Volume 14, 2008

Parents Speak Up and Out about Parents' Participation
in Urban Public High Schools

Tiffany Fogle & Lawrence Jones



School Background
The Research Question and Data Collection
Research Findings
     A. Research Survey and Protocol
     B. Graphic Road Map
     C. Reflections
     D. Bibliography
About the Authors


School Background

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 low-income families.*

"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 - $25.
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 their families.

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 Collection

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 day.

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

Research Findings

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 school."

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 reported:

What I would like to 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 [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 [participate].


General Recommendations to district and school leaders, students, and community groups.

The District:

  • 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 for meetings;

  • 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 on time;

  • 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' obligations;

  • 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 student.


  • Students should stay in communication with parents or other caring adults.

Student Union Chapter:

  • The chapter should talk to parents of new members about getting involved with meetings and events concerning the school and their children.

  • 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.




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 commerical purposes.

West/Southwest Philadelphia Parent Survey

(for parents of students in West/Southwest Philadelphia)

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 participation
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
about 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?

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 years.

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 & School Association.

7. I am very involved in my high school's Home & School Association.

8. I know when my child(ren) are doing what they are supposed to, or not supposed to, in their high school classes.

9. Parents are involved and have a strong presence at my neighborhood high school.

10. I wish I were more involved in my child(ren)'s public high school.

11. Parents should have a say in what decisions are made about their public high school (such as decisions about curriculum, teacher and principal hiring,
programs open to the community, etc.)

12. Parents who aren’t actively involved in their child(ren)'s high school just don't care.

13. I regularly attend high school events (Report Card Days, talent shows, public meetings about the school, Home & School events, etc.)

14. My child(ren)'s public high schools welcome parent involvement.

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 Community Coordinator.

19. Parents should be in regular communication with School District Officials

20. High school students do not need their parents to be very involved in their lives.

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 cracks.

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 Philadelphia?

O Yes O No

Do you have any children in private, parochial, or charter
high schools?

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 hours)?

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: _________________________________________________


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 high school?
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?
4. What 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 change?
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?



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.


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 undertaken.

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 experience."

"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 thing."

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."

Speaking out:

"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 doing it."

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!"



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, 19(4), 32-33.

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: Nation Books.

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 Programming.




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 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 commerical purposes.

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.






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Through research and action, Research for Action
seeks to improve the education opportunities and
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schools and enriching the civic and community
dialogue about public education.


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