In the fall of 2008, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) launched Parent University, an innovative, collaborative initiative designed to reach out to and engage parents in their children’s education, with a special emphasis on the underserved. In conjunction with a wide variety of community partners, Parent University offers unique course offerings, symposia, and workshops aimed at increasing parents’ involvement in schools and empowering them to raise children who are successful in school and in life. From its inception, Parent University worked with local university researchers to implement a scientific outcomes evaluation strategy. However, during the program’s third year of operation, a major funder specifically requested an evaluation of the impact of parents’ participation in Parent University on their children’s school performance. Such requests present a special challenge for new and innovative programs given that children’s academic performance is a long-term, distant outcome for programs involving parents. Understandably, funders want to see evidence of the impact of their investment, and programs clearly need to be responsive to their funders and other decision makers. However, “young” programs are frequently at a point at which they cannot yet provide information on the ultimate outcome of interest—which, for most parent engagement programs, is student performance.
In response to this challenge, Sharon G. Portwood, JD, PhD, Ellissa Brooks-Nelson, MA, and Jason Schoeneberger, PhD, conducted a study to provide a preliminary analysis of trends in student data following their parents’ participation in Parent University, as well as a model of how children’s school performance might serve as a future marker of program impact. In a recent issue of the journal Children and Schools, they report on the results of this study.
Parent University is an innovative, collaborative initiative designed to engage parents in their children’s education. Working with community partners, Parent University offers unique courses and workshops such as “Parenting Awareness”, “Helping Your Child Learn in the 21st Century”, “Health and Wellness”, and ‘Personal Growth and Development”. Parent University was designed to appeal to the parents of CMS students of all ages, with a special emphasis on traditionally underserved groups. The program model is based on the premise that by inviting parents to participate in activities designed to facilitate their ability to participate in their child’s education, schools can not only enhance communication with parents, but also begin to build trust, which is an integral part of parent involvement. This model is based on the idea that parents with higher levels of involvement in their child’s school will be more supportive of their child’s education, resulting in higher levels of student attendance and academic performance.
The researchers report that, consistent with their hypotheses, positive outcomes were observed in regard to attendance among students whose parents participated in Parent University, particularly when parents attended courses expressly directed at assisting them in enhancing their child’s school performance. This finding suggests that the program is making progress toward its initial goal of building relationships between parents and schools that prompt parents to support their child’s education efforts (which begin with encouraging school attendance).
On the other hand, no statistically significant impact on the reading or math performance of children of Parent University participants was detected in these analyses. Nevertheless, it is well established that improvements in attendance can lead to improved academic performance over time, and the general consensus is that improvement in students’ academic performance must be viewed as a long- rather than a short-term outcome of parent engagement efforts.
Despite the challenges of implementing a large-scale (that is, community/districtwide) parent engagement program, Parent University appears to be on the path toward long-term success. The program clearly has broad appeal across diverse groups of parents. Though the program may be attracting a large number of parents who already have a high level of involvement, these data confirm that Parent University has had success in reaching out to parents who have been traditionally underserved, including single parents, those with less than a high school education, and those with an annual household income below $25,000. Across all parents, interest in the course topic was most commonly cited as the reason for attending, and most parents chose a class with an obvious connection to school performance.
Furthermore this study clearly illustrates the benefits of putting a reliable data collection system in place for purposes of not only monitoring activities and operations, but also evaluating program outcomes. Understandably, many stakeholders, especially funders, are focused on academic outcomes for students. Clearly, more research—on Parent University and on similar programs— is called for. This research is vital despite existing barriers. As the authors conclude:
Arguably, the primary barrier to schools conducting the research and evaluation necessary to guide their efforts to identify innovative ways to involve parents and thus to enhance student performance is a lack of sufficient resources. As schools have struggled to manage deep financial cuts in recent years, resources to support research have necessarily received lower priority than direct classroom costs. However, Parent University serves as a good example of how schools and communities can come together, even in a challenging economic environment, to promote positive relationships between parents and schools, with the ultimate goal of improving student outcomes.