Children at Risk: The Family

For a fourth grader, there’s something uniquely wonderful about watching your father do the Chicken Dance.

Your mother’s dancing too -- and so are you, your little brother and sister, and more than a half dozen other families, all wiggling to this silly song in the auditorium of MacQuiddy Elementary School in Watsonville, Calif.

“For them to see their parents doing the Hokey Pokey and the Chicken Dance -- it just makes them feel special,” says kindergarten teacher Rocio Pantoja, who helped lead the festivities.

A little corny? Oh, yes. But each of the activities at this meeting of Families and Schools Together (FAST) has been chosen with distinct objectives in mind: to help children feel more comfortable at school, to strengthen families facing tremendous pressures in their lives, and to forge ties between these families and their schools. Through the games, songs, and discussion groups, parents from this high-poverty city east of Santa Cruz bond with their children and share concerns with one another over things like drugs, teen sex, bullying, and the ongoing stresses of family life.

“We get together,” says parent Francisco Rodriguez, who took the training at nearby Ann Soldo Elementary School. “We find a way to solve our problems.”

A field worker for 14 years, Rodriguez says the program helped him grow closer to his 12-year-old son, who joined him three years ago from Mexico and had trouble adjusting to life in California.

At age 12, “they’re still children,” says Rodriguez, who now works for a landscaper. “As long as we hold them close to us, we protect them.”

For schools struggling to help at-risk children, it is essential to reach out to parents. But simply wanting “parent involvement” is not enough. Indeed, the families that stand to benefit most from closer school ties -- families living in poverty, English language learners, and others who find themselves marginalized by any number of misfortunes -- are usually the hardest to attract. Districts, especially those serving low-income families, need comprehensive outreach plans to strengthen family ties and provide parents with the skills and information to help their children succeed.

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