when I went to school.  Everybody knew their kids ‘cause they all went to the same school.  Here you be on one street, another street and kids going over here and they got a line of kids waiting for this bus to go that way and stuff.  Totally messed up.

Devon’s comments called attention to the result of creating magnet schools in the city, which forced many students to leave their neighborhood schools.  In addition, the city’s consent decree had some negative effects because minority students could be bussed across the city to help ensure some degree of racial balance.  These efforts at racial balancing failed and, by some measures, over 30% of the 10 primary schools in this city were actually out of compliance (Warlick, 2011).  Devon felt little connection to a school that once served as the center of his neighborhood.  Similarly, Therese spoke of the value of neighborhood schools. “Everything's changed so much now with the districts and everything, you could live across the street from somebody and they'll go to a different school.”  Unfortunately, policies that directly affected parents were beyond their control. The result was that parents were unsure about how to take on significant roles that connected home and school.  

Moreover, policymakers may not recognize that decisions in education or economic development can isolate low-income families. For example, Paviel reflected on how the city’s re-development of the area between Ida B. Wells and the University has affected her.

It’s really not the same as what it used to be because before a lot of people are no longer in the neighborhood.  That’s what makes it so different . . . It’s had its share of problems but I never knew of any big problems.  But a lot of people that were in this neighborhood, in this area, have been they’ve died, gone to jail, moved on . . . They’re being pushed out of the neighborhood because they’re buying up everything.

Paviel explained the displacement that has fragmented the neighborhood where she lived and the way that power produces inequality by investing in new gentrified spaces and disinvesting in low-income neighborhoods.


Advocacy represented an emerging set of strategies that parents learned over time as a means for gaining opportunity for their children in school. One way that parents advocated for their children was to actively find the best school or program for a child.  For example, Therese initially wanted her children to attend the primary school where she went to school as a child. However, she spoke with friends and family and recognized why she should send them to a school with programs that will give her children what they need. They had a nice teacher over there but to me, over here [Ida B. Wells], they have more programs to help, they been working with [my son] so much.” She also enrolled her son in a summer program at the Learning Center and “the [family coordinator] she's really been working with my kids.”  By the time this study was conducted, Ida B. Wells had missed the cutoff for Annual Yearly Progress for four consecutive years.  As a consequence, all parents received a notice that explained that they had the option to send their children to another school or receive supplemental services.  None chose the former and about half chose the latter.

A second way to advocate for their children was to meet with teachers to rectify a problem.  Parents were well aware of the problems that many of their children faced in school, ranging from not turning in assignments to simply not being able to keep up with the pace of instruction.  Damian explained that he was trying to be as proactive as possible because he believed that

the teachers can be excellent if the parent is there to aid and assist the teacher.  If the parent is not there to assist the teacher, then the teacher tends to not all of them, but some of them tend to let the child go, which is unfortunate.  But I see now that the teachers have so much to deal with.  

However, few parents were a presence at school or took proactive steps to speak to a teacher until after they began to meet teachers in the workshops they attended.  In that context, teachers spoke to parents about their expectations for completing homework and explained ways the parents could help their children with both math and reading.  At the same time, parents had the opportunity to tell teachers the problems they had with some of the assignments that their children had difficulty completing.  The parents explained that few assignments were accompanied by instructions, so that they could not really help their children with the homework teachers sent home. Teachers were listening and parents understood that what they said mattered.

The workshops broadened the scope of people with whom the parents interacted. This network of people included teachers at Ida B. Wells, administrators, the art educator at a local museum, community members, and other parents. Finding that other parents shared their same challenges contributed to parents’ ability to imagine different ways they could be engaged in their children’s education. That parents could rely on one another and on the principal helped to create conditions for parents’ emerging sense of agency and capacity for making changes in their children’s lives at school.  

A key turning point for parents occurred when the principal gave all of the parents their children’s test scores.  Therese’s youngest son placed in the lowest percentile, even though his grades in class placed him in “honors.” She was stunned. “That opened [my] eyes to look around, look around us and see, and pay attention to how the kids are doing.”  Therese reiterated this story at a regional meeting of researchers studying the effects of poverty on families that she attended with me at a local literacy center near Ida B. Wells:

When I realized that my kids were slipping in school, I knew that it was my responsibility, not only my child’s teachers’ responsibility to help them learn. So when I see low test scores, okay I realize I got to do something about it.  Therefore I got to check book bags.  I wasn't checking book bags like I was supposed to. I visit their teachers and see how they're doing in class, see how things are going in the classroom, what they're struggling with things like that.  And now we're [with her husband] building a relationship with the school and the teachers.  

Therese’s reflections illustrated the extent to which parents can defer to schools when they believe teachers have their children’s best interests at heart. However, Therese developed the capacity to intervene on her children’s behalf at school. She entered her children’s schools with a growing sense of empowerment and had every reason to hold all of her children’s teachers accountable, something that she had to accept for herself.  More than this, presenting her story at a meeting of researchers revealed her emerging role as an advocate for her own, and other’s, children.

Richard also saw this moment of receiving his son’s test scores as a betrayal of his trust because he believed his son was doing well:  

I didn’t have certificates hanging on my refrigerator saying he’s an honor roll student, but like every report he got honor roll, but the test scores were so low how he could be a honor roll student.  I didn’t understand that, and I never will understand it.

Richard had difficulty reconciling his son’s performance at school with his perception of his son’s intelligence at home: “I know at home he’s very intelligent, you know.  I know he has the potential to learn.  He even tells me he wants to learn.”  Richard assumed that his son’s teacher knew his son was struggling, but she did not explain ways that Richard could help.  

Like Therese, Richard had begun to feel more at home at school where he created relationships with all of his sons’ teachers. At a school district-wide meeting, Richard led a session, “Parents Talking to Parents,” and emphasized the value of communication with teachers and persistence.  He found that his children’s teachers were not always responsive to his overtures to talk about their progress, but he told parents at this session about the importance of “staying on” teachers.  In large part, his vigilance was prompted by his lack of trust in schools’ ability to ensure his sons’ success.

In the session on “Parents Talking to Parents,” which he co-chaired with Therese, Richard described telling a teacher that he wanted to know how one of his sons was progressing.  However, at the end of an eight-week grading period, Richard went to meet his son’s teacher and found out that his son was not doing well.  Richard’s response was to tell the teacher,

“You are going to communicate with me, and you’re gonna listen to me.” And once he knew that I meant what I said, now we communicate.  He probably calls once a week now.  Because he knows that I care about what my son is doing in school.  

Richard gave voice to what other parents felt in their own efforts to talk with teachers and helped empower others to advocate for their children in a very public realm.

Parents were learning to use strategies to navigate the institution of school to gain advantage for their children. As in Barton et al.’s study (2004), parents began to acquire new forms of capital that included their ability to “question school policy,” affirm “the validity of their concerns,” and create a space for engaging in their children’s education.  Nonetheless, parents’ strategies for advocacy were, to use Auerbach’s (2007) words, “still under construction.”  Their efforts were at times rebuffed and many of the children still struggled in school despite parents’ increased presence at school.


This small qualitative study of parent involvement describes the varied roles that parents played at a critical juncture of their children’s lives. Parents supported their children’s emotional well-being at a time when their children were perhaps most vulnerable psychologically. Separate from school spaces, parents also provided personally defined places of learning that nurtured their children at home. They worked patiently with their children when teachers did not provide clear instructions for completing homework assignments and when parents needed to find programs well-suited to their children’s education.  Parents also drew from a set of inner resources and deployed familial, aspirational, and navigational capital to help their children maintain a sense of hope for the future in the face of challenging life circumstances.  Thus this study helps contribute to a growing body of research that demonstrates the extent to which children’s invitations influence the roles that parents play (e.g., Auerbach 2007; Deslandes & Bertrand, 2005). Moreover, this study contributes to Yosso’s (2004) theoretical framework by grounding descriptions of “community cultural wealth” in the day-to-day lives of African American parents who teach their children to be independent and resilient.

Parents’ stories in this study challenged depictions of low SES parents as less involved in their children’s education than higher SES parents (e.g., Compton-Lilly, 2007). In fact, parents described the ways they helped their children when they believed classroom instruction outpaced their children’s comprehension of difficult or new material. They also operated on a broad sense of what it meant to educate their children as moral, resilient, independent, and even civic-minded people.  Lareau (2003), in particular, portrayed low-SES parents as less likely to supplement curriculum with closely related work at home, encourage their children’s talents, challenge teachers’ expertise, and communicate with other parents about their children’s education. She drew these conclusions on the basis of what she saw middle- and high-income parents doing. A more accurate reading of Lareau’s conclusions is that teachers simply devalued the sense of family, resourcefulness, and independence that low-income children learned at home.  Indeed, Lareau and her colleagues (e.g., Horvat, Weininger & Lareau, 2003) have shown that schools can be exclusionary in the ways school administrators and teachers give more legitimacy to the concerns voiced by middle-class families whose cultural capital was more consistent with their own.  Still, as Valdés (1996) points out, the way to empower parents is not to transform low-income parents into high- and middle-income parents.  Instead, educators can, and should, acknowledge the legitimacy of what parents value and build on parents’ “funds of knowledge” (Moll, 2005) to help children flourish.

By focusing on parents’ and children’s lived experiences, I have sought to go beyond models that focus on the needs of schools in order to understand parents’ values and aspirations for their own children. By identifying parents’ values and aspirations, I underscored the ways that parent involvement served the interests of parents and children and the extent to which accountability for parent involvement rested on parents’ beliefs and priorities.  Emphasizing parents’ own needs is a significant point of departure from models that make parents accountable to schools (e.g., Epstein, 2010) and raises questions about what counts as parent involvement. Listening to parents’ voices also helps us see the extent to which what matters most to families is often not visible to educators. Parents did not limit their involvement to supporting their children’s performance on standardized test scores, but adopted a broad conception of education.

As others have also suggested (e.g., Graue & Hawkins, 2010), it is important that educators understand more fully who parents are, what parents are already doing to support their children, and develop models of parent involvement that are reciprocal and collaborative.  Not all parents are like those who participated in my study or have access to the resources I describe.  Therefore, reciprocity requires that educators balance their own goals and expectations with parents’ beliefs, values, and priorities. Such a view is dialogic and requires that parents and educators listen respectfully to one another in order to collaborate in the best interests of children whose development is not linear but follows the contours of their interactions in multiple contexts.

Within the conditions of relative social isolation, the parents in this study provided their children with emotional, moral, and academic support. However, their role as parents was also limited by policies that appeared to work against the very conditions that can enable children to flourish.  For example, some parents made explicit their awareness that something was changing in their neighborhoods that worked against the sense of community they valued.  With little commitment for any comprehensive economic development in urban neighborhoods, policy efforts can be directed toward developing social capital and creating networks of support to ensure that families have access to resources. For example, Amy’s ability to create a learning community with other parents reflected a valuable source of social capital or what Sampson and his colleagues (2002) described as “collective efficacy.”  Collective efficacy derives from “mutual trust and shared expectations” in neighborhoods where parents such as Amy intervene in the interests of the “public good” (p. 457).  Schools and communities can work together to build on assets that parents bring by increasing parents’ capacity for developing the well-being of a neighborhood and the grounds for social action.  Similarly, Marc offered a model of a home-school-community partnership based on his ethic of service, his work with young men of color, and commitment to giving back to the community that provided his family with a home.  Indeed, he helped us to see the many spaces where learning can occur and the ways that parents can become teachers who give children meaning in their lives.

The cultivation of social capital can facilitate a degree of empowerment when parents become partners, decision makers, and collaborators with schools and provide a necessary sense of accountability and control. Parents can also become examples for their children as future participants in the political process of distributing resources equitably. Leveraging human capital can, in turn, provide the basis for economic development that can “transform the character and quality of life of urban areas” (Noguera, 2001, p. 198).  Parents and community organizations can marshal resources (information, legal aid) and expand their social networks with other supportive organizations, such as churches, businesses, non-profits, and established civic groups.  This expanding social capital can create power to leverage change in schools, so that they more effectively meet the needs of the children and families they serve.

Finally, it will be valuable to conduct additional process-based studies of parent involvement in diverse families, the ways parents navigate both opportunity and risk in their neighborhoods, and the assets they bring to educating their children.  My study was limited by a small sample size of parents.  Moreover, they were not altogether representative of low-income African American parents at Ida B. Wells given their commitment to attending workshops.  Therefore, it is not possible to generalize the findings to other populations. More qualitative studies would complicate the ways race, culture, educational policy, and the political economy affect parents’ abilities to support and advocate for their children. Doing so can open up both an analysis and critique of the unequal relations of power that often serve as an ideological wall separating parents and educators and that fuel miscommunication and alienation. How do policies and institutions perpetuate the inequitable distribution of resources?  In turn, how do diverse families and children navigate both opportunities and risks in their day-to-experiences at home, in school, and in their neighborhoods?  To answer these questions can help create more just, equitable practices that invite meaningful, authentic relationships between parents and educators in the multiple spaces where learning occurs.  


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Table 1. Sample Transcription Coding



Supporter (S)


Responsibility for Learning (rl)

Homework (SrlH)

I come home or when they see me and, you know, to show me their homework, you know, after they're done I'll go over it, and then after that they're pretty much just, I don't know, you know, go do their own thing.

Literacy (SrlL)

Like after they get done with their homework, then we take 30 minutes out to read.  And then, like, usually later on before they’re not right before their bedtime but we usually all read a book together, the same book.

Models (SrlM)

I kinda give 'em my story and that helps them kinda make 'em go a little bit further, kinda give 'em inspiration.

Maintaining high expectations (SrlHe)

I've always assumed that I have to be stern with them . . . I want my kids to be over-achievers and they seem to be doing pretty good in the public school. I would like to get more out of them, but I'm finding out that rather than being stern, there's other ways that you can get it out of them.

Awareness of what schools are doing (SrlA)

I want them to learn a lot of stuff but over the years I think that they don’t . . . they changed it from where we were in school.  When we were in school, they taught you addition.  You didn’t move on until you had addition.  Now, it’s they move them along so fast and nothing sinks in. . . . I feel like I teach them a lot more at home than anybody because I’m constantly at the dinner table with them or at their desk or.  And it seems like I had to reiterate everything they learned in class.

Emotions (e)


Self Esteem (SeSE)

I have to constantly encourage her that, you know, that's just part of who you are, don't let that, you know, don't let that discourage you from anything, you know, you read just as well as the next person, so I have to push her a little bit more than some of the other kids.

Sense of Belonging (SeB)

I try to instill that in my kids. Everybody has responsibilities, especially in a family our size.  Everyone has a responsibility.

Resilience (SeR)

My one son kind of started off really rough and agitated and like, hey, people owe me and I, you know, he started off kind of rough, you know, and edgy and I was like, well, hey, we got to put a nip on this little fella.  You know.  We got to talk.  We got to, you know, you got to learn that, hey, everything just doesn’t come, you know, I mean is freely handed.  You got to, you know, earn things, too.  

Independence (SeI)

I let them make decisions that some people feel like at that age they shouldn’t make, but you know what, you’re going to have to deal with the consequences, you might as well let them know at a young age because you’re going to have to do it all your life.

Protector (SeP)

I would say it’s safe but there’s a lot of drug activity like around the corner from my house.  Right by the school.  That’s why I’m always there to get my kids after school.  They have to walk right by where it usually takes place.  


Advocacy (A)

Presence at School (AP)

The teachers can be excellent if the parent is there to aid and assist the teacher.  If the parent is not there to aid assist the teacher, then the teacher tends to-- not all of them, but some of them-- tend to let the child go, which is unfortunate.

Communication (AC)

They have a poor communication system.  And I think that when you have children involved you should always have as best a communication system as you possibly can.  And I think they have that wrong there.

Information gathering (AI)

They had a nice teacher over there [where she went to school] but to me, over here [her children’s current school], they have more programs to help, they been working with [my son] so much. Like last year during the summer, he went to the summer program at the Learning Center and the [family coordinator] she's really been working with my kids.

Note. Codes are as follows: Supporter = S (Responsibility for Learning = Srl; Homework = SrlH; Literacy = SrlL; Models = SrlM; Maintaining High Expectations = SrlHE); Emotional Support = Se (Self-Esteem = SeSE; Sense of Belonging = SeSB; Resilience = SeR; Independence = SeI; Protector = SeP); Advocacy = A (Presence at School = AP; Communication = AC; Information gathering = AI).

 Appendix A

Interview Questions


As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?


Did that goal change over the years?


Have you achieved your goals?


Has anything stood in the way of your doing so?


Where did you go to school?


Did you like school?


Can you tell me a story about your education, something that stands out or that you remember?


Can you tell me a little bit about your family when you were growing up?


What was your neighborhood like?


How does where you grew up compare to where you live now?


Do you recall how far your parents went in school?


What kinds of things did they do to help you succeed in school?


Were there things you learned growing up that you have tried to apply as a parent?


How many children do you have?


Do your children like school?


How are they doing?


Do you like your child's school?


Can you tell me something about yourself that would help me understand your relationship with your child?

Appendix B

Focus Group Questions


What kind of things do you do to help your children be successful in school?


Are there things that help you be more involved with your children?


Are there things that you would like to do to be more involved with your children that we could help with?


Do your children like school?


What do you want your children to learn in school?


Do you think they’re learning what you want them to learn?


Who helps your child(dren) with homework?


How much time do your children spend with homework?


How well have you gotten to know your children’s teachers?


Do they get to read for fun?


Do you take your children to the library?


What do you think teachers could do to help your child learn?


Do you feel like you can communicate with the teacher about your concerns?


Is there anything that you think would improve your communications with the teacher?


What do you hope for your children?

Appendix C

Sample Transcription Coding

Note. Codes are as follows: Supporter = S (Responsibility for Learning = Srl; Homework = SrlH; Literacy = SrlL; Models = SrlM; Maintaining High Expectations = SrlHE); Emotional Support = Se (Self-Esteem = SeSE; Sense of Belonging = SeSB; Resilience = SeR; Independence = SeI; Protector = SeP); Advocacy = A (Presence at School = AP; Communication = AC; Information gathering = AI).

Interview questions: Can you tell me about the neighborhood where you live now? Can you describe the time you spent with your child that will give me a good sense of your relationship?

All of us have kids that go to Perley [in the neighborhood].  Srl We’re constantly making sure everybody knows what’s going on at the school, Srl we’re always looking out for each others kids, and they’re not my house, they’re at the other one’s house, you know, we kinda keep ‘em all together and we work pretty well together, actually . . .  Srl We talk about mostly is breaking the cycle.  Somebody, somewhere has to break the cycle, Srl get things back on track and get the kids the way that it should be. SeSE I believe that kids need discipline, love, and consistency . . . We’ve been through some struggles and but you know SeSB I think it’s a difference when you struggle together than everybody trying to pull their separate ways, you know.  I try to be honest with my kids, you know, this is where we’re at and this is what we’re going through and this is what we gotta do to get to the other side . . . Srl Learning has to be fun. . . SrlL It’s just like reading, I could open a book, and I get so far through that book that I’m actually, in that book, you know, and I love that.   Srl We sit all the kids down in a room and SrlL we pass around a chapter book and SrlL everybody has to read a page, and if you're a good reader and you're sitting by one of the younger kids, SrlL then you have to help them sound out the words very patiently, very kindly, very lovingly, SeSE not talking down to them or, we love it . . . I don't want to say a harder time learning, but like she doesn't like to read out loud because she has a speech impediment, she's been speech since she was in kindergarten, SeSE so I have to constantly encourage her that, you know, SeSE that's just part of who you are, SeR don't let that, you know, don't let that discourage you from anything, you know, SeR you read just as well as the next person, so Srl I have to push her a little bit more than some of the other kids.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 10, 2013, p. 1-33
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17155, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:47:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Stuart Greene
    University of Notre Dame
    E-mail Author
    STUART GREENE is associate professor of English with a joint appointment in Africana Studies. His research has focused on the intersections of race, poverty, and achievement in public schools. This work has led to the publication of his co-edited volume, Making Race Visible: Literacy Research for Racial Understanding (Teachers College Press, 2003), for which he won the National Council of Teachers of English Richard A. Meade Award in 2005. He also edited Literacy as a Civil Right (Peter Lang, 2008) and co-edited Bedtime Stories and Book Reports: Connecting Parent Involvement and Family (Teachers College Press, 2010) with Cathy Compton-Lilly. His new book is Race, Community, and Urban Schools: Partnering with African American Families (Teachers College Press, 2013).
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