It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday evening, and dozens of Mitchell Elementary students, staff, and parents are hanging out in the school cafeteria, laughing, eating, reading, and finishing homework.
Homework Diner is a new program that aims to boost parental involvement in their children’s education and strengthen parent-teacher relationships.
Homework Diner is a component of Community Action Network’s after-school program held at Mitchell and—beginning March 25, at Bryant Elementary School.
Second grade teacher Sonali Deshpande said that while she could be home with her own family, she believes that being a teacher involves deepening relationships with students and families, which is what happens at Homework Diner.
“If you think about school, we ask students to take risks every day, really stretch their thinking, take chances, and if they get the answer wrong, they get it wrong, but at least they tried to think about it,” she said. “But in order to take that risk, you have to feel a sense of comfort and support. And you have to feel safe in order to do that, because you’re putting yourself out there and it can feel very vulnerable. So if I have good relationships with everyone, then they’re willing to take those risks. Which is what we want, right?”
Juan Carlos talked to Deshpande that evening about how his daughter, Alondra, is doing in her class.
Asked how he likes the idea behind Homework Diner, he nodded.
“It is very good to spend time with teachers, to find out how they’re doing, and help with homework,” he said.
The evening gives parents and teachers a relaxing time to get to know each other socially, explained Joan Doughty, Executive Director of Community Action Network, which sponsors the program.
“There is a lot of research showing that students benefit when parents and school staff enjoy a strong relationship,” said Doughty. “Not every parent feels naturally comfortable and empowered in the school setting. Specifically, parents from low-income families, minorities and immigrant families experience on average– for a variety of reasons – less strong relationships with their children’s schools.
She said that Mitchell, which has a 75 percent Free and Reduced Lunch rate, and where 40 percent of families identify as Hispanic, seemed like a great fit for this Homework Diner initiative.
Mitchell Principal Kevin Karr says the bottom line is helping kids learn.
“This is good for Mitchell,” he said, “because it connects kids’ after school programming with families so we can all be together, get to know each other, and figure out how to best help each other so kids can learn as much as they can learn.”
Bryant Principal Roberta Heyward looks forward to the first Homework Diner there.
“The Homework Diner will allow students, teachers, parents and community partners the opportunity to work together for the betterment of students,” she said. “This reinforces to all the important role stakeholders must take in educating our children.”
Homework Diner is the result of a complex collaboration: An EMU Social Work Class 350 taught by Professor Marcia Bombyk has adopted Homework Diner as a group project – and these EMU students organize the donor-restaurants and serve as hosts during the event.
AmeriCorps Vistas Meghan Gieseker and Stephen Crano, who are placed with CAN for a year, have done most of the legwork to launch CAN’s After School Programs and the accompanying Homework Diners. They have also created the structures and tools that make them sustainable after their terms are up, so Mitchell and Bryant Elementary Schools can expect many more Homework Diners in the years to come.
The program’s model is an Albuquerque elementary school, where Homework Diner has resulted in improving test scores, increasing parents’ connections to schools and boosting students’ confidence levels.
Mike Conboy brings free books for the students.