How Parents Figure into the MPS Equation

Jun 1, 2010

WUWM now continues its Project Milwaukee series, exploring the barriers that hold back some Milwaukee Public School students from achieving at a higher level.

Today we look at the role parents play in their children’s success.

WUWM’s Susan Bence met people who care passionately and have strong opinions about the importance of family in a child’s life.

Ta-tanisha Powells & her daughter Nevaeh

Sheri Johnson meets me in the quiet of her office at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The child psychologist has spent most of her 20-year career working in clinics in the heart of the city.

Johnson says parents are uniquely suited to prepare their child to succeed in school. It’s the “use every moment as a learning opportunity” idea.

“ Grocery shopping with your child, identifying the vegetables in the aisle. Developing some of their math skills – how many people did you see on the bus,” Johnson says.

When a child enters school, Johnson says another critical step is to cultivate a parent, teacher and student team

“Being an advocate for your child with the teachers and with the school staff; making sure that your child has a place in your home that they do their homework,” Johnson says.

The list goes on – building reading time into your child’s life, while carefully doling out TV and computer time.

But Johnson says prescribing these techniques to many of the families she treats, would be like whistling in the dark.

“Those families are challenged by poverty, an absence of jobs,” Johnson says.

Johnson says in the best of all possible worlds, adults plan to become parents and thoughtfully prepare to raise a child.

But the reality of many urban families’ lives doesn’t fit that model.

At her office on Vliet Street, Catherine Klein is stockpiling backpacks and school supplies.

The social worker is one of three MPS homeless coordinators.

“We do whatever we can to just create a little less stress until they get through the crisis,” Klein says.

This year, 2800 MPS students were reported homeless.

Klein says that may sound like a small portion of the system’s 85,000 enrollment, until you realize 80 percent of MPS kids hover below federal poverty lines.

“So many families are one pay check away from foreclosure, eviction. You know, that one paycheck is all it takes,” Klein says.

You’d never guess 37-year-old Ta-tanisha Powells spent years living on the edge, moving from shelter to shelter.

The single mother of two and her five year old are all dressed up, celebrating her “graduation” from HIPPY. That stands for Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters.

Powells says the program has changed her family’s life.

Every week a trained parent partner came to Powells’ home. Together they role-played prescribed activities and stories. In turn, Powells has worked and played with her daughter every day.

"It’s really given me a lot of structure to raise my children, to stay focused, to stay on the right track and just show them that they can accomplish if they just set their minds to it,” Powells says.

Her daughter now reads and loves to write stories, and is bursting to start first grade. As for Powells, she’s taking college courses.

“My 18 year old is graduating from high school. Him seeing me going back to school gave him the incentive to stay in school,” Powells says.

Program coordinator Andre Goode says HIPPY has quietly gone about its business since 1998 working with parents to become their kids’ first teacher.

Then a few years ago, Children’s Outing Association – the local group that coordinates HIPPY – was urged to expand into elementary schools.

“Studies show that up through the 4th grade, that is when you will make the most impact in terms of parental involvement,” Goode says.

So in 2005 HIP – Having Involved Parents – was launched at several MPS schools.

The program’s centerpiece is a monthly family gathering, tonight it’s West Side Academy’s turn. The gym is bursting at the seams. A “mad scientist” just finished his performance, and everyone’s about to sit down and eat.

Longtime volunteer Annie Crockett says HIP is doing more than getting parents inside the school for a free meal.

“Every Tuesday they send the homework home in this bookbag. They say check your bookbag . You don’t have to check the bookbag because now kids come home and show their homework,” Crockett says.

Renee Washington, her niece, daughter and mother Annie Crockett

Crockett’s daughter, Renee Washington coordinates HIP at nearby Sherman Elementary, where it’s been slower to catch on. So she’s plastered “Give HIP a try” signs outside school and positions herself so parents have a hard time avoiding a conversation.

She understands how they feel.

“A lot of people are leery and don’t want to come, thinking, here comes another program, somebody else telling me what to do.,” Washington says.

HIP organizers say their benchmark of success is getting 25 percent of families involved.

West Side Academy’s Annie Crockett is aiming for 100 percent.

“You just have to be patient. Get to know them. Give them a hug once and a while. Sometimes, that’s all we need,” Crockett says.

Crockett says that goes for parents and their children.