Now that your kids are getting to the end of the school year, you may be wondering if there's anything you can do to help them out with their studies and improve their grades. The good news is that the answer is yes. The even better news is that helping your kids get the most out of their education is pretty easy. And don't worry if you weren't a stellar student yourself when you were in school. The following tips from David Banks, the founding principal of the Eagle Academy for Young Men in the Bronx, can help any father become an A+ NYC Dad.
Banks has seen first-hand how his students' educational success is drastically improved if they have an involved father in their life, even in the Bronx, a borough in which only about 24 percent of the black male population graduates from high school. "There's very little that these inner-city black and brown boys can't achieve if our men would just stand up," says the 46-year-old former lawyer, who transitioned into education in 1986 when he became a teacher in the NYC public school system. "I have a keen observation of it: There's a significant difference when you have the adult males involved. There's a sense of confidence, safety, and assuredness that the kids have," continues Banks, who's now been a principal for the past 11 years. "The kids are less prone to take ridiculous kinds of risk with the behaviors they engage in, and they're more focused on staying on track because they ultimately recognize that there are consequences for not being on track."
Last summer, a second Eagle Academy was launched in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, based on the success that Banks has seen up in the Bronx since that location opened its doors in 2004. During a break from his rounds at his new school's busy orientation week, the father of four spoke to us about the best ways a young dad could help his son or daughter get the most out of their schooling. "It's very basic stuff," promises Banks, who stresses that the first and biggest step you can take is by simply letting your child know that you're there for them. "You have to demonstrate that you care," he stresses. "That message means something to kids."
- Get a jumpstart on reading, and keep it fun! As crazy as it may sound, it's never too early to begin reading to your child. "Read to your kids before they're even born," says Banks. "In the womb - read right into mommy's belly! And when they come out, surround them with books and have a level of joy about reading." For older kids, treat the library as a happy excursion. "Make it a place that comes alive to them, not a place of drudgery or punishment," advises Banks, who says the same about reading in general. "The worst thing you can do is yell at a kid, 'Go to your room and read a book!' They'll associate reading with something negative, as opposed to if you say, 'Oooh! I just picked up a new book today and we're going to read it together tonight!' Bring a level of excitement to it."
- Be a visible parent. "At the very least, Dad needs to be a presence at the school," says Banks. "You need to go to parent association meetings and to see individual teachers. You can't be helpful if you don't know how your children are doing and how they're progressing."
- Know who's teaching your child and keep in touch with them. "Write notes to the teacher, call, or check the school's Website," Banks says. "There's a message that's sent to the child that you care enough to reach out."
- Your homework is making sure that your child did his homework. Banks recalls that while growing up, he and his brothers had to finish their schoolwork before they were allowed to go out to play. "We earned our way outside by doing our homework," he says, adding with a laugh, "But now, you've got to come up with some new strategies because today's kids like to stay in the house. They don't even want to go outside! So you've got to address the things they want to do in the house and be able to take advantage of those things."
- Get your kids talking. "Ask your kids to explain what they did today," says Banks. "Don't just ask, 'Did you have a good day?' They'll say, 'Yup,' and the conversation ends there. So instead, say, 'Tell me a few things you did at school. Show me. Pull out your books and let's look at something you did in your social studies class today. What did you read? What did you have to write about or reflect upon?' When kids get used to the fact that you're asking those kinds of questions, they start to prepare themselves for that. And, again, it speaks to a level that you really care. And when you really care, they're gonna really care."
- Set your standards high. "Kids amazingly kind of just rise to the level of expectation that you set for them," Banks says. "So whatever that standard is, if you set that standard and you reinforce that standard, your kids will aim for it and rise accordingly."
- Don't always be the tough guy. "If all you do is browbeat your kids, they'll just tune you out," warns Banks. "So you have to be taking your kid to the park. You've got to be playing cards and going out and shooting some hoops. Go ride a bike or go get some ice cream and walk home. That way you'll get an attitude of 'I'm much more receptive to you, Dad, when you're getting on my case about homework because I'm still thinking about that great talk we had and I'm still laughing about some of those stories you told me.' Life is about balance. When kids get love and attention from their parents and they're held to a high standard, they can achieve almost anything."
- Get creative with the time you spend with them. Banks says it's wise to take advantage of all that NYC has to offer. "Go places. See things," he says. "Let them touch things and experience things. Don't just let them sit there and watch TV and play video games all day. Go to a museum and then go out to lunch. You're spending time together and you're providing an experience for your child to see different things that they might not otherwise have seen. Follow up on things they're doing in school and connect it to some real world things that you can take them out to see and to visit." If your son or daughter seems especially motivated by a recent art class, for example, take a weekend trip to a gallery or a museum. Chances are you'll be having such a good time together that they won't even realize that they're learning!
- Even if you don't have a formal education, or even if you have trouble reading yourself, you can still be a positive influence. "A dad who is not as equipped should not abdicate his position," Banks states. One tip he offers is to ask a lot of questions and use that as a starting point. "You're aware of political events that are happening around you even if you're not the most literate person," Banks explains, "so have a conversation about the possibility of the first black man becoming president of the United States. What does that mean? And the whole process of the Electoral College - talk about it. If you can't read so well, have your child go on the computer and look it up, so the two of you can talk about what it all means."
- Eat dinner with your kids. "The family dinner table is like a daily town hall," Banks says. "Meal time sparks all kinds of conversations: What's going on in the world? How was your day? What'd you learn in school? Family meal time forces everyone to slow down so you can eat, catch up, and talk with one another. It's a wonderful, blessed thing if you do it." It's also a great way to find out if your child is having any problems with school or struggling with a certain subject or even with another student. If you do get tipped off to an issue that needs to be addressed, be sure to follow up with the school.
- Insist on consistency. Make sure your children go to school every day. "Not most of the time. Every single day," Banks stresses. "And when your child goes to school, they should be expected to be on time and prepared."
- Teach respect. Your children should know that you expect them to always be respectful of their teachers. "Even if their teacher does something they don't like, they should come back and tell you about it," says Banks, rather than them handling it themselves-perhaps in a disrespectful manner that will reflect poorly upon your family.
- Be prepared to fight to keep your kids from dropping out. "Ultimately, education really ought to be about helping kids fulfill their own destiny and do the things in life that bring them great pleasure and enhance society," says Banks. "So let them know that if they drop out, they're greatly reducing the opportunities they have to lead a great life." And if you're not getting through to them, don't be afraid to ask for help. "Maybe you have to recruit some new voices to the stage," says Banks. "It could be an uncle, a grandfather, a next-door neighbor, or even an older kid from the neighborhood who made it and did well. Then maybe some kids who in fact chose the wrong door and have lived to regret it. Demonstrate to them: Here's door No. 1 and door No. 2. I'm going to open both doors so you can see what's behind them and, now, ultimately the choice is yours."