High School Highs and Lows

by Jennifer Coburn

As San Diego students head back to school, parents of incoming high school freshman may wonder how they can best support their children.

After all, these grades now count for college so they want to be involved. But they also don’t want to be “helicopter parents” and deny their students the opportunity to foster independence.

How do parents make sure they’re appropriately involved – even when their kids don’t want them to be? How can they get their distant and moody teens to communicate and engage?

Dr. Helen V. Griffith, Executive Director of e3 Civic High, has been an educational thought leader for 25 years and has witnessed firsthand how parents can help – or hinder – their scholars’ academic success. She’s seen it all and has some practical, actionable advice for parents of high school students.

We sat down with Dr. Griffith at e3 Civic High, a charter high school she helped launch five years ago at the Central Library downtown. It is a vibrant hub of innovation with brightly colored walls and open spaces made for collaboration. Were it not for the scholars in their professional attire buzzing about, one might mistake the space for a tech start-up. That’s part of the plan, says Dr. Griffith, who explains that every element of the school from its design to curriculum was thoughtfully developed with an eye toward fostering intellectual curiosity, creativity, and a genuine love for learning.

In your parent engagement seminars, you’ve talked about how parents can use technology to support their scholars.

Every year technology improves for parents of high school scholars. At our school, we use an online student information system called PowerSchool which parents can use from their desktop, or download onto their ipad, or smartphone. They can monitor grades, assignments, schedules, project due dates, GPA, and attendance. Now parents can even sign up for “push notifications” so they can be alerted when grades are recorded or when new assignments are uploaded. This way, they know in real-time if their scholars need extra support. In addition, parents can be the first one to shower them with praise for “A-cing” an assignment. Say good-bye forever to the days when our parents had to wait for report cards or parent-teacher conferences to get updates on student progress.

Where is the line between being an engaged parent and a helicopter parent?

An engaged parent lets her child, the school counselor, and teachers know that education is a priority in their family – and that she is a partner in the process. That means making an appointment with the school counselor to create a four-year plan for the scholar and subsequent appointments to monitor the plan. It means giving every teacher her contact information and letting them know they can – and should – call when support is needed. The line is crossed when parents start ​doing ​the assignments and homework. I’ve seen it happen and it’s wholly inappropriate because they are denying their students a chance to learn while sending a very clear message to their teens: “I don’t believe you can do this.” An engaged parent is saying just the opposite: “I believe in you. I care. I am investing my time and energy because I know you are worth it.” Your positive engagement also tells educators: “I appreciate your work and we’re in this together.”

What if a teen doesn’t want his or her parents’ guidance?

Even the moodiest and most distant teens have interests. Our job as educators and parents is to really listen to what excites young people, then introduce them to opportunities to explore those passions. Sometimes we have to let go of our expectations and judgement and allow scholars to discover their own path. Film director James Foley had originally planned on attending medical school before he took an acting class and discovered a new calling. Legendary musician Paul Simon was seriously considering law school before he decided to make his career in the arts. As parents, we need to assert that we are there to guide, facilitate, support, and love our children unconditionally. We need to keep asking questions, keeping our hearts and our ears open, even when it gets really hard. (And I know it does!)

In your monthly parent coffees, you’ve mentioned that it’s important to have a four-year plan for your student. But you’ve also talked about being open to plans changing.

Plans change all the time and that’s fine, but we always need a strategy to get where we want. If a scholar thought she wanted to work in finance one day, then discovers she wants to become a veterinarian instead, that’s fine. The question remains the same: How can we support the scholar in achieving their goals? We
must help her with job shadows in order to see the “real deal.” Providing meaningful internships and opportunities for real-world experience is the work of 21s​ t​ century high schools. We need to personalize and adapt the learning experience to meet the changing plan. As innovative educators, we must continually ask, “How can we best support our scholars with the modification of the original plan?”

When you talk about becoming “the homework house,” what do you mean? And how do you become to homework house if you work during the day?

In a word: food. Even parents on a limited income tell me that the money they spend on popcorn and healthy drinks for weekend study sessions is the best investment they make. Their home is the “safe house” and they are able to get to know their teens’ peers. (They also hear things their children might not think to share with them. In these cases, they can chime in with feedback. They can help students trouble-shoot issues. And if they eat a few handfuls of popcorn, that’s okay too.)

What if your child absolutely hates high school?

Let’s assume a few things. Parents have met with the guidance counselor at school and introduced themselves to their child’s teachers. Students have explored opportunities for clubs, activities, or sports. The family has made a good faith effort to make it work at a student’s current school, but it’s just not happening. It’s not too late to transfer.
High school should be a place scholars look forward to being (at least) five days a week. If it’s not, it might just be the wrong fit. We see this all the time at e3. My phone has been ringing over the past few weeks with calls from parents who want to tour our campus and see if it might be better for their scholars.

 

Thank you for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you. I welcome parents and scholars to visit us online or come in for a tour. If a culturally diverse, urban setting that values individuality, passion, and purpose is your kind of high school, then e3 just might be the right place for you.