Parents, it turns out, really do matter in a child's academic success.
The World-Herald looked at how many parents showed up for fall 2011 parent-teacher conferences at nearly 180 schools in the Omaha metro area and compared that with student test scores.
Schools with the highest parent attendance generally scored best on state reading and math tests, according to data from nine metro school districts. Low-attendance schools scored the worst.
Gretna High School in western Sarpy County had the highest parent attendance of the 19 metro high schools that kept track: 76 percent. The school's 11th-graders scored among the best in the metro on state tests.
Omaha Bryan High School in northwest Bellevue, meantime, had the lowest conference attendance. Bryan teachers held two conferences last fall that drew just 18 percent and 28 percent of parents, and Bryan students scored lowest of the 19 high schools.
Conference attendance alone, of course, isn't the magic pill to improve test scores, which depend on various factors from good teaching to safe schools and correlate closely with poverty rates. But attendance at conferences suggests an involved parent, one who cares enough to take time off from work or evening activities to visit school and wait, in long lines at some high schools, for a brief chat with a teacher.
High attendance rates can also indicate a school staff committed to communicating with parents and getting them involved.
Bryan High Principal Robert Aranda said he did not send reminders to parents about the first conference held at his school but notified parents about the second one and turnout was better.
"Is it where we want to be? No," Aranda said.
He said Bryan uses a block schedule that compresses yearlong classes into a single semester, so teachers are advised to stay in close contact with parents and call them at the first sign a student is falling behind.
"With those phone calls, I think parents are feeling good," Aranda said. "They're being contacted, they know what's going on."
Metro schools with the greatest number of students living in poverty — measured by eligibility for federal lunch subsidies — generally had the lowest parent attendance and lowest test scores.
But not always.
A handful of Omaha elementary schools located in poor and high-minority neighborhoods bucked that trend by posting high attendance rates.
Principals of two high-poverty elementary schools in the Omaha Public Schools that recorded perfect fall conference attendance say they simply expect parents, preferably both mom and dad, to attend.
"One hundred percent is the expectation," said Lisa Utterback, principal of Miller Park Elementary in northeast Omaha.
"Some of our parents work two to three jobs. They might only be able to get here at 7 o'clock in the morning during shift change. Our teachers go above and beyond to make sure they're here. Whatever it takes to make that contact with that parent."
Utterback and Principal Tylee Hanson of Castelar Elementary in South Omaha said they bird-dog parents about scheduling conferences and rescheduling missed ones. Principals said they will even drive to pick up parents or hold conferences in homes or workplaces when necessary.
Hanson said her school's extra diligence just makes sense.
"I truly don't think that there's any magic to it, it's just what we know is good and right for our kids," said Hanson, whose school racial makeup is 85 percent Latino. The school has more than nine in 10 students who qualify for federal lunch subsidies.
Miller Park and Castelar are among five high-poverty elementary schools in Omaha Public Schools that garnered perfect conference attendance last fall, according to OPS records.
Students in those five schools — the others are Gomez Heritage, Gilder and Jackson — performed better on state math and reading tests than OPS elementary schools with similar percentages of poor and minority students but low attendance at conferences.
Hanson said she starts early in the school year pitching her expectation of 100 percent attendance. Parents who miss are rescheduled, and staff members don't give up till they make contact with all of them, she said.
"Really, we just keep calling and calling, and then finally it gets to me or the assistant principal, who call," she said.
Hanson said that even before efforts to round up parents, conference attendance at Castelar is around 90 percent, an indicator that parents at her school are already highly engaged.
"Our parents are very, very involved in their child's education, want to know what's going on, are very involved and very supportive," she said.
Nearly all suburban elementary schools reported attendance between 95 and 100 percent.
Elementary schools with the lowest attendance in the metro were generally located in Omaha, north of Dodge Street and east of 72nd Street. Conference attendance at King Elementary School in OPS was lowest of the surveyed elementary schools, 70 percent.
At King Elementary, nearly nine of 10 students qualify for federal lunch subsidies.
Conferences, particularly at the high school level, are sometimes viewed as unnecessary, even by some teachers, because email and online grade books have given parents new ways of staying informed. But others say access to greater information hasn't necessarily reduced the need for face time.
Jackie Morales, a physics and chemistry teacher at Omaha Central High School, has taught 17 years and believes parents come to conferences armed with more information than in the past. Morales said she enjoys meeting face-to-face with parents whom she knows only via emails.
"As a teacher, we're in the people business, and personal contact is vital to what we do," Morales said.
About 40 percent of Central High parents attended fall conferences.
Valerie Danner came to conferences at Central High with a copy of her son Alex's grades that she retrieved from the Internet. She sat in plastic chairs in the courtyard with Alex Jones, 15, waiting to chat with English teacher Katie Rude.
Alex is the fourth of her five children, and she's attended conferences for all before him.
She occasionally emails teachers, but meeting face-to-face allows for better, more detailed communication, Danner said. Conferences allow her "to put a face with a name, not just an Internet address."
She said she also believes that attending conferences shows her children the importance of education. A generation of kids raised with communication gadgets must understand that personal contact is important, she said.
Omahan Kanika Newte attended Central's conferences with her daughter Jalaya Jackson, 14. Newte said that only illness would keep her from meeting with teachers. She said she wants teachers and her daughter to know she cares.
"Without an education, you get nowhere," Newte said.
Jalaya's sister, Cyerrah Jackson, 13, joined her mother and sister at the conferences.
Newte gave up a college scholarship after she became pregnant. Now she's a licensed practical nurse, studying to become a registered nurse. Jalaya's thinking about becoming a teacher or a pediatrician.
"My kids will go to college. My kids will succeed," Newte said. "The cycle will not continue."
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