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STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Education

When parents work irregular schedules, schools feel the effects

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Parents: you’ll find a note soon in your child’s backpack. Or maybe you’ll get a phone call.  A gentle reminder from your child’s teacher that it’s time for parent-teacher conferences.

And, you’ll make the time to sit down some evening to talk. It’s just one of the ways schools and teachers try to keep parents involved in children’s education.

But some parents have a harder time staying involved than others. Not because they don’t want to, or because they don’t care. Often, their work schedule just doesn’t allow it.

I stopped in last week at North Godwin Elementary, where principal Mary Lang gave me a quick tour down a brightly lit hallway with shiny floors.

"My teachers will go above and beyond," Lang says. "They're out in the parking lots before school, after school. They're calling parents. They're meeting parents at McDonald's, at late nights. They're on the weekends talking to parents."

This school, in the Godwin Heights school district, is in a working class neighborhood, just south of Grand Rapids. Lang tells me 90 percent of kids here qualify for free or reduced price lunch. A lot of parents are working whatever job they could get. And the jobs they can get often have crazy schedules. Which makes it harder for teachers to stay in touch.

"My teachers will go above and beyond," Lang says. "They’re out in the parking lots before school, after school. They’re calling parents. They’re meeting parents at McDonalds, at late nights. They’re on the weekends talking to parents."

Back in Lang’s office, first grade teacher Pat VanderZee tells me she sees the effect of parent’s work schedules inside her classroom.

"For example," VanderZee says, "I have a child whose parents work evenings and he comes to school often very tired. By the end of the day, he’s exhausted, head down on his seat. That’s an effect. I don’t blame the parents, they do the best they can. They come in in the morning, hugs, kisses – they love him. They want him to succeed.

North Godwin elementary is not a bad school. In fact, in rankings that take into account the district’s poverty level, this is one of the best schools in the state.

But it takes a lot of work for the teachers here. With parent teacher conferences coming up, VanderZee says she’ll be meeting with parents as early as 7 a.m. and sometimes during the school day just to catch them when they’re available.

This isn’t just a challenge for one teacher at one school. Parents' work schedules have been shown to affect kids' learning all over.

Leila Morsy is a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. She was once a school teacher in New York, and she co-authored a report on how parents' work schedules affect kids. She says when she started looking into it, "it became pretty evident pretty early on that this was something that was important." 

Morsy says research has shown a connection between parents' work schedules and cognitive development for toddlers. In preschool years, kids whose parents work irregular schedules are more withdrawn, show more depressive signs. And older kids show more risky behavior.

The ultimate takeaway for Morsy is that we need to broaden our ideas in public policy about what it takes to help kids in schools.

"To do that," Morsy says, "we really need to think of things like housing policy and employment policy and health policy as education policy."

Back at North Godwin elementary, I met Pam Rosenow at a meeting of the school’s PTO. Rosenow isn’t a parent of a North Godwin student. She’s a grandparent. She says her daughter would be here, but she’s trying to work her way through college. To make money, her daughter works at a restaurant, whatever hours she can get.   

"It’s like, 'Yeah, you want the job, you’re going to be here, and if you don’t, well there’s other people that will,'" Rosenow says.

She's lucky she can be involved in taking care of her grandchild, who sleeps over at her house once a week. And she says her family isn’t the only one in this situation.

"It’s hard," Rosenow says, "but I see a lot of people trying to make it good."

 

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