Welcoming Black Families: What Schools Can Learn from Churches - ASCD
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September 1, 2017

Welcoming Black Families: What Schools Can Learn from Churches

As schools strive to ensure that black students' families feel safe and welcome, churches can be both models of hospitality and valuable community partners.


For many black families, their church is not just a physical place; it's a safe haven for emotional, spiritual, and intellectual life. As a group, black families in the United States are more likely to belong to a church than other ethnic groups. Forty-seven percent of black adults attend at least once a week, compared with 39 percent of Latinos, 34 percent of whites, and 26 percent of Asians (Pew Research Center, 2014).

Churches serving African American communities tend to welcome all types of families, accepting and accommodating differences within a shared mission, and giving them opportunities to socialize with others who have both different and similar concerns and challenges. Churches often have greeters who welcome members and visitors as they arrive. It's not uncommon for churches to have hospitality committees whose members visit shut-ins, send cards to the bereaved or sick, and plan church-wide celebrations. Participants often receive personal invitations to events through emails, phone calls, or in-person announcements. Churches are also known for helping families meet practical needs—for example, by offering summer programs, tutoring, recreational activities, educational and financial workshops, counseling, and food for those in need. Church members tend to trust their leaders and their fellow members.

Unfortunately, schools are often less successful in conveying such open hospitality and gaining black families' trust (Thompson, 2003; Williams, 2007; Strier & Katz, 2015). Some black parents find schools to be indifferent to their concerns, their ideas, and their presence. They report experiencing racism, bias, and judgmental attitudes in their interactions with school personnel (Milner, 2007; Howard & Reynolds, 2008; Reynolds, 2010). They perceive disparate treatment of white and black children, and this awareness reduces their trust in schools and their comfort interacting with school personnel.

Consider a study (Latunde, forthcoming) I recently conducted in California in which I offered parents a series of workshops in three different settings: church, school, and community organizations. The topics of the workshops included the Common Core Standards in English/Language Arts, building on your child's strengths, parent engagement, and what to do when there are issues in schools. About 59 percent of the 107 participants were black and 22 percent identified themselves as Latino. Over the period of a year, fewer than 3 percent of the black participants attended a workshop in the school setting; the rest chose to attend sessions in either a church or a community setting, whereas 92 percent of the Latino participants attended in a school setting. Black parents were interested in the topics and wanted to be engaged in their children's education—but schools were apparently not the preferred place for them to do so.

What can schools learn from churches and other community organizations about making black parents feel welcome? Can they emulate the kind of hospitality experienced at churches to build trust with black families? Can they even take it a step further and form partnerships with these organizations?

Put Hospitality First

Hospitality creates an environment of safety and trust in which parents can become engaged in ways that are comfortable for them because they feel valued (Latunde, 2016). Here are two approaches to creating a hospitable environment in schools, suggested by the research my colleague Angela Louque and I have conducted with black parents over the past few years (Latunde, 2016; Latunde & Louque, 2016; Louque & Latunde, 2014).

Ask Questions and Ask for Help

It's important that you invite black parents to be involved in activities and programs that positively affect all children, such as site council, PTA, and other groups. Ask parents what meaningful participation would look like for them. Many parents prefer more personal, informal participation, communication, and parent programs than schools typically provide (Auerbach, 2012). Once parents agree to attend, make sure the environment is open to topics that are important to them. In many schools, the parent-teacher organization's largest function is fundraising, but in some schools, the organization also sponsors workshops for parents on topics of interest. Ask parents to suggest people in their community who have the expertise and time to share resources and information in such a forum.

Invite black parents to a series of informal conversations. Acknowledge what families are already doing to support their children. If you don't know what they're doing, admit it and ask them. Get a clear idea of families' concerns for their children and how they believe schools can best help their children succeed. Capture the feedback and use it in future conversations as well as in planning tangible strategies to address concerns and issues.

In our work with black parents, we've learned that many like to volunteer at the school site and in the classroom. Whether they're there to volunteer or to observe, honor black parents' desire to be in the classroom and to interact with educators. Studies indicate that when parents spend time in the classroom, they increase their ability to support their children's learning at home and have an increased respect for what teachers do (Olsen & Fuller, 2010).

In a survey of 130 parents of black K–12 students, we found that a large proportion of them (94 percent) spent significant amounts of time communicating with schools about how their children learned and how to support their children's learning at home (Latunde & Louque, 2016). Seventy-nine percent were also active in campus-based parent groups. Yet a study by Thompson (2003) found that, although black parents visited schools frequently and participated in parent groups, they often ended their participation with these groups shortly after starting. To prevent this kind of attrition, it's important that schools take proactive steps to be receptive to parents' questions, emotions, values, and concerns.

Establish Meaningful Two-Way Communication

Research suggests that when communication is ongoing, meaningful, and two-way, parents feel valued (Akl, 2015; Williams, 2007). Churches model this with regular announcements made during church services, phone calls home by committee members to relay specific information, and by keeping the church doors open most of the week for its members to contact leaders with questions, concerns, or ideas.

In my research, the top four complaints black parents had about communication with schools were (1) not receiving clear information about what concepts the students were learning; (2) finding out about problems when it was too late to intervene or improve the situation; (3) hearing from teachers only when there are problems; and (4) having teachers constantly communicate about problems without offering a plan or clear process to address those problems (Latunde, 2016).

Parents want to know what their students are being taught so they can support their learning. Although emails and websites are options for updating parents, be aware that some families don't have easy Internet access or digital expertise, so newsletters and printed student agendas may be a more effective means of keeping them informed. Provide specific information, such as, "This month students will be covering polynomials. At the end of the week our test will cover Chapters 2, 3, & 4."

Set the tone for two-way communication by making a few early positive contacts. Specifically acknowledge students' strengths you've observed in the classroom. If time is an issue, consider using parent volunteers to make biweekly or monthly contact with other parents. A phone contact could sound something like this: "I am calling you on behalf of Mrs. Watkins. She wants me to let you know that this week we've been studying the distributive properties, and your son did a great job of communicating with peers, using his critical thinking skills and creativity." You can provide similar information in a number of ways, including written notes or emails. The key is to be brief, positive, and specific.

Many parents want to be proactively involved in addressing problems. When you have concerns about students, let parents know right away. Present the facts and invite parents to help you design solutions. Share resources with them that may enhance their ability to support their children. For example, many students struggle with math. Research suggests that teaching parents specific learning strategies to share with their children is as effective as using a tutor (Colmar, 2014). Learning strategies can be shared with parents during parent-teacher meetings, in local churches, at community centers, and via websites. Parent leaders can also be trained to train other parents.

Form Partnerships with Churches and Community Groups

Schools can do more than use churches as hospitality models; they can also reach out to them as partners. Because churches often maintain an important presence in communities, partnering with them and other community organizations can be a powerful way to build trust. (To avoid violating the separation of church and state, faith-based initiatives in public schools must have secular goals and be open to everyone.)

As a teacher or school leader, you can situate yourself to initiate partnerships by being visible in the community—by attending local cultural, religious (education-related), and community events. You can also seek the advice of church and community leaders on a variety of topics, and invite them to come to parent-teacher organization meetings, site councils, and social events offered by the school. Over time, organic relationships may develop that open doors to conversations about what students need and how schools, families, and communities can partner to meet those needs.

One large church in southern California, for example, established an education foundation 15 years ago that has consistently provided resources to schools, such as campus security, summer school programming, school supplies, and tutoring and mentoring for students with high levels of need. Because of the positive relationship, schools in the area have received more help from volunteers from the community and from other faith-based initiatives, and more faith-based organizations have increased their capacity to serve schools.

Two large-scale examples of faith-based partnership initiatives are the Expectations Project and the National Church Adopt a School Initiative. The Expectations Project mobilizes church congregations to provide services to schools, such as after-school mentoring, fundraising, backpack drives, and high-quality preschool options. The project also works with congregations and schools to educate the community about issues that affect children and to join forces to make positive change in schools and communities.

The National Church Adopt a School Initiative offers school-based mentoring and life-skills education. The initiative's public schools outreach activities promote four messages: stay in school, no drugs or alcohol, sexual abstinence, and no violence. For example, High School Heroes is a student leadership program that motivates students to stay in school. The Heroes program's activities include a seven-week leadership track in a school setting, a one-day outreach to elementary and middle school students, and a community service project. Churches provide transportation, snacks, a curriculum, and community service hours; schools provide chaperones and permission for students to miss a day or two of school. The Adopt a School initiative also includes ongoing training for pastors, volunteers, and school leaders.

Community organizations also offer possibilities for partnerships. Ask families and community leaders to help you identify race-based and culture-based resources and programs that can help you address parent concerns and student needs. Parents, grandparents, coaches, big brothers and sisters, business people, religious leaders, teachers, and community members can explore the possibilities of creating common goals focused on academic achievement and behavior outcomes.

For example, the Pasadena, California, chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority has for years teamed up with a local school district and other community partners to provide an annual Young African American Women's Conference, at which black female students explore their talents and interests, identify resources to help them succeed in college, and learn about career options and life skills. The conference typically attracts several hundred girls and their parents. The event charges a nominal fee ($7.00) and is open to the public. The Pasadena Unified School District supports the conference by advertising the event in schools, providing buses for students, and in some cases compensating school counselors for their time chaperoning groups of students who attend the conference.

The advantage of partnerships with church and community groups is that these groups are often led by people who have gained the trust of the communities they serve. They address issues that are important to communities that serve black families, such as policies affecting black students, high expectations, violence, poverty, and school change. These programs can be a powerful means of meeting the emotional, spiritual, and practical needs of people in the communities in which they operate

Models and Partners

Hospitality is not a program with defined steps or techniques that schools can use to engage black parents. Rather, it is a mindset of working to understand, accept, and embrace parents' perspectives and thus to gain parents' trust. In this endeavor, churches can be both models and partners. The bonds formed in formal or informal partnerships can help schools learn how to create the same level of hospitality and trust achieved by many churches and community organizations.


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