PARENT LATONTA GODBOLDT, who helps run the Home and School Council at Kearny School, faces the same dilemma every month. Only about 12 parents regularly attend the meetings in the school of more than 400 students. Even with offers of free pizza and child care, the number of attendees jumps to only about 20, she said.
"We would like to have more parents come," she said recently. "A lot of parents don't know what's going on [in the school]. But where I come from, people are not likely to join something like this..."because they won't get anything out of it.
The situation at Kearny, a kindergarten to eighth-grade school in Northern Liberties, is typical, experts say, as educators struggle with the age-old problem of trying to get parents to parent and take an interest in educating their kids who are often failing, disruptive, truant and troubled.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman recently urged parents to take responsibility for their children's actions and school success in light of increasing instances of youth violence, staggering truancy rates and poor school performance.
Who most needs to step up for today's students?
The problem has reached such proportions — particularly in schools in poorer neighborhoods — that state Sen. Anthony Williams recently reintroduced legislation that would fine or lock up parents of students who are truant or threaten or assault students and school staff.
"We need parents to step up and play their roles," said Drexel Professor Charles Williams, who worked with the families of troubled youth who were sent from the school district for counseling. "I can't do everything. The schools can't do everything. The politicians can't do everything. "We need our parents to do the basic things, like read to their kids."
Ackerman echoed his sentiments.
"Make education a priority," she said. "Let them see you engaged in the process of learning and they'll understand that it's important to them."
Williams said studies have shown that students whose parents are not involved in their education, are more likely to be truant, flunk or drop out, have social or emotional problems, become pregnant, do drugs or get arrested. Students whose parents are involved tend to excel, he said.
Still, he understands the challenge of getting parents to participate. Last month, he offered $400 to the parents of each child he mentors to get them to attend a meeting about their kids — and most failed to show.
"We offered them so many incentives, short of giving out a new car, in hopes that they might show up, but it's hard to get them to come out," he said.
WHY PARENTS SKIP SCHOOL
Generally, parents fall into one of three categories, said J. Michael Hall, executive director of Strong Fathers, Strong Families, a Texas-based parent involvement organization.
First, there are the parents who volunteer, are involved in parent groups, have relationships with their child's teacher and work with their kids at home.
Then, he said, there are parents who may not have a presence in the school, but stress the value of education at home and track progress.
Finally, there are parents who have never been involved and whose kids are most likely to cause the most trouble in class and who struggle academically, he said.
These parents refuse to come to school for any reason, are unreachable by phone and do not keep up with their child's progress.
Parents have cited any number of reasons why they or parents they know don't or won't get involved in their child's schooling: No time. Have to work. Intimidated by teachers. Feel unwelcome in the school.
But Diane Smith, of North Philly, whose two sons attend district schools, said the reason is often much simpler.
"Some people aren't interested," she said. "Some people feel like they don't care."
Addie Williams, (no relation to Charles Williams) whose granddaughter attends a district elementary school, offered a different explanation.
Unwelcoming school administrators and rude front-office staff keep many parents away, she said.
Veronica Joyner, of Parents United for Better Schools, noted that many parents whose students are struggling academically avoid teachers and schools because it's hard to accept the truth about their child.
"Parents don't want to hear that their child is failing," she said. "They take it personal. They feel that 'my child is failing, I failed.'
"So instead of facing the failure, they drop out."
Sylvia Simms, president of the advocacy group Parent Power, added that for many uninvolved parents, schools are a painful reminder of their past.
"I have parents who went to these schools and had bad experiences, dropped out and had kids young," she said.
"Then they send their kids to the same schools and have to confront the same teachers they had."
Further, she added, many parents have no clue about what their rights are, and are often too intimidated to question teachers and administrators even though federal law gives parents the right to be involved in schools.
And as for helping with homework, Simms said that a lot of parents don't because they are not educated enough, and are often left feeling helpless.
Last month, the Rev. Jesse Jackson — in town for a lecture on parenting at the Merriam Theater — urged parents to not let ignorance stunt the growth of their kids.
"Even if you can't read or write," he said during the district-sponsored event, "[you] should be determined to make sure your child can read and write."
Charles Williams agreed.
"I grew up in foster care in North Philly," he said. "I got to live through the poverty and addiction that's far too common in the black community. But my [foster] mother did homework with me every night; my [foster] father regularly went to parent meetings."
In Philadelphia public schools, 76 percent of the 161,000 students are poor enough to qualify for free lunch. About 12,000 to 15,000 skip school each day, a district official said.
Jackson cited indifference among the poor and unemployed as a contributing factor in student failure, truancy, violence and other social ills.
Key, Williams says, is what happens in the home.
Far too often, he said, caregivers are not providing their kids with positive examples to emulate.
He said a growing body of research suggests that many poor parents are more concerned about providing the necessities than being role models, doing homework or touching base with teachers.
"Parents are smoking, drinking, cursing in front of their kids," he said of the families he visited over the course of seven years as a therapist. "There were no boundaries and limits in existence in the household."
And in many cases, Williams said, this mentality and behavior has been passed down for generations. Yet no one addresses the issue.
"It's about time we had an open, candid conversation about it," he said, "and damn the backlash.
"People placate and appease. Look at what happened to Bill Cosby, like what he said was wrong."
From parent to teacher Longtime educators say that over time the responsibility for student success has shifted from the home — which has traditionally been perceived as a child's first teacher — to schools and instructors, making their jobs much harder.
"When I started teaching, the burden of doing well and succeeding in school was always on the student and the student's family," said Jeff Rosenberg, a health and physical education teacher in the district for 33 years. Now, "it has completely [flipped]."
As a result, educators say they are often unable to manage students' behavior, let alone instruct them.
"It seems that at the home there's no discipline, there's no order," said a recently retired instructor at Lincoln High, who asked that he not be identified. "There's no respect in the home, so there's no respect for us in the schools.
"They're brought up in environments where there are no consequences, so they have no fear," he added.
At University City High, Rosenberg said, many students today have a sense of entitlement.
"Regardless of the work, you're still entitled to pass," he said of some pupils. "It's the deterioration of work ethic."
Plus, most of the time only "teachers have to explain and verify why kids are failing."
It's unbalanced, said Williams, the Drexel professor, who said that caregivers must share the responsibility for a student's success.
"We have a right to expect more from parents than they expect from administrators," he said. "My job is to help facilitate and support."
Special education teacher Schimri Yoyo can attest to that.
Earlier this year, he tried repeatedly to meet with parents of three of his students to create an individualized education plan, or IEP, for each one, he said.
All of his seventh-and eighth-grade students have a learning disability and require a specialized curriculum, which determines how they will be instructed, he said. The plans are supposed to be set by parents, teachers and special-education officials within the school.
But after scheduling and rescheduling meetings, which the parents skipped, he prepared the IEPs himself, which the parents later signed, he said.
"You would hope parents would have input in how their kid would be taught. But they didn't have a say," said Yoyo, a new teacher who works at Francis Hopkinson School, which serves K-8 in Hunting Park. But then again, "some of them don't know enough that goes on a daily basis to [give] their input."
He noted that some of his best students are the ones whose parents call to check on their progress and meet with him regularly.
Meanwhile, he said, "the ones who struggle are the ones whose parents don't do anything, but blame the school because their kids' aren't doing well. They don't hold themselves accountable."
Reaching out to parents Patrick Kennison, a teacher at Harding Middle School, said connecting with students' families is key.
"It's about building relationships with the community, knowing who their extended relatives are and establishing a wide network," he said.
It's something Ackerman has homed in on since taking the helm of the school district in 2008.
In the last two years, Ackerman has launched several efforts to improve relations with parents and get them involved with their children's education.
She opened a computer resource center for parents and a language access office for non-English speakers inside district headquarters.
Parent roundtables and home visits have made her more accessible, some parents said.
She placed roughly 170 parent ombudsmen in schools to handle duties such as providing parents with information regarding federal financial aid and student graduation requirements.
And Parent University, a program of academic and vocational classes aimed at parents, launched last fall, has had about 5,000 participants so far.
Ackerman has often encouraged guardians to not only take advantage of what's available but become lovers of learning.
"Make education a priority in your home," she has said. "There's nothing more impressionable than having your child see you studying."
Advocates like Sylvia Simms and Charles Williams have praised the superintendent for her initiative. Still, much of the weight in engaging parents falls on schools, said Glenn McCurdy, who once monitored school-community relations for the district.
McCurdy, who has pressed schools to improve customer service among their front-office staff, spent weeks visiting district schools to rate their performance. It was abysmal, he said.
"I saw how they treated parents. There's a culture in schools that's very discouraging," he said.
Indeed, traditionally in urban districts parents have felt marginalized, said Karren Dunkley, deputy chief for the district's parent engagement office. But plans to incorporate customer-service training for school staff are in the works, she said.
"Schools should reform, revolutionize," she said.
"It's about reaching parents where they are. It's not about binding them in the traditional way of engagement."
To that end, the district this week will launch its latest volunteer effort under its parent program, which will offer caregivers classes in topics including English, conflict resolution and character development, she said.
The goal, Dunkley said, is to equip parents with the knowledge that will allow them to better hold schools accountable.
"We need to destroy barriers to entry for parents," she said. "We should only move forward."
Meanwhile, back at Kearny, Godboldt, who is studying to become a teacher, said she won't be discouraged by the parents who view schools as free babysitters.
She said she will continue to mail out monthly newsletters, pass out fliers and chat with parents outside school in hopes that more of them will become active.
Education "doesn't start at school," she said.
"Even before your child is school age, start reading to your child, expose them to different activities."
Parents "pacify their kids with things that aren't beneficial and miss the whole picture of what really matters." she added.
"I don't understand how they could miss that." *