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Earl Martin Phalen

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Success Starts With Family Engagement

Posted: 08/23/11 11:32 AM ET

We are in an academic crisis in our nation. Fewer minorities are graduating on time and many are starting school significantly behind their peers. Studies have found that only 30% of African American children enter kindergarten with basic language skills (i.e. recognizing letters of the alphabet).

One of the keys to increasing academic achievement is parental and family engagement.

Although I was born into the foster care system at a time when 70% of my Black male peers would end up going to jail, I was adopted by an incredible family that valued joy, discipline, hard work and education. As a result, I ended up a Harvard Law School classmate of Barack Obama.

If it wasn't for engaged and committed parents, my future might have been bleak.

A study within the Harvard Family Research Project noted that children perform better in the classroom when parents read to them and provide support with homework. The research cuts across socioeconomic lines finding, "low income African American children whose families maintain high rates of parent participation in elementary school are more likely to complete high school."

Within our community we must begin a campaign for family and parental academic involvement. And involvement does not necessarily mean showing up at the school for events. Involvement means asking your child about his or her day (and not letting them get away with one-word answers, "Good.") It means you telling your child how much their education means to you. It may include having your child read aloud to you regularly. Or leaving their homework out for inspection when you get home from work at midnight. Or calling your child's teacher at the start of the year and developing a partnership with your child's teacher. Quite frankly, clapping for your child or grandchild for doing well on a spelling test is great.

Reach Out and Read, an organization that I lead, consists of 28,000 doctors and medical providers who "prescribe reading" to over 3.9 million low income mothers and infants. Medical research shows that simply reading to a child increases motivation, memory and creates higher scores on school readiness assessments.

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An older sister reads to her younger brother. Courtesy of Reach Out and Read

If there's a child in your family (cousin, niece, younger sibling) and you notice the parents may be busy, take the initiative to send them books or encourage them during school related conversations. If we want our children to be successful, we must be both engaged and committed to their academic success.