By: Jennifer L. McCarthy Foubert

Jennifer L. McCarthy Foubert is an assistant professor of educational studies at Knox College, and a sociologist of education, critical race theorist, and teacher educator. Jennifer is a former Seattle Public Schools teacher who has worked with preservice and practicing teachers, and parents and families, for two decades across a variety of school community contexts.

The following is adapted from an excerpt of Dr. McCarthy Foubert’s book Reckoning With Racism in Family-School Partnerships: Centering Black Parents’ Engagement Experiences.

After studying family-school partnerships with a critical race theory lens for a decade, I have several key implications for scholars, policymakers, and school communities interested in educational justice. One of these involves a significant paradigm shift: untether education quality from individual parent engagement and get real about educating Black and Brown children well, regardless of how parents display support for their children’s schooling. Despite decades of family-school partnership scholarship fighting deficit narratives, Black and Brown parents’ levels and types of engagement are still used as scapegoats for persistent racial disparities in school that rather result from the education debt owed their families. Moreover, my research also indicates that when Black parents are highly engaged in the conventionally “right” ways, their children still continue to experience anti-Black racism at school, including lower or anti-academic expectations, racialized discipline, and white-centered curriculum. We must depart from a transactional paradigm that effectively stipulates particular levels or types engagement from parents in exchange for high quality education.

A transactional notion of family-school partnership is illustrated well by a teacher at an elementary school African American parent group I visited a few times as part of my 2014-2015 study focused on Black parents’ school engagement experiences. Two working-class mothers had just surveyed other African American parents at the school about their children’s educational needs, and determined the community needed an afterschool program to help families with childcare and homework. When the mothers shared their recommendations with the parent group, the teacher-leader suggested that the program should only be available for children whose parents attend monthly parent trainings. If a parent missed a training, then their children should get kicked out of the afterschool program. The parents resisted this, explaining that even if students’ parents did not come to the school, “you still help the kids.” They knew Black students deserved the highest quality education in public schools because of their innate value as children – not because of parents’ advocacy, levels of engagement, or perceived parenting skills.

At the same time, Black parents of all class statuses in my study knew that high levels of engagement and advocacy did not promise their children high quality education. While they experienced some success in minimizing and protecting their children from racism, they also saw it continue. Participants involved themselves in ways so similar to Derrick Bell’s notion racial realism (resisting racism while understanding it to be permanent), that I used the concept to theorize about Black parents’ school engagement. For example, one upper-middle-class mother worked tirelessly for four years to get her daughter access to more challenging and engaging instruction. She knew Black children were systemically excluded from the advanced academic programs – but kept pushing the school until her daughter was finally admitted to an advanced course. Her daughter excelled in high school AP courses. And yet, her identity was marginalized in them; she was often the only Black student and was so frustrated with what she called the “white history” curriculum that she actually opted out of an AP course her senior year. Racism is a hurdle to Black students gaining access to advanced coursework – but once enrolled, racism is still there.

Black parents engaged as racial realists because they knew their children could, did, and inevitably would experience racism at school despite intensive advocacy and close partnerships with educators, no matter the school demographics or reputation, and regardless of how well their children did academically. The idea that engaging with schools in a particular way will ensure children get the best a school has to offer is a false promise to Black parents, and obscures the ways racism and white supremacy continue to operate regardless. This is why educators must, in both theoretical and practical ways, untether education quality from parents’ types or levels of engagement.

Untethering education quality from individual parent involvement represents a significant paradigm shift for family-school partnership. It does not absolve educators from actively seeking authentic relationship and collaboration with Black and Brown families, but rather calls on them to relate from a shared commitment to the child’s learning rather than a transactional stance. Ultimately, I implicate educators in joining parents resisting racism and white supremacy at school. Of course, racial justice in schools will only come with economic, gender, disability, and language justice, too. In this way, authentic family-school partnership comes hand-in-hand with enacting humanizing curriculum, pedagogy, and policy for every marginalized student. It is time for educators invested in family-school partnership to see that their success hinges on school spaces and curriculum being liberatory, rather than compelling parents to participate in particular ways regardless of whether their children’s lives and learning matter at school.

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