The Namaste Way: Parent Engagement

March 26, 2015

Namaste Charter School has embraced the belief that parents are an integral part of student success since its very beginnings.

Namaste Charter School on Chicago’s southwest side embodies so many of the issues that are important to creating and maintaining a healthy school environment, including healthy school food, regular physical activity and parent engagement. A visit to the school is a visit to a world where students get the nutrition, activity and support they need to succeed — in school and in life — and it works! During the next several weeks, we’ll take a deep dive into some of Namaste’s successes with getting students to eat unflavored yogurt and drink plenty of water, ongoing professional development for staff and engaging parents. Click here to see all of the posts in the series.

Namaste Charter School has embraced the belief that parents are an integral part of student success since its very beginnings 11 years ago. And that includes not only academic success but also successes in health and wellness.

Research shows that when parents and schools work together, students win; parent engagement leads to higher grades and test scores as well as better behavior and social skills. When it comes to creating a healthy school environment, parents are key. This idea is central to HSC’s work with Parents United for Healthy Schools.

Namaste thinks broadly about its parent engagement strategy and how to ground parents in the core philosophy of the school: a focus on health and wellness makes students stronger.

Since day one, Namaste has had a parent coordinator and a parent center where parents can access a library and computer lab. “We understand that a child’s success is a three-tiered process,” said Lola Pittenger, the school’s manager of health and wellness. “We have the student, the teacher and the family. Without parent engagement, most likely the student won’t succeed.”

Parents serve as volunteers during recess and lunch periods, taking on an even-more active role in the school. Pittenger said volunteer opportunities are available throughout the school year, which helps keep the lines of communication open between parents and the school.

While the computer lab is an easy entry for parents to see Namaste as a community resource, the school goes beyond a traditional resource center. From parent participation in the school meal program to cooking demonstrations and exercises classes, the important role parents play in students’ lives cannot be ignored. “No family wants their kid to be unhealthy,” Slade said.

Each trimester, the school holds a family breakfast for each grade level. Parents are invited to eat breakfast with their children and then stay for a student presentation about health and wellness. Parents are also encouraged to stay for a short educational session or cooking lesson. One of these lessons was a taste test of items included in the school meal program. Attendance is taken at every event, and Pittenger says about 50 percent of parents attend each breakfast, though that’s closer to 100 percent for younger grade levels, especially kindergarten.

Another workshop focused on outlining the difference between eating an apple and drinking apple juice. For many parents, Slade said, the workshop was an eye opener. It reflects Namaste’s effort to make sure they’re presenting information to parents that is interesting, actionable, and, most importantly, meets them where they are at in terms of how they can best support their kids.

It wouldn’t be as useful for most parents in Namaste’s community if the school were to simply present an overview of their wellness plan; rather, talking with parents about specific and actionable information empowers them to make healthier choices and feel connected to the school as a supportive resource.

In order to encourage a healthy lifestyle among parents, the school offers Zumba and yoga classes six days a week — during and after the school day.The school also holds monthly family events. In March, for example, the school hosted a sock hop dance night; in February, the school hosted a literacy night.

At Namaste, each and every parent engagement program stems from the core belief that parents are an integral part of its students’ success. And the engagement strategy is working. “Parents are very engaged and involved,” said Slade.