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US expert from the Bronx on inclusive education: Involve schools whose principals are prepared for this work

17.5.2017 8:41
Monique Fletcher speaking on 15 May 2017 at the American Center in Prague, Czech Republic about inclusive education and a parental involvement program that has proven effective in the more impoverished areas of New York City. (PHOTO:  Monika Mihaličková)
Monique Fletcher speaking on 15 May 2017 at the American Center in Prague, Czech Republic about inclusive education and a parental involvement program that has proven effective in the more impoverished areas of New York City. (PHOTO: Monika Mihaličková)

Speaking at the American Center in Prague on 15 May, the American education expert Monique Fletcher gave a talk about an education program that has proven effective in more impoverished areas of New York City, specifically in the Bronx. The seminar was organized by the Open Society Foundation Prague, which annually invites an expert on inclusive education to the Czech Republic.

The Bronx is a "minority-majority" area of New York City where most residents are of either African, Afro-American, Asian or Hispanic descent, while 10 % of the population is white. People living in the Bronx generally are low-income and 40 % are impoverished.

Among the children who attend local community schools there, 65 % of their families do not speak English at home. An organization called the Children's Aid Society, where Fletcher is a project manager together with another four coordinators, is building so-called parents' centers where, through active methods, they bolster parents' faith in the schools and the faith of teachers in the parents of the children they are instructing.

Fletcher involves parents in the localities of the South Bronx in New York City in collaborating with local schools. She designs and directs activities that lead to parents being involved in collaboration with nine schools in the South Bronx.

She is also vice-chair of a local action group called South Bronx Rising Together, the aim of which is to increase the educational and professional chances of youth in the South Bronx, starting with nursery school and continuing through university. Fletcher considers her biggest success to date to have been the building of a model for stable partnerships among parents in the South Bronx community.

Fletcher is glad that these parents are now aware of the importance of collaboration so their children will enjoy school and get good grades. "Many low-income parents from different backgrounds want to be involved in the life of their children's school, but most of them do not receive enough support from the school system. For immigrants, the problem is deteriorated even further by the language barrier. If we want to involve families in collaboration with a school, it is crucial to first ascertain what their interests are. You must assure them that their difference is important to the school and respected by the school. At the same time, they must be shown that involving the family in the work of the schools is important for their children's education," Fletcher said.

The expert discussed a recent positive experience in this area:  "We most recently involved a community of Africans whom we wanted to get to know better. We organized a so-called focus group for them, a working group where we, together with teachers from the school, asked them what they were interested in, what they need, what they would like to do and also, for example, what kind of food they would like to have at common school events. One month later we held an African Culture Day, where those parents, who are normally very shy, were actively involved, and they prepared a fascinating evening for all of us. By doing this, the parents gained faith in the school, they felt accepted and respected in their difference. That is what we are after. We want to build mutual respect."

The program is built on four basic pillars. The first is a coordinator of parental involvement, who acts as a community leader and systematically works on involving parents in school events.

The second pillar is the building of a parents' center to aid parents with creating strong community relationships and forming the school environment. This is a place which essentially belongs to the parents and is intended for their own adult education.

The third part of the program assures the parents' further development on the basis of their needs. This segment provides courses on the English language, on health and healthy cooking, on the opportunity to complete secondary education as an adult, etc.

The final pillar of the program is courses to develop the parents' skills where they learn how to be leaders in their community through volunteer work. "We are in the fourth year of implementing this project and its outcomes are showing that our work was beneficial. At the beginning of the program, during the 2014/2015 school year, the proportion of participating parents was 25 % (833 individuals), and in the 2016/2017 school year that rose to 58 %, i.e., 2 066 parents became involved," Fletcher explained.

At the close of her presentation, Fletcher reflected on her experience during the course of the program:  "If I were to choose which school to collaborate with next, I would certainly focus on principals at schools who are prepared for this approach to working with parents in the community. I would just ask the principals and teachers at the school:  'Are you prepared to participate in this?' "

Monika Mihaličková, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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