One year ago, Danielle Anderson didn’t own a car.
That meant the single Spokane mother of two autistic children was rarely able to attend events at her children’s schools. If her kids missed the bus, Anderson would have to scramble to find alternate transportation.
“If we didn’t have a car there was no way we were getting to and from, or doing any of these family engagements,” Anderson said.
Not being able to attend school events was a “hard thing,” for her kids, Anderson said.
That was just one of the reasons Anderson – who lives on a fixed income – found it difficult to interact with her children’s schools. Any event occurring after 3 p.m., whether a parent-teacher conference or a school board meeting, required Anderson to find child care for her 11-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl.
Anderson’s experience isn’t unique. For many low-income and minority families, getting involved with the school system can be a struggle. Tight budgets, odd work hours and the sometimes bureaucratic systems keep some families at arm’s length.
“Sometimes we have parents whose voices are heard, but they are particular parents and they tend to be white professionals,” said Ann Ishimaru.
Ishimaru, an assistant professor of educational policy, organizations and leadership at the University of Washington’s College of Education, published a paper examining some of the challenges low-income and minority students and families face when trying to engage with their schools.
The paper, published in the Peabody Journal of Education, is called “Beyond Interest Convergence: Envisioning Transformation for Racial Equity in Education.”
Ishimaru argues that seemingly “benign” institutions like Parent Teacher Associations, open houses and parent-teacher conferences actually leave many families deeply disadvantaged. In the paper, Ishimaru highlights the fact that nationwide students of color make up half of the student population. Teachers of color, however, make up only 20 percent of the teacher population.
“They privilege families who have certain kinds of social, political, cultural capital,” she said. “And they further marginalize others.”
Spokane families and schools struggle with these same problems, said Gwen Harris, director of Spokane Public Schools student services and option schools. And although they’ve taken steps to open the door to traditionally marginalized groups, Harris said more could be done.
“Do we have room for improvement?” she said. “Absolutely.”
Part of that improvement has come at the hands of Oscar Harris. For the past two years Harris has worked as the district’s coordinator for family support and community engagement. Much of his job is devoted to integrating families and students who have traditionally been marginalized.
Harris spends much of his time talking to families, listening to their concerns and trying to connect them with the appropriate people. Gwen Harris, Oscar Harris’ boss, calls him an “advocate.”
Several weeks ago, Oscar Harris organized an event at Garry Middle School for families. It was a way for him to meet parents and build a sense of community and belonging.
“It’s a shift,” Gwen Harris said. “Parents aren’t going to seek us out. We have to go engage and it may not be in the typical manner.”
“We have to build relationships and trust,” Gwen Harris added.
That trust hasn’t always been there.
At a community budget forum in early August, frustration at the perceived lack of communication boiled over. Parents addressed school administrators passionately for more than an hour.
“(There was) a lot of messy stories,” said Nikki Lockwood. “It’s kind of surprising considering it’s a budget forum.”
Lockwood is an education activist, a member of the Every Student Counts Alliance and the mother of two children enrolled in Spokane Public Schools.
She’s seen how difficult it can be for some families to navigate the school system. She especially notices the difficulty that low-income, minority families and parents with special needs students face. Because those groups don’t fit in the “normal criteria” they can be marginalized.
“It has been hard to find ways to productively connect to work for systemic change,” Lockwood said. “We have tried and tried.”
That being said, she does credit the district for making improvements. Lockwood points to the superintendent’s work groups. Those groups have invited parents to talk with administrators about how to address various educational issues.
Even little things – like arranging the budget forum in such a way that administrators were sitting facing parents in a semicircle – makes a big difference, she said.
“I do appreciate that the school district made an effort to make it feel welcoming,” Lockwood said.
Ishimaru, the UW researcher, based her study on a diverse suburban school district in the Pacific Northwest. She said that a key component of bridging the divide is empowering parents by allowing them to drive and shape the discussions. Much like the superintendent’s work groups do. In Ishimaru’s research this is referred to as a “co-design” model.
That can help dissolve any resentment or fear that parents may hold against schools and administrators.
“Schools are institutions like other institutions and often people have had traumatic experiences of their own in relations to those schools,” Ishimaru said.
Oscar Harris said he sees this in his work.
He sees parents who are afraid to engage the school. Parents who don’t have reliable transportation. Parents who come from different cultural backgrounds. Parents who work two or three jobs.
“We are not leading this journey by no means,” he said. “Our hope is for our parents to feel validated and that they are a viable stakeholder in this process.”