There is a gaping achievement gap between black and white school children in New Jersey. The 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress Data on fourth-graders show that in reading 42 percent of black students scored below grade level compared to only 15 percent of white students. In math, 29 percent of blacks were below but only 6 percent of whites. It’s not just race but class that seems to determine achievement. Studies show when schools engage parents the kids do better. The New Jersey Black Alliance for Educational Options Deputy State Director is Shanell Dunns spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams about the issue.
Williams: Thank you very much.
Dunns: Thank you for having me.
Williams: Do parents feel they have a voice and if not, why?
Dunns: That’s part of the problem — parents don’t feel they have a voice. They don’t feel like their voice matters. They don’t know where to utilize their voice or how to utilize their voice.
Williams: There was a time, and you and I remember it, when schools reached out to parents to be involved.
Williams: What happened?
Dunns: I think we kind of evolved to the schools habits, “We just need you, as a parent, to get your kid to school. We’ll take care of the rest” and you lost that partnership between parents and teacher and administrators. Later on down the line parents are like, “Well, hey, I didn’t know this,” or “I don’t know how to do that” and they’re trying to reengage themselves but they don’t know how.
Williams: How does reengagement affect the school community and the kids’ learning ability?
Dunns: It affects the community as a whole because we become a community again. We’ve gotten so far away from being a community, and not just your parents taking care of the students, but your neighbors and relatives. I think that’s what we have to get back to is that, right? We have to begin having the dialogue on a basic grassroots level just with small groups of parents that are interested in reengaging themselves.
Williams: What can schools do to get black parents involved?
Dunns: Meet them where they are. That’s the best thing. Meet them where they are.
Williams: Which means what? PTA meetings?
Dunns: BAEO does a lot of work in the community. The first year we were here for the entire summer and we held block parties, we knocked on doors, just reintroducing ourselves to community members. You can’t expect parents to always meet you at the school. Sometimes you have to come from behind that desk and knock on those doors, or go to a basketball game or football game. I think that’s where it begins. When parents see that the learning institution that their child is in is interested in more than just that building then they invest more into that building.
Williams: To what extent does class play a role here?
Dunns: Class plays a huge role. I was young parent. I had my first baby when I was 18 years old. She’s 26 now. But there’s a huge difference because I was 18. I was kind of blocked out, “She’s young, she doesn’t know anything,” but I was an invested parent. I wanted to participate in my child’s education experience because I didn’t want her to be that 18-year-old parent. We tend to think, oh, because she’s young, she’s poor and that she doesn’t know or doesn’t want to. That’s not the case.