Rutgers-Newark Program That Trains Parents as Classroom Support Raises Student Literacy Rates, Improves Relationships

A  Rutgers-Newark program that helps parents provide literacy support in Newark schools has done more than improve children’s reading skills. The parents also serve as “cultural brokers,”  bridging gaps between a teaching staff of mostly white suburban women and the district’s families, who are predominately Black.

“They were able explain certain things that were going on with the children,’’ said program director Marcus Anthony of the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Research. “They were able to smooth relationships and connect.’’

The Promise Parent Leadership Academy, which guides parents to act as advocates and instructors, led to higher benchmark test scores of up to 50 percent among first and second grade students, especially those who were lagging, and improved trust and communication between staff and families, said Anthony. 

The academy, which paid parents $13 an hour, also succeeded in providing career pathways to unemployed and underemployed parents. Three academy graduates were recently hired as paraprofessionals in Newark’s 13th Avenue Elementary School and the Sussex Avenue School, where the Promise Parent Leadership Academy was instituted.

“We wanted to focus on equipping them with skills to be successful in life, to help them with goal setting and networking,’’ said Ahmad Watson, program coordinator.  “The academy built their social and professional capital, it changed how they viewed themselves.”

Unlike suburban schools, where volunteer parents -- often stay-at-home moms from the same cultural background as teachers -- are a frequent and involved presence, research shows a different dynamic in “hypersegregated” city districts like Newark, said Anthony.

Many parents don’t have the time and resources to devote to volunteering and don’t view school as a welcoming place, he added. Teachers can be reluctant to see them as allies in their children’s education.

“There are major cultural gaps between parents and teachers and schools can be uncomfortable spaces for the parents. Often, they aren’t seen as assets,’’ said Anthony. “There’s a lot of mistrust that occurs. So one of our goals was to dispel myths that low-income parents aren’t interested in engaging with teachers and forming relationships.’’

The program showed teachers and staff the value of parental involvement, said Marcus. They also gained a deeper understanding of the challenges facing many parents, including difficulties with transportation, housing, and providing care for extended family. Parents saw first-hand how demanding the job of a teacher can be.

“Just learning some of the things the parents go through and parents learning about what teachers faced made a difference,’’ said Anthony. “Parents learned that teaching in urban schools is hard, and they developed more respect for them.’’

When the program’s 20 parents were trained to provide in-class academic support for teachers, the program was most successful with students who struggle with learning and emotional difficulties, said Charles Payne, director of the Cornwall Center.

“Sometimes there are worries that it will be stigmatizing for them to get extra help, but all the kids in class really wanted to spend time with the parents who came in. They liked having someone from the neighborhood there,’’ he said. “Discipline problems become easier to handle when parents were part of the process.”

Teachers were especially grateful for academy parents during the pandemic lockdowns, when they persisted in supporting children, despite their own difficulties. “Ninety percent of the parents were overwhelmed, having to home school their own children and work with children in schools and deal with illnesses in their families. But they were able to show up as much as they could and get the job done,’’ said Watson. 

Kristin Haviland, a former literacy coach at the Sussex Avenue School who now teaches kindergarten, said having parents in class made a difference. “It definitely shifted things,’’ she said. “They were a part of the community with the teachers and students, and there were great relationships formed. The kids really loved the extra attention.’’

The Leadership Academy led to a full-time job for Nattalie Marcion, who now works as a paraprofessional at 13th Avenue Elementary School. “It gave me a sense that by being involved, I could make a big difference. It gave me hands-on experience that helped me move forward,’’ said Marcion, a former nurse who was looking to switch careers when she joined the program.

At school, parents appreciate her progress updates and children show their affection. “They say, ‘I love you Miss Nat. How are you today?’ Their eagerness to learn, it gives me joy.’’ 

The academy, which was modelled after a similar effort for Latina moms in Chicago, began in 2017  with a seed funding from the Rutgers-Newark Office of the Chancellor and expanded in 2020 with grants from the Victoria Foundation and the AmeriCorps National Service Network. 

Payne says it epitomizes the Cornwall Center’s work.

“We stand for transformative education that has significant impacts in multiple domains,’’ he explained.  “We work to take advantage of the powers that exist in neighborhoods.’’ 

Photo Caption:  Promise Parent Leadership Academy participants practice a shared reading activity during literacy support training and professional development. 


About the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies

Since it was established in 2000, the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies has been a signature component of Rutgers University–Newark’s commitment to be an anchor institution for the metropolitan area. Cornwall brings the campus’s intellectual talent and other resources to bear on the challenges of revitalizing Newark and similar communities in the region and state. It is especially concerned with supporting the most vulnerable urban populations.


About Rutgers University–Newark 

Rutgers University–Newark (RU-N) is an urban, public research university that is an anchor institution in New Jersey’s cultural capital. One of the most diverse schools in the nation for students and faculty, RU-N is well positioned to fulfill higher education’s promise as an engine of discovery, innovation, and social mobility. It has a legacy of producing high-impact, publicly engaged scholarship. Rutgers-Newark is in and of a city and region where its work on local challenges, undertaken with partners from many sectors, resonates powerfully throughout our urbanizing world.