Schools love to say they value parents, but what they consider “involvement” can be so phony it ultimately hurts the parent-school relationship.

That’s what Edward Olivos, an author and researcher who studies parent engagement, told a gathering of about 100 people tonight at the 37 Place Community Center on the East side of Indianapolis.

Parental involvement, Olivos said, is prescribed, sanctioned and — for schools — safe. It includes activities parents are expected to help with, like homework, volunteering and fundraising.

Parents are most effective, he said, when they are advocates for their children, for sensible policies and for solving real problems.

But parents who take that approach can be flat out scary to schools, Olivos said.

“Once parents take on advocacy, they are going to take a lot of people to town,” he said. “But that’s OK. Those are discussions we need to have, questions like, ‘why are these kids always suspended?’ There has to be a collaboration between teachers, parents and the administrators.”

Olivos is a Mexican-American, former first-grade teacher who grew up in San Diego. Now a professor at the University of Oregon, he is an expert in bilingual education and his book “The Power of Parents” explores the cultural barriers that block parents from playing a more effective role in public schools.

His book is the key text for a semester-long IUPUI education class taught by Gina Borgioli Yoder in which teachers and aspiring teachers study ways to better engage parents in schools. Yoder designed the course with help from Annela Teemant and John Loflin.

Loflin and Jose Evans are the co-founders of the Black and Latino Policy Institute, which arranged the event.

“We know its an issue here,” Loflin said of parent engagement in Indianapolis. “How should parents be involved, and who gets to decide?”

Olivios reads a passage about parent engagement from a book at Thursday's event.
Olivos reads a passage about parent engagement from a book at Thursday’s event.
PHOTO CREDIT: Scott Elliott

Olivos told of working in schools where teachers were baffled why parents didn’t show up for parent-teacher conferences but came out in large numbers for potluck dinners.

That caused teachers to make false assumptions: that parents didn’t care, didn’t value education or didn’t grasp how formal education worked.

But Olivos said sometimes the parents just valued different aspects of education.

He gave the example of telling parents in conferences that their children were failing. But their priorities were different. What they wanted to know about their kids was: were they behaving? Were they being respectful?

“I just told them their kids are going to fail,” Olivos said, recalling his own confusion. “And all the questions are, how is my kid behaving?”

But to many Hispanic parents, he learned, the idea of an “educated” person was strongly bound to the notion of being respectful to others.

“Parents were doing a lot of their work,” Olivos said, “but in a frame that was different than we were expecting.”

Donielle Jones, a Central Elementary School third-grade teacher in Pike Township, said her eyes were opened in Yoder’s class.

“I was like, ‘yeah, I involve my parents,’” Jones said. “But then I learned that is not empowerment. I’m not engaging them in a conversation. I was very rigid. I was saying, ‘it’s third grade and this is how it is.’”

Jones, who is African-American, said she realized who she was even contributed to the confusion. She grew up in a middle class family and while she could relate to the experience of being African-American, as many of her students were, she didn’t always understand the challenges they faced in high-poverty homes.

“I cannot impose my values and my upbringing onto my students,” she said.

Olivos gave the parents in attendance this advice: force your schools to deal with the real issues in their communities and families, and help others do the same.

“To be on equal footing with institutions you need to know the rules they play by,” he said. “One thing we tell people is document. Write things down. Create a narrative. And teach someone else. So when your child goes on, there will be someone to follow.”