Parents Speak Up and Out about Parents'
in Urban Public High Schools
Tiffany Fogle & Lawrence Jones
The Research Question and Data Collection
A. Research Survey and Protocol
B. Graphic Road Map
About the Authors
West Philadelphia High School* is located on the 4700
block of Walnut Street. The school was built in 1911 for co-educational
learning although it was divided into two parts. One side was for boys and
the other was for girls including separate gymnasiums, auditoriums, and
lunch rooms -- these two sides were connected by a bridge. Today, West is
co-ed and the total enrollment for the school in the 2005-2006 school year
was 1,070 students with 98% Black, 1% Hispanic, .5% White, .5% Asian and .2%
of other racial backgrounds. Eighty percent of the student body is from
"The cost of an urban public high school
uniform in Philadelphia - $60.
The cost of necessary supplies needed
to plan for success via learning with books, paper, pencils, and pens -
The pride and joy you feel as you watch your child cross the
stage at graduation - priceless."
Given that the school is almost 100 years old the facilities of the high
school look worn out. West is in need of the brand new building that has
been promised by the School District. Currently, the preferred plan is to
split the high school into multiple small schools. The themes that have been
decided on by the Sustainability Circle (a group of parents, community
leaders, academics, teachers and students who have met together for one
year) are Urban Studies, Business and Technology, Auto, and Creative and
Performing Arts. These themes are still being debated upon by the community
and School District of Philadelphia. The larger school goal is to create a
community where everybody knows each other; this personalization will be
best for the learning process. Many of the current teachers at West have
been teaching there for many years but do not really know the students or
West has had many different projects and organizations working inside of
the school, including the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU). PSU, a youth-led
organization, is committed to making changes in the school and communities
of its members.
The Research Question and Data
When four PSU students from West Philadelphia High School joined a non-
profit organization called Research for Action, they came together and
started a project which they thought could really help to improve urban
public high schools and parent participation. Although the project had
started off with four students learning to take field notes, all of the
students were not able to complete the project to the end. However, they
were graced with the help of another youth who was dedicated to helping
complete the project when the others could not stay to the end. With the
help of all we were able to collect good data that was an important part of
this research. The work of all was greatly appreciated!
The data we gathered is about what parents think good parent
participation should look like. We conducted lengthy surveys with thirteen
parents of high school students from two of the PSU chapters in West
Philadelphia. We also interviewed seven of those parents in order to learn
more about their responses. We collected our data from April- May 2006. We
conducted our surveys and interviews on the phone at the Research for Action
offices and from our homes throughout the week during various times of the
Specifically, we asked parents what their own participation looked liked
and what prevented them from participating. We did this research so people
can see how schools treat parents and how parents participate and why
sometimes things can get in the way. Also, when we ask questions about
parent participation, we can use the findings to help us understand the
barriers and make parent participation in urban high schools much better.
We chose parents from PSU because we had the easiest access to them.
Also, we chose them because we wanted to talk to parents that had children
who are active in a school-based organization. We received contact
information for the parents of 27 students of PSU. From the parents
surveyed, we were able to conduct in-depth interviews with only 7 parents
for several reasons. Coordinating our schedules was the main barrier.
Sometimes, we would call a parent and they were not there or were busy. We
would reschedule and still would not get in contact. Some parents did not
want to be interviewed
Our research with parents of high school students in West Philadelphia
helped us to gain insight into the ways in which some parents feel about
what good parent participation looks like in an urban public high school.
The majority of the parents would like to be more involved in their child's
public high school; however, sometimes there were things that kept them from
doing so. Many people assume that if parents don't come to a meeting or a
sports game that they do not care about their child, but this, in most
cases, is completely wrong. If parents do not participate in this manner,
there are four possible reasons why: 1) parents do not receive information
far enough in advance to adjust their schedules; 2) parents do not have the
time to do some activities or meetings because they have multiple
responsibilities; 3) possible cultural barriers make it difficult for some
parents to be involved; and 4) parent participation looks different in high
school than in elementary and middle schools.
Firstly, even if parents believe that high school students need their
parents to be involved in their school lives, they cannot be if they do not
receive information from the school. We found in our surveys and interviews
with parents that some of them were irritated when they received information
a day or two before an event was going to happen. Parents described two
types of information that they receive: general and important. General
information is information that involves a class or an event in the school.
Important information is information that involves the individual child.
"When something happened to his daughter
this father was not informed about this important information, so when
he does go up to the school, he will have negative feelings about the
For example, one concerned father described receiving general information
about a party, trip, or a meeting the day before the event, which made it
difficult for him to participate or attend because he had no time to think
about it and/or get his finances together. In addition, he related that he
had not heard about other crucial meetings concerning the school.
More importantly, this father was not informed about something serious
that happened to his daughter while at school. He told this following story:
There was an instance in her classroom. This guy was fooling on
her, one of the students in there, right? And I didn't hear about this
until weeks later from her. It could have really gotten out of hand. I
said, you should have been told me this. I would been on the bust from
the beginning, from the start. And then, she says the teacher knew about
it. She told the teacher and she wound up having to fight this guy in
the class because it happened more than once. So he [the teacher] never
even told the principal. He never even said nothing to the guy. He never
even called me about it, so I don't know if the teachers are cuckoo as
the students. You know what I mean? But see if I go up there, I'm not
going with a smile on my face.
When something happened to his daughter this father was not informed
about this important information, so when he does go up to the school, he
will have negative feelings about the school.
"Our research asserts that parents want to
participate in meaningful ways."
Secondly, scheduling conflicts also create a barrier that reduces some
parents' participation in their child's school. The parents we spoke to
indicated that they had multiple responsibilities such as work, church
events, and coaching that decreased the amount of involvement in their high
school students' school lives. For instance, a mother of a junior told us
that she participates as her schedule and time will allow. She would like to
do more, but has a 9 to 5 job and is often out of town. Another mother of a
sophomore also works and is active in her church, which takes up a lot of
her spare time and limits her participation.
Thirdly, another issue that was a barrier to good parent participation
was differences in cultures between families and schools. A concerned parent
What I would like to see...one school and teacher and my child to
cooperate and to be patient with them, especially with we who are
African. The culture is different and yours is different and ours is
different celebration. Sometimes a student and the teacher, they can't
take consideration because of the language barrier. Sometimes when they
speak, they mock at them so they can be a problem. The student or the
teacher consider it a problem because we are African.
And lastly, just because a parent misses a meeting or two, does not mean
that they do not participate in their children's schooling in other ways as
some people may assume. When asked if parent participation looks different,
or should be different, between elementary, middle, and high school, two
parents had different thoughts but both believed it does look different. Two
parents shared that when children get into higher grades that students are
faced with more difficult and serious issues. One said,
Once the child gets into a higher grade...it [parent
participation] probably becomes more important because they're facing
more difficulties in the schools and their subjects, where they may have
a problem.... And, naturally as children get older there are different
types of concerns and problems that they themselves as teenagers might
have, which should make you want to be more involved and active in your
child's participation in school.
Similarly, another parent responded,
Of course I think [parent participation] should be different
because [the students are] at different ages. Um...when kids are little
and everything, they're fun and learning. When they're older, you have
to be more serious, talk more about serious things and self-
responsibility, and um, stuff like that.
The majority of the parents that we surveyed felt as though they know
where and what their child(ren) are doing in their everyday school life.
Nine of 13 parents said they regularly ask their child(ren) about their
school day. About 2/3 of the parents surveyed (8 out of 13) felt they know
when their children are doing what they are supposed to, or not supposed to,
in their high school classes.
Our research asserts that parents want to participate in meaningful ways.
However, there are barriers that sometimes prevent them from participating
formally in the things that go on in the school itself. Even though parents
want to be involved in their child's school, some are not in any formal way.
They may, however, be involved through informal conversations or discussions
in the home. Eleven of 13 parents agreed or strongly agreed that parents
should be regularly involved in their high school's Home & School
Association, but only five stated that they are actually very involved. Less
than half of the 13 parents said they regularly attend high school events
such as Report Card Days, talent shows, public meetings about the school,
Home & School events, etc. Only 1 of the 13 parents involved in this
research 'strongly agreed', and only 6 'agreed', that they regularly attend
these types of high school events. However, the majority of the parents (10
of 13) wish they were MORE involved in their child's school. One said,
I like participating in those things [like Report Card Night,
etc.] at my child's school… It gives me insight on what's going on and
makes me feel better when I'm not there or not, you know, it makes me
worry less about what the surroundings are.
Teachers, their children, and even other parents need to be aware of
parents' multiple responsibilities so they do not assume that parents do not
care. Most of the parents we surveyed think students should learn to be
independent in high school, but they also believe students need parents
involved in their lives. Twelve out of the 13 parents agreed or strongly
agreed that high school students should learn to be independent and 10
answered that students need their parents to be involved. Schools should
also be more flexible in their scheduling to accommodate parents' various
responsibilities and rethink how parents can be involved in their children's
schooling and education outside of the formal school events. One parent made
the following recommendation that takes both information and their work
schedules into consideration:
I think everything is really a matter of timing and also
communication. I think that parents need to given enough time to so that
they can make their schedules built around their particular Home and
School Association meeting or parent-teacher meeting. If they had enough
time to be able to schedule, I think that might help make more parents
General Recommendations to district and school leaders, students, and
Ten parents agree or strongly agree that parents should have a say in
what decisions are made about their public high school. The District
should allow the high school to make a site council that involves
parents in decisionmaking;
The District should have professional development on how to treat
parents with respect;
The District should seek input/feedback from parents, teachers, and
students on how parents are treated and see when parents are available
The District should reduce class/school size, so teachers and staff
can get to know students and families better;
- The District should enable teachers to see fewer students so that
teachers have time to get important information to the parents. Two
solutions to this are to add more teachers or go back to block rosters.
Concerns about the block rosters are classes not being interesting and
issues about credits. These concerns should be addressed if the block
roster is to happen.
The school should assign someone to show parents where to go, how to
get information, etc. This can be done by creating a parent welcome desk
with easy access;
The school should get all information regarding students to families
The school should welcome volunteers to help get information out and
send out monthly calendars, etc;
The school should hold events at varyingtimes around the parents'
The school should coordinate high school "buddies" to be with
children during parentrelatedevents. These events can also offer
students credits as an extra incentive.
Parents should communicate with each other about the school by having
formal and informal meetings to make changes in the school.
The parents should communicate with their children and those who are
in contact with them such as teachers, staff, and students.
Parents should contact the District if school access is limited /poor
or if teachers are not communicating.
Parents should let teachers know if something is affecting the
- Students should stay in communication with parents or other caring
Student Union Chapter:
The chapter should talk to parents of new members about getting
involved with meetings and events concerning the school and their
The chapter should encourage members to talk to their parents about
the issues about the school.
The chapter should ask members how they engage with their parents and
get ideas about how to improve parent engagement in school.
*Information about the schools comes from: the School District of
Philadelphia School Profiles, 2005- 2006.
APPENDIX A - RESEARCH SURVEY AND PROTOCOL
Readers are free to copy and use the
following research instruments provided the work is credited to the authors
and Research for Action, and the work is not distributed or used for
Philadelphia Parent Survey
(for parents of students in
Hi, are Mr. /Mrs.... There?
My name is...And I'm a student at West Philadelphia High School and a
youth researcher with Research for Action. We are
conducting a research
project on parent participation in urban high schools. I got your name and
number from the Philadelphia
Student Union. We are doing a survey to gain
important information about parents' beliefs about what strong parent
should look like in an urban public high school.
We have support from our principal and Mr. Paul Vallas to conduct
this research. The survey will take about 5 to 7 minutes and your
responses will be kept confidential and used for research purposes only. On
this survey, you will be asked to provide factual information
yourself and your perceptions about parent participation in high school.
Will you agree to take the survey? (If yes) conduct survey. (If no)
Would it be possible to conduct the survey at another time because we
would really like your input?
ABOUT PARENT PARTICIPATION
To what extent do
you agree or disagree with the following statements about parent
participation in high school? Please
indicate your most appropriate
response for each item where 1=strongly agree and 5=strongly disagree.
1. Students should learn to be independent during their high school
2. Parents need to support their children and be involved in
their high school so that the child(ren) can get a good education and become
whatever they choose to be in life.
3. My child(ren) attends a good
public high school.
4. I know my child(ren)'s teachers well and have
a good line of communication with them.
5. I regularly ask my
child(ren) about his or her days at school.
6. Parents should be actively involved in their high school's Home &
7. I am very involved in my high school's Home &
8. I know when my child(ren) are doing what they
are supposed to, or not supposed to, in their high school classes.
Parents are involved and have a strong presence at my neighborhood high
10. I wish I were more involved in my child(ren)'s public
11. Parents should have a say in what decisions are made about their
public high school (such as decisions about curriculum, teacher and
programs open to the community, etc.)
Parents who aren’t actively involved in their child(ren)'s high school just
13. I regularly attend high school events (Report Card
Days, talent shows, public meetings about the school, Home & School events,
14. My child(ren)'s public high schools welcome parent
15. My child(ren) want me to be more involved in their
high school and education.
16. Parents should be in regular communication with the Principal.
17. Parents should be in regular communication with teachers.
18. Parents should be in regular communication with the high school's
19. Parents should be in regular communication with School District
20. High school students do not need their parents to be very involved in
21. My high school aged child(ren) are responsible for
themselves and what they need to do for school.
22. I don't need to worry that my child(ren) will fall through the
23. Parents can't change anything about the high school.
24. My child(ren)'s high school education could be improved.
How many children do you have?
How many children do you have in each of the following grades in
West/Southwest public schools? (9th, 10th, 11th, 12th)
Which Philadelphia high school(s) have your child(ren) attended? (list
all that apply)
O West Philadelphia HS
O University City HS
O Sayre HS
O Bartram HS
O Overbrook HS
Do your children attend their neighborhood high school in West
O Yes O No
Do you have any children in private, parochial, or charter
O Yes O No
Why are these children not in public school?
How long have you lived in West Philadelphia? O < 1 year O 1- 3 yrs O 4
-7 yrs O 8 -10 yrs O 10 -15 yrs O 16 yrs +
Please list below anything you are engaged in (such as work, community
association responsibilities, church events, etc) that prevent you from
participating in your child(ren)'s high school (during or after school
What is your gender? O Male O Female
What is your age? O under 30 O 31 - 35 O 36 - 40 O 41 - 45 O 46 - 50 O 51
What is your ethnic background? Please identify:
WEST PHILADELPHIA PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOLS PARENT PARTICIPATION
We appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about parent
participation in urban public high schools. We are interested in learning
about your perspectives on what strong parent participation should look like
in West/Southwest Philadelphia public high schools. The insights that you
share with us will remain confidential, meaning we will not use your name in
anything we produce, so we ask you to please speak honestly. We hope to
share the findings from this research with you, the Home & School
Associations, the principals of the public neighborhood high schools, and
others who might be interested. Do you have any questions before we start?
May we record the interview for accuracy only?
1. What do you think good parent participation looks like in an urban
2. Do you participate regularly in your child's high school?
Such as attending Report Card Night, Home & School Events, or different
programs at your child's high school (such as a talent show)? What do you
participate in at the high school? Why or why not?
3. Would you like to
do more things inside your child's high school or connected with the high
school? Is there anything that stops you from participating?
would you like to see happen that would improve parent participation in your
child's high school?
5. Did your participation change once your
child(ren) got into high school? If so, how did it change? Why did it
6. Do you think that parent participation looks different, or
should be different, between elementary, middle, and high school? If so,
how? Why? If not, why not?
APPENDIX B - GRAPHIC ROAD MAP
The 2004-05 school year road map shows the rough journey that the
students of PSU experienced. There were many ups and downs that year, but
the year ended on a positive note, as you can tell from the upward pointing
arrow at the end of the road.
APPENDIX C - REFLECTIONS
The youth researchers have had opportunities for reflection on their
work with RFA throughout the project: through journal writing, peer
feedback, end of meeting evaluations, and public forums. Below, you will see
some of their comments in which they assess the opportunity the project
offered to contribute to improving their schools, and to improving on their
academic skills. Overall, they conveyed that the experience of working
individually and collectively to research and write was an important
experience - larger and different from anything they had previously
About the experience:
"This is something new. It's like I've never been through anything like
this. I never really did research and stuff like this before. So just doing
research to help my school and people at my school is just a good
"The journal was important to me because like we would write in our
journal and then our mentors would reflect back on the words that we
say--like they give a personal note."
"Being a youth worker makes me proud of what I accomplished and proud of
myself for what I have done. This also makes me proud of my peers to show we
are leaders of today and will be tomorrow if we continue to do the right
Influence on school work:
"I've learned a lot from this writing. I became a better writer and my
English teacher told me I got better. That's how I knew."
"[My English teacher] says I was a pretty good writer...but since I been
doing this research and all this writing it seems like my writing has
skyrocketed as part of the skills of learning how to write longer and just
to write better."
I learned that "now's the time when you know you all have to start doing
[multiple drafts] and it's actually better for me to proof read something
and then when I finish proof reading it to then go into my rough draft
instead of just going to the final draft off the bat." My teacher said "when
I was writing my report on The Crucible...oh my gosh...your draft is so
good, and I did like five of them. That's all I kept thinking about was
[people] telling me you’re going to start needing to do drafts."
"I now observe everything around me and form my own opinions and act on
them too. Participating in the research program helped me learn to do that.
I actually improved my English skills in paragraph writing. When the honors
teacher asks me to do an essay I now know how to use evidence or examples to
back up my point."
"I'm used to writing to myself or a close friend or a teacher, but when
you have to write like past that, it's harder because you got to make sense
of it, and you got to make sense so that other people will know besides
yourself. It's a lot of corrections and all that [we] had to do. It was hard
work but it paid off...I learned that I have to push myself and stop staying
in my safe zone."
"I had to push myself to speak in front of everyone and then it made me
feel like...the topic was really important, not only to us but to other
people out there because they really were interested in knowing what we
wanted to talk about so I had to dig deep and be brave enough to just do it
and just say what I had to say and so I did and I was proud of myself for
Working as a team:
"I learned how to work as a team. Because when I first came, I knew that
that would be one of my problems. I never worked as a team, I work by
myself. It’s just like playing a sport. If you think you’re the team then
you're going to go nowhere. Same with the project: If you don't let people
share their ideas and experiences, then it's just not going to work."
"When I looked at [the research report] I didn't think I wrote all that.
And my peers around me did a lot of stuff and so like when it all comes
together and you see the final product, it's crazy…in a good way!"
APPENDIX D - BIBLIOGRAPHY
Capellaro, Catherine (2005). When Small Is Beautiful: An Interview with
Hector Calderon (excerpt). Rethinking Schools: Special Small Schools
Issue, 19(4), 35-37.
Carlo, Fernando, Antoine Powell, Laura Vazquez, Shoshana Daniels, Clay
Smith, with Kavitha Mediratta and Amy Zimmer (2005). Youth Take the Lead on
High School Reform Issues: Sistas and Brothas United. Rethinking
Schools: Special Small Schools Issue, 19(4), 61-65.
Challet, Lori, Yahaira Degro, Brian Rutty, and Erika Sequiera (2005).
Student Voices. Rethinking Schools: Special Small Schools Issue,
Chavez, Gerardo Reyes (2005). Letters to the Youth Activists of Tomorrow
(excerpt). In Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow, Eds., Letters
from Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out, 201-205. New York:
Fine, Michelle and Janis I. Somerville (1998). Perspectives: Parents.
In Small Schools Big Imaginations: A Creative Look at Urban Public Schools,
60-66. Chicago: Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform.
Gordon, Craig (2005). My Small School Journey. Rethinking Schools:
Special Small Schools Issue, 19(4), 47-50.
Lewis, Kristine S. (2005). Twists and Turns in the Journey: Youth
Activists' Use of Research in their Campaigns for Small Schools. The
Evaluation Exchange, XI(3), 9.
Meier, Deborah (2005). Creating Democratic Schools. Rethinking
Schools: Special Small Schools Issue, 19(4), 28-29.
Sheldon, Steven B. (2002). Parental Involvement in Education (excerpt).
In James W. Guthrie, Ed., Encyclopedia of Education. Vol. 5. 2nd
ed., 1844-1847. New York: Macmillan Reference.
Stovall, David (2005). Communities Struggle to Make Small Serve All.
Rethinking Schools: Special Small Schools Issue, 19(4), 56-57.
Woestehoff, Julie (2005). Parents Fight School Closings. Rethinking
Schools: Special Small Schools Issue, 19(4), 59.
About the Authors
Tiffany Fogle is an eleventh grader at West
Philadelphia High School. She is a member of the Philadelphia Student Union
and for the past two and a half years has been a youth researcher with
Research for Action. She says about her-self, "I have been very involved
with cheerleading, volleyball and badminton at West. I am also involved in a
teen mentor group called Teenshop. My daily schedule is packed full; I
maintain a C+ average and a 2.9 GPA. I am very dedicated, I do not know what
it means to quit. I lighten many people's hearts, and am joyful when in the
presence of others."
Lawrence Jones is an eleventh grader in the
Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering Program at West
Philadelphia High School. He is a member of the Philadelphia Student Union
and has been a youth researcher for the past year with Research for Action.
He says, "I love the research I am doing. It makes me feel important and
happy that I am helping my school." He is smart, nice, funny, caring and a
good problem solver. His favorite subjects are Auto, Math and Computer
This project was made possible through
the generous support of the Samuel S. Fels Fund, the Edward W. Hazen
Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, The Philadelphia
Foundation, and the Surdna Foundation. The views expressed within are solely
those of the authors.
Copies of these reports may be
downloaded for free from
www.researchforaction.org. Printed bound booklets are available for
shipping and handling costs by calling 215.823.2500. Readers are free to
download, copy, and use this report provided the work is credited to the
authors and Research for Action and is not distributed or used for
Copyright © 2006
Related materials from Research for Action:
A Guide to Facilitating Action Research for Youth
This guide, developed for Youth United
for Change in 2004 to facilitate action research for youth, includes a case
study of Oakland youth and provides a framework for supporting youth action
research. The guide describes action research, how to address a problem and
develop a research question, how to analyze findings, and then how to use
the findings to promote positive change. It includes activities for youth,
as well as a number of additional resources and references.
RESEARCH for ACTION
3701 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Fax: (215) 823-2510
Through research and action, Research for Action
seeks to improve the education opportunities and
outcomes of urban youth
by strengthening public
schools and enriching the civic and community
dialogue about public education.
1315 Spruce Street
Philadelplhia, PA 19107
Telephone: (215) 546-3290
Fax: (215) 546-3296
Philadelphia Student Union's mission is to assist
Philadelphia public high school students in organizing to transform
schools into places where all young people receive a high quality education,
and to help young people across schools and communities connect their issues
to build power locally and regionally.