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Examining the Influence of the Urban Environment on Parent's Time, Energy, and Resources for Engagement in their Children's Learning


Decades of research have shown that parents play a critical role in their children's education and learning, particularly if they engage with their children's education at home, get involved in their children's schools, and involve their children in community-based activities and programs that provide additional types of learning and socialization. However, research has also identified that barriers in the urban environment often prevent parents from being more fully engaged, including barriers related to transportation, housing, and neighborhood safety. These urban environmental barriers are rarely mentioned in the current school reform debates, nor are there detailed analyses of how actual environmental issues present barriers to parents. This dissertation fills this gap by examining how the urban environment affects parents' time, energy, and resources for engagement in their children's learning.

Parent engagement is influenced by the parent's personal characteristics, beliefs, and capabilities, which provide the motivation and skills for engagement. Given the decision to engage, time and resource constraints imposed by family demands, employment, or the external environment affect whether the parent can pursue opportunities for engagement. The school environment, culture, or programs for parents may determine whether a parent feels comfortable getting involved and has information on how to be involved. Community and social supports may also encourage engagement by helping parents to meet their basic needs, thereby increasing time and resources for engagement, or by providing education and training, or emotional and social ties that affect their motivation to be engaged.

In order to account for each of the various influences on parent engagement, a mixed-methods case study approach was used to assess environmental contexts as well as personal influences. Parents in 70 families residing in low- and mixed-income neighborhoods of Oakland, CA completed a take-home survey and a two-day time use diary, and were interviewed in person. The data collected covered personal background, education, household expenditures, housing history and residential location choices, current and past employment, daily activities and transportation patterns, engagement activities with their children, satisfaction with the school, and future plans for themselves and their children. The semi-structured interviews allowed for in-depth explanations about how engagement fit with the rest of their responsibilities and what types of supports allowed them to engage, or prevented them from engaging more.

The study approach brought together research on parent engagement with research on activity spaces, accessibility, and time budgets, and added detailed neighborhood conditions data and travel data on trips, distances, and modes. Statistical analyses of the data were complemented with in-depth qualitative information from the parent interviews.

From the statistical time-use analysis, the study confirmed that parent engagement is influenced by a mix of personal, external and school factors. At the personal level, there were significant and positive associations with at-home learning and at-school involvement by income, and at-home learning by employment. Parents with longer work hours reduced their time on sleep, personal care, and leisure to allow for parental engagement. Car ownership was negatively associated with time spent on care and organizing for children, but there was no association with at-home learning or school involvement. Parents whose children attended a neighborhood school spent more time on care and organizing for their children, and if the school was less than 1.3 miles from home, they spent more time on school involvement and care and organizing. The age of children also mattered, as expected, with parents of younger children spending more time on engagement activities at home, such as reading with their children. In contrast to other studies, there was no association by education level or race and ethnicity in terms of time spent on parent engagement, although there were differences by other daily time uses, mostly related to fewer work hours.

The qualitative analysis helped to define the mechanisms behind these associations. In particular, low household incomes led to high housing mobility, and the associated time and costs cut into parents' time for engagement, job searches, and personal development. School choice was also a major factor that interacted with income. Low income parents who chose schools distant from home to improve their children's academic opportunities had trouble affording the time, costs, and logistics of traveling to school and other destinations, due to slow and unreliable transit and the high costs of gasoline. Traveling after dark was also a barrier for families who lived in high crime areas. In contrast, neighborhood community development and involvement in community organizations or with social service providers provided positive supports for parents of all income levels. Active participation in a community organization that provided a variety of training programs for low-income mothers helped to explain why parents with less than a high school education were actively engaged with their children's learning.

Improving student outcomes in the U.S. requires not only providing excellent in-school resources, but also removing the barriers and providing the additional supports that parents need to manage their multiple roles including their important role as educators of their children. Using a lens of parent engagement together with one of urban planning and policy has been shown to provide new insights into the roles planners can play in helping to improve education. If parents' daily needs for travel, housing and social supports are not met, they cannot meet their children's educational needs. Planners who design and seek to improve transit service, increase the supply of affordable housing in safe and accessible neighborhoods, and provide for community development thus can help improve parental involvement.

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