Parent's role in STEM education

Like countless immigrants before her, Angelica Salgado came to the United States to provide a better life for her family. Like many newcomers in the Corona section of Queens, Angelica works hard to give her three children the best education New York schools have to offer. She trusts that the school system and teachers “will do right” by them.

Indeed, the schools have improved. But perhaps not enough to merit her trust.

In 2016, the district’s English Language Arts scores for 3–8th graders increased by seven percentage points as compared to the previous year. However, English language learners, like Angelica’s children and those of the two-thirds of Corona families born outside the U.S., did not fare as well: their scores decreased by one percentage point.

The situation is even worse for non-native students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses. Careers in those areas are where the jobs are, now and in the future, but many parents who are ambitious for their children hesitate to get involved in advocacy for them or in planning their courses and extra-curricular activity. To immigrant families, the overall school-to-work pipeline may be downright mysterious.

So what’s a parent to do? As president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), I take this question very seriously.

(Andrew Kelly/ NY Hall of Science)

Our educators and researchers know that few formal and coordinated efforts exist to connect students to STEM opportunities and careers. Yet studies indicate that family engagement in children’s education yields positive results — children stay in school longer, they perform better and have better school experiences. This is consistent across grade levels, for in- and out-of-school contexts and among African American and Latino families.

So we’ve identified five types of programs and resources that parents need:

1. Resources to help parents understand and navigate the school system. The New York City Department of Education created parent coordinator positions in 2003. Parent coordinators have traditionally answered phones and helped with translation, but as Mrs. Salgado noted, “Some schools have more engaging parent coordinators than others.” Chancellor Carmen Fariña has moved to increase training for parent coordinators to be more proactive, such as organizing parents to take field trips and explaining ways they can help their children’s education. More could be done to strengthen these connections.

2. Access to STEM academic coursework and real pathways to STEM-related careers. Some schools host career nights and other work-focused events. Informal institutions such as museums and libraries could offer more programs. At NYSCI, we host free STEM Nights where kids can watch presentations from STEM professionals and chat with them afterward in a relaxed setting. Free resources such as the New York Urban League’s A Parent’s Guide to STEM can provide further insight.

3. Programs that emphasize a two-generation approach that includes both children and parents. Some activities that are becoming popular educate the parents while educating the child. The Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) is a nonprofit program that shows parents their critical role as their children’s first teacher. HIPPY uses home visitors to role-play educational games with parents they can then play with their children. NYSCI runs a similar Little Makers program that invites families with young children to tinker, design and create projects together, from glider airplanes to sidewalk chalk art to superhero gadgets.

4. Activities across multiple settings that foster student success as a shared community responsibility. Our NYSCI Neighbors program works with 700 local families and schools to provide discounted entry to museums and invitations to STEM activities. The NYSCI auditorium is used for PTA meetings, and every year before our annual Maker Faire we invite area families to a pre-Faire community event.

5. Platforms that give parents a voice to ensure that their concerns and stories are recognized. School listservs, Facebook groups, parenting blogs and similar resources let parents seek guidance from teachers, school administrators, and other experts, and to support other parents struggling with similar issues.

We still need to offer parents more. A new program called Parent University will be a component of our NYSCI Neighbors initiative that makes it easier for parents to find and use available resources. Then parents like Angelica Salgado will be better able to prepare their children for college work in STEM subjects and possibly careers in a STEM field.

Only if all of us — schools, museums, and community organizations — make it easier for parents to find the resources they need will we be able finally to “do right” by Angelica Salgado and her children.

Margaret Honey is the president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York. Her essay is part of a series on parent engagement produced by the philanthropic foundation Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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