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Issues of exclusion and discrimination

Questions of race and ethnicity are important to parental engagement programs. Experiences of discrimination are a significant reason why parents are not more engaged in their children’s schooling. According to one study, parents who had reported “previous negative interactions with the school” appeared to be “more wary” of school staff’s intentions and activities (Gutman and McLoyd 2000, p. 14), while another study suggested that minority parents felt excluded by the parents who belonged to the dominant ethnic group (Abrams and Gibbs 2002; McGrath and Kuriloff 1999). The study found that while mothers from majority group felt entitled to naturally assume leadership roles and access power, minority mothers felt restricted by such displays of power. This dynamic was also shaped by language barriers and socio-economic status as well. In addition, school personnel can inhibit parental involvement based on their own beliefs that parents are too busy, disinterested or ignorant. This is especially true among low-income and minority neighborhoods. As such teacher and school beliefs can shape a school’s response to parental involvement and either limit or encourage it.

In other words, it is important that schools note that parental engagement programs can work against the interest of minorities by favouring those with existing cultural capital, especially if parental engagement programs are designed on the basis of unequal power relations and are often rooted in “white, middle-class assumptions about parent’s outlooks, language, resources and time available for school” (Leistyna 2002 quoted in Boethel). In the case of Roma, a particularly acute issue is teachers’ low expectations of their Roma students, as demonstrated in several teacher-training workshops conducted in Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia (Driel 2006). These same teachers often did not make the effort to liaise with the parents of Roma students, with several citing fear of the parents as their reason. 


Research shows that parents are most engaged when schools actively encourage their involvement (Harold and Eccles 2002, p.579). Moreover, among lower income groups, families were increasingly involved in their children’s school when schools reached out to them, encouraged them to get involved and helped them overcome barriers to their involvement (for a review, see Henderson & Mapp, 2002). In the case of discriminated and vulnerable parents, it is then particularly effective when the school initiates building ties with parents and encourages collaboration. By engaging parents in more planning, decision-making and leadership tasks, this helps to build positive and strong connections between them and the school. This has been the tactic of one school in the US, where a Parent Program Team was appointed to increase the involvement of parents as volunteers in the classroom in the belief it drives parental engagement in their children’s learning at both home and in the school.

Schools may decide to involve parents in non-formal activities as well, reaching out to vulnerable parents specifically. Research demonstrates that schools that involve parents in non-formal activities succeed to have a better relationship with children’s family (Cojocaru et al. 2015)  


In one school, school balls were organized for parents as an informal socializing opportunity. Considering that the parental group was particularly active in this school, parents – dominated by white, middle-class mothers – took over the organization. The parents’ association had open membership, yet none of the Roma parents were members. In fact, during meetings when Roma parents attended, there was a noticeable divide between the Roma and non-Roma parents, self-gathering in different circles. A breaking point came when one Roma mother decided to join the school ball – after she joined, the parents’ association celebrated the opportunity to engage with Roma parents and encouraged the Roma mother who came to facilitate the involvement and participation of other Roma parents. As a gesture of their openness, the theme of the next ball was Roma culture. In a sense, the one Roma parent who decided to break the cycle of non-cooperation then acted as a ”cultural broker,“ facilitating communication between Roma and non-Roma parents. The non-formal activity – the school ball – in this case provided the platform where collaborative ties may form and where inclusive practices can take root.