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Maintaining Parental Involvement in High School

Times Staff Writer

On a recent Friday morning, a handful of women huddled around a table at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, cross-referencing their calendars to free up time for school activities. They wanted to be sure they could make staff picture day, textbook day, summer mail-outs and registration.

“We’re not here to check up on our kids,” said Elizabeth Davis, community activities coordinator for the school and mother of two Edison graduates. “We’re here to help all the kids.”

Among them: two volunteers of the year, a current and a past president of the Parent Teacher Student Assn. and the mother of this year’s valedictorian. Some are parents or even grandparents of current students; some have children who have long since graduated but are committed to helping the 2,200 current students of Edison.

Parents like the ones at Edison are a rarity, experts say. Parental activism at schools nationwide drops off steadily after elementary school.

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For many, being involved in their child’s education gets more challenging as they get older. Many parents return to work when their children enter high school. And while a second-grader may not have a problem with Mom helping out with an art project, many adolescents are mortified at the thought of their parents hanging around the schoolyard.

The key to overcoming embarrassment, Davis said, is making sure that children know parents are there to support them, not to spy on them.

“I never talked to my kids on campus because I didn’t want to invade their space,” Davis said. “But by the time my son and daughter were juniors and seniors, they were coming up to me.”

Parents at Edison logged more than 80,000 hours of volunteer service on campus last year. For their efforts, the Orange County school was one of only two high schools in the state and the only one in Southern California recognized by the National Parent Teacher Assn. as a Parent Involvement School of Excellence.

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The National PTA bestowed the honor on nearly 200 schools nationwide and 20 statewide, for such criteria as open communication, respect for parents, community involvement and parental input in school decisions and student learning.

Parental involvement “benefits everybody. Teachers know they can depend on parents to boost morale, and kids are comfortable seeing parents on campus,” said Edison Principal Cynthia Clark.

Nationwide, only a fourth of the schools honored were middle and high schools, said National PTA President Shirley Igo. She attributed that proportion to the smaller number of upper-level schools and to the fact that few of those actually qualify.

Leading volunteers say youngsters’ possible embarrassment should not stop parents.

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“I didn’t ask my child’s permission to be on campus,” said Donna Bennett, a legal secretary and mother of an Edison freshman who finds time to serve as secretary of the baseball booster club after work. “You don’t think you’re making an impact until some kid that’s not yours yells across campus, ‘Hey, Mrs. Bennett!’ ”

Beverly Pastore and her son David shared a few moments between classes at the Edison High School student store one recent Friday afternoon. David said he was used to his mom being around. She is the current Volunteer of the Year.

“I just do what I usually do,” he said.

“Actually, he usually comes to find me here because I’ve always got a dollar for him,” she quipped.

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Researchers have found students -- especially high schoolers -- perform better academically and have fewer behavioral problems when their parents participate in school activities such as conferences, back-to-school nights and extracurricular events. But studies show that schools offer limited opportunities for parents to get involved, especially as students get older.

“We’re not making them feel like there’s a place for them,” National PTA President Igo said. “Their children are pushing away from them, and parents mistakenly feel like they shouldn’t be pushing themselves into their children’s environment.”

At Edison, the window to parental involvement is often through children’s extracurricular activities, such as athletic or academic booster clubs. But schoolwide activities, such as the PTSA, also bring in volunteers.

“At high school you really have to work together in a lot of different ways to attract parents,” said PTSA President Barbara Bottorff.

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“We have to figure out what works for them, what their interests are, so that they know this is a place for everybody,” she said.

Most educators say it’s not that the need for parents is less; it’s just different. In high school, the focus shifts from baking cupcakes and serving snacks during tests to helping kids get a diploma or into college.

For example, at Wilson Senior High School in Los Angeles, the math department recently hosted Math Night for parents who wanted to help their children with algebra.

“This proved to be a big step in bringing the community into the school,” said a Wilson math teacher, Lilia Leon. “It is difficult as a teacher to help and motivate all 40 students in a math class. However, having the parents’ support and having them help their children at home is a big help in improving the students’ success in the class.”

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“Parents seem to think that once a child enters high school, they don’t need to be as involved,” Reeves said. “But they need to be more involved to make sure kids stay on the right track.”


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