There are many ways to close the gap in achievement that exists between students from poor families and their better-off peers.
From after-school tutoring to charter schools, non-traditional lesson plans to incorporating technology in the classroom, educators have plenty of methods at their disposal. But all of these approaches are sure to fall short if they focus on the child alone, according to Betsy Nikolchev, the founder and executive director of the Family Engagement Institute.
"You really can't create a solid educational experience for children without the family being involved," said Nikolchev. "You've got to have healthy families to have healthy, successful kids."
The Foothill College-based education organization holds free classes and workshops for local parents with students at Mountain View schools, all with the aim of encouraging families to take an active role in their children's education. Headquartered out of Foothill's Middlefield Campus, the institute holds classes at Castro and Landels elementary schools where parents can learn skills that will help them be more involved with their children's academic lives.
Aaron Fulk, assistant director of the institute, calls it "complimentary learning" -- all of the things that a child learns outside the classroom, including at home.
Through his work in the program Fulk said he has met parents who were functionally illiterate, whose education had ended after the fourth grade or who were unfamiliar with how to use a computer. The majority of the parents taking these courses are low-income, English language learners, he said.
Parents such as these are bound to have difficulty helping their children do homework, Fulk said. Sometimes they may not even feel they can help at all. "Once their child gets to middle school, the parents can feel a bit helpless when it comes to helping their children."
The institute aims to help parents that fit Fulk's description. Currently, it hosts classes in computer literacy and healthy cooking at Castro, and two literacy classes at Landels.
In the computer class parents learn basic skills, like how to go online and use word processing software. The healthy cooking class is a crash course in making nutritious meals at home; those who attend this class have access to a kitchen, so they can practice what they learn.
Castro's principal, Judy Crates, said in an email that the computer class at her school is very popular -- the most recent session was filled "immediately." The cooking class, which takes place in a room adjacent to her office, seems to be a hit as well, she noted.
"Both of these courses substantially change the quality of life for our families," she wrote. "FEI has a very powerful impact for Castro families."
One of the literacy courses at Landels is focused on reading as a family, while the other is more about helping adults become better readers. Being passionate about reading is a valuable hobby, Fulk said.
"Even if you're not reading Moby Dick, you can still have tools to teach your child how to instill a life-long love of reading," he said. And, if a child learns to love reading, it will prove to be a benefit later in life. In all of Fulk's personal experience in college admissions, he said he has read a scant few successful essays penned by teens with illiterate parents.
According to the Harvard Family Research Institute, children spend 70 percent of their waking hours outside of school, which is proof enough for Fulk that the old axiom is true -- it takes a village to raise a child.
"Schools can only accomplish so much," he said. "It really has to be a shared responsibility among the school, family and the community at large."
Parents cannot earn college credits through the institute. However, those who sign up for one of the FEI's classes will receive a Foothill student ID and get access to many university services. The hope, according to Nikolchev, is that parents and their children will be drawn to higher education through their involvement in her program.
For more information go to the FEI website, or give them a call at 949-6984.