By Libby Allnatt
“Work hard. Be kind. Be smart.”
This is the message that greets students as they approach ASU Preparatory Academy in Phoenix.
Situated in Downtown Phoenix, near apartment buildings and high rise offices, resides the K-12 school. Kids of all ages donning maroon polos can be seen riding their bikes near Fillmore Street, and traffic in the area gets a bit busier in the afternoon during pickup.
At the public charter school, many families travel long distances to get to school and for a significant number, English is not their first language.
With these challenges in mind, some teachers at ASU Prep made it a goal to get more families engaged during the 2016 school year.
“As a kindergarten team, we decided that we wanted to focus on family engagement,” Laura Carrasco, a kindergarten teacher at ASU Prep Phoenix, said. “We figured out different ways to get them to come in more.”
One idea they had was to hold social events and activities. For example, Carrasco helped put on a fall festival for her class in October. She said the festival also helped raise about $300 to put toward the students’ kindergarten graduation this spring.
It is important to find fun ways to engage parents in a modern landscape where so many families have working parents, Carrasco said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 60.6 percent of married-couple families with children had two working parents in 2015.
“Parents nowadays, they have to have a job, a full time job. You don’t have one parent at home that’s able to just be present, volunteer, sit in the classroom,” Carrasco said. “We find that doing things like this, we’re able to connect more as a team with families and teachers, and also get them more involved with what their kids are doing at school.”
Getting parents involved with education is key to a student’s academic success, Cronkite News reports.
“It’s important because if your kids see you at school, then you’re an advocate for their education,” said Victor Reyes, treasurer and Spanish translator for the ASU Prep Phoenix Parent Teacher Organization (PTO). He also said parent involvement with education can help students get better grades because they know their parents are paying attention and caring about their education.
At the beginning of an ASU Prep school year, students develop an individualized learning plan with specific academic goals with their parents and teachers. Parents meet with their child’s teacher several times throughout the year to assess how the plan is going. This helps encourage face-to-face communication between parents and teachers, as well as keeps parents involved with their child’s academic success.
Students at ASU Prep work with their parents and teachers to develop an individual learning program that fits their own needs and goals.
Not only does parental involvement benefit students, but the teachers’ presence helps, too.
It’s important for students to see their teachers as real people, said Alisha Thomas, president of the PTO. This can be achieved through teacher attendance at school activities, like the school’s Trunk or Treat Halloween event in October.
“We had a couple teachers come out,” she said. “They decorated trunks, and some of them set up booths and sold glow-in-the-dark necklaces and bracelets and glasses. It helps their clubs and their classes with whatever they need.”
“It shows students that their teacher is not just there in the classroom, but outside if they need them as well,” said PTO board member Michelle Gill.
Patricia Luton is the secretary of the ASU Prep PTO. She said her oldest daughter, who has been at ASU Prep for five years, just wasn’t getting enough one-on-one consideration in public school.
“The thing about this being a small-knit unit, they have that extra time. So that was a big draw for me,” Luton said. “They take that extra step if the kids are falling behind to get them back on track.”
According to the ASU Prep website, the school’s Phoenix location has 1,138 students: 402 in high school, 355 in middle school and 381 in elementary.
The PIN Bureau asked students of ASU Prep to write or draw their favorite things about their school.
There are often practical challenges to getting parents engaged with their child’s education since many of the students at ASU Prep live far from downtown Phoenix.
Thomas, who has been PTO president for two years, said a challenge to getting parents to the meetings is how far they live from the school.
“Our families are so spread out,” she said.
According to Thomas, students come from places as far as Buckeye and Apache Junction (both roughly 35 miles from the school) to attend ASU Prep. This must be taken into account when trying to get parents more involved with the PTO and their child’s schooling.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” she said. “It’s a work in progress. We’ve played with different meeting times, different incentives.”
There are some educational benefits to the school’s location though, in addition to being right down the street from ASU’s downtown Phoenix campus.
“The draw of being downtown is we have Roosevelt Row,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of culture coming to this area so I think the kids can benefit from that.”
According to ASU Prep statistics, 45 percent of the school’s students are Hispanic. Reyes said he estimates that close to 35 to 40 percent of the students at the school’s Phoenix location do not speak English as a first language.
“That’s a high number for parents that are not being reached because they don’t speak that language or they may not have the resources to come and be translated,” he said. “I think it’s important that we reach out to them too. The more people that we reach out to, the bigger the community becomes, and the stronger we become.”
Lily Mesa-Lema, the school’s director of elementary education, has worked at ASU Prep in Phoenix for the past seven years. She developed a program two years ago to help combat any language barriers. Once a week, Spanish-speaking parents meet with English-speaking teachers so they can help teach each other their languages. High school students also attend in order to get more involved with the parent/teacher engagement process and so they can practice their own second languages.
Kindergarten teacher Carrasco speaks both English and Spanish, so she can translate easily for Spanish-speaking students and parents.
“I’m able to communicate with families in English or Spanish,” she said. “If I send important emails where I’m asking for volunteers, I always make sure to translate. … The way the school is set up, the kind of people they hire, allows for that diversity.”
The fun moments and unexpected challenges of the job helps teachers stay just as engaged as their students.
“Obviously, working as a teacher isn’t the best paying job,” Carrasco said. “The reason I like it is because it’s so different. You get a lot of variety in your days. You’re gonna have good days, you’re gonna have bad days. At the end of the day, it comes down to the kids. I enjoy working with them.”