School councils are one of the most important ways of encouraging the community to democratically participate in a learning institution. A number of issues, however, can distance families from such meetings. To tackle this problem, Escola Municipal de Ensino Fundamental Desembargador Amorim Lima (Desembargador Amorim Lima Municipal Elementary and Middle School) in the west of São Paulo offers a range of participation options, including parent assemblies and committees.
The participation of families in the school first started with the arrival of Principal Ana Elisa Siqueira, who opened the doors of the institution to the community 21 years ago. “I held meetings in the morning, in the afternoon and at night to try and reach out to the maximum number of mothers and fathers,” she recalls.
At first, the idea was to discuss the role of a deliberative, rather than merely consultory, school council, which was capable of making important pedagogical-political, administrative and financial decisions about the school. From these meetings, strategies to broaden parent participation emerged.
At the beginning of her time in charge of Amorim Lima, the principal used a discussion about the style of the traditional festa junina party as a way of getting closer to parents. But the outcome was more far-reaching, and surprising, than she imagined. The school began to receive visits from mothers who wanted to complain about the violence their children suffered at recess. “We created a project so that these mothers could come and help us at recess. As the issue required careful handling, we needed more people.”
Once the mothers’ group was formed, however, the school realized that the last thing students wanted was to spend their break time under the watchful eye of their parents or guardians. “They were happy to talk about difficult experiences when they got home, but they didn’t want their mothers watching them [at recess]. They didn’t want to have to act like saints. That’s when we began to talk about what the women could do at the school that didn’t involve taking care of their own children,” says Ana Elisa.
Some people aren’t interested in debating school policy, but want to do other things
To create new types of participation, the school started committees for parents with different interests and profiles. “Some people aren’t interested in debating school policy, but want to do other things. There are people who help with maintenance, there are some who want to discuss pedagogical plans, and there are people who are interested in communication and publicity,” she explained, when describing how not everyone wants a seat on the school council, but would like to have the power to decide the future direction of the institution.
In 2002, when the council was already established, a parents’ committee was created to carry out a diagnosis of the school’s main problems, which involved student indiscipline and a large number of absences of both pupils and teachers. The following year, with the help of psychologist and educational consultant Rosely Sayão, the parents’ committee and school council produced some suggestions to deal with this issue.
Inspired by the Escola da Ponte in Portugal, they decided to tear down the walls, get rid of class divisions and invest in an educational plan that values student autonomy. “When we created a new pedagogical-political plan, we realized that other types of participation would also be necessary,” she says.
Today, parents of students at Amorim Lima can engage in various types of activities, such as communication, catering, the school library and bazaar, and inclusion. While these groups discuss specific topics, the parents’ assembly is a space for broader discussions, such as the identity and role of the school, pedagogical issues and evaluating the work of teachers, staff and management. When major issues arise during these meetings, the proposals are taken to the school council, where executive decisions are taken. “There is a flow of ideas between the two areas”, says Ana Elisa, when describing the advantages of a variety of types of family engagement.
When we created a new pedagogical-political plan, we realized that other types of participation would also be necessary
With a range of options, parents find it easier to fit meetings into their schedules. With flexible working hours and a lifestyle that involves a lot of travelling, actress and producer Fernanda Haucke joined the school’s communication committee, where she helps look after the email and Facebook groups. She says that she joined this group because it allows her to participate in the school’s activities from a distance. The mother of an eighth grade student, she says she felt welcome as soon as her child enrolled at the school six years ago. “Families can use their experiences, lifestyles and careers to help innovate at the school every day. If it was restricted to just teachers, there might be some repetition. But the presence of families means the school is constantly renewing itself,” adds Fernanda, who chose the school for her son because of its unconventional political-pedagogical focus.
In contrast, Nilce Tonetti, mother of a ninth grade student, only found out about the school’s pedagogical approach when the city enrollment system sent her daughter there after her preschool education. Used to a more traditional school format, she said she was apprehensive at first.
To answer questions and reassure families with similar fears at the beginning of the school year, the school organizes a coffee event, where “veteran” parents help to welcome the newcomers. “When you talking to other parents, you begin to find your place in the school,” says Nilce, who now participates in the bazaar committee, which is responsible for raising funds to promote improvements in the school.
“At this school stage, it’s really important that families are as connected as possible to the school, because it’s when their children start to learn about citizenship. It’s important to discuss ethics and emphasize the value of the school, collective responsibility, citizenship, solidarity and respect,” says principal Ana Elisa.
The principal believes this dialogue is fundamental for youngsters aged between 6 and 14. “We need to get this right in elementary education,” she says, explaining that families need to learn when to take a step back during this phase, so that the children and teenagers can create their own autonomy.
We feel more motivated when our parents are here helping us. It’s a boost for us
Flight attendant Cristina Borba has seen noticed the differences between the two stages of elementary and middle school education. With one child in the fifth grade and one in the seventh, she says that each stage requires a specific approach. While the youngest child needs help with cursive handwriting, for example, the oldest is already in pre-adolescence, and dealing with a range of questions and discoveries. “You need to take a different type of approach for different stages, but it’s really important that the school, the student and the family work together.”
Involved in the Parent Teacher Association and the School Council, as well as the library, events, gardening and inclusion committees, she says that she tries to behave differently with her kids when in school, in order to respect their space. “I don’t try and get my children’s attention, or make demands. In this environment, I don’t need to be their mother,” says Cristina.
The children are also aware of the involvement of families in this stage of school, and feel more confident. “We feel more motivated when our parents are here helping us. It’s a boost for us. If we need some help with an activity or task, we know we can count on them”, says fifth grade student Thabbata Neves, 11.
Despite their busy schedules, she says that her parents always try to be present at school. “My mother helps in the library and my father helps with the organization of parties and events.” She says her family always tries to attend meetings with teachers.
Fourth grade student Rosa Magalhães, 9, says that her family also has a busy schedule, but tries to be present when possible. “My mother works a lot, but she tries her best to help,” says the student, who says that the support she gets at home to organize and complete her homework tasks is vital.