I remember a conversation that I had with my dad. It was short, mostly one-sided, and incredibly memorable. With a thick Spanish accent, and a somewhat intimidating look, my dad asked, "Pérsida, to what college you go?"
Even though he had only graduated from eighth grade, he had figured something out: You don't get very far in life without a college education.
Because of that, he asked the same question to all seven of his children. Though we lived in the poorest neighborhood, surrounded by rampant drug use, teen pregnancy, and violence, we all followed through on his expectations for us. Our highest earned degrees consist of two PhDs, two master's degrees, one theology degree, one bachelor's degree, and one high school diploma (earned by my sister, who has special needs). Our success was no accident.
I am currently an associate professor in a teacher-preparation program, and one of the things that my students will hear from me is that "parents are the silver bullet." I encourage them to do whatever they need to do to help parents see the importance of their role in their children's education. We need to help parents in high-poverty areas understand that their expectations with regard to their kids' schooling will likely determine their children's future.
(On a side note, I know of teachers who have stepped in to be the "silver bullet" in the individual lives of kids. In most cases it took moving beyond the boundaries of the traditional classroom and winning over the hearts of students and helping them believe that they were, in fact, capable of more.)
There is a growing body of literature that puts all of the blame on poverty. When it comes to those with whom I have had contact (mostly Black and Latino urban poor), I think that the blame is misplaced. It's very easy to say, "Poverty is the problem." The danger is that schools will see it as something that they can't control. Even well-meaning teachers can only do so much about such a complex societal problem.
What I believe is the bigger issue is the lack of parental access to information regarding their children's future. Many parents are unaware of the statistics that show that a child's chance for success is greatly diminished without immediate parental intervention and academic pressures at home. While lack of access to this information is indeed linked to poverty, it's controllable.
Do the parents in high-poverty areas know that the schools can't educate their children alone? Do parents of children at-risk know that the odds are against their children, unless they start pressuring their children to do well in school, and pressuring the school to do well by their child? Do Latino and Black families know that in some urban programs, their children's chances for completing high school are less than 50 percent? Do they realize that if their child drops out he or she will beworking twice as hard for less than half the pay as compared to their college-bound friends? Do they know that a dropout is eight times more likely to end up in prison than a high school graduate?
Parents need to realize the key lesson that organizations like the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE) teach us: A parent does not need to have experienced academic success to ensure it for their own children.
So when I get the golden opportunity to talk to parents in high-poverty areas, I don't hold back. I tell them, "Here are your choices. Your kids can work twice as hard for a little while, or they will work twice as hard for the rest of their lives."
I also tell them, "For a limited time, the decision of whether or not your child will graduate high school and go on to college is almost entirely yours. But the time is coming when steering your children's future will become a whole lot more complicated."
That is what is often not being said at Back to School Night, and that is what needs to be said at Back to School Night—from the time the child is in kindergarten through his high school years. And it helps if it's coming from a voice that represents parents' race and language, and who can relate to their neighborhood experiences. But if you can't manage that, just copy and paste some of these words onto a slide and tell them I said it—a Puerto Rican raised in poverty, who, along with six siblings, beat the odds. Our dad left us no choice.
Pérsida Himmele is an associate professor in the education department at Millersville University in southeastern Pennsylvania. She is a former K-8 teacher in bilingual and multilingual classrooms in New York and southern California. She and her husband coauthored the ASCD bestselling book, Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner, and the book The Language-Rich Classroom: A Research-based Framework for Teaching English Language Learners.