Education Opinion

Building the Parent-Teacher Relationship: Part II

May 14, 2008 16 min read
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Anne T. Henderson and Karen L. Mapp, co-authors of Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships (with Vivian R. Johnson and Don Davies) have been taking readers’ questions on improving parent involvement.

In this second of two installments, Henderson and Mapp discuss specific strategies to build family-school partnerships and make parents feel more connected to schools. Former teacher and Beyond the Bakesale advisor, Ilene Carver, shares outreach strategies for teachers.

Do you have any recommendations for selling the idea of establishing partnerships with community resources, to get additional support for students? Many strategies to improve schools, such as professional learning communities, are focused on what happens inside school—what we can “control,” not what happens outside the school building. NCLB seems to be moving us away from considering the whole child.

Good point! We all want to improve student achievement, but measuring student outcomes only by standardized test scores tends to make us focus too narrowly—on what will help kids do better on the tests right now. You obviously take the larger view, that how well students do in school and through life depends on a lot more than test-taking skills and will require more than we can offer during the school day. We agree with you.

First, some selling points:

Anne T. Henderson

1. Children spend 70 percent of their waking hours outside school. How they spend that time—and with whom—make a big difference on how well they do in school. Reg Clark’s studies found that students who spend 20 hours a week (or more) in “constructive learning activities” outside school earn significantly higher grades and test scores.

2. Families often struggle to find positive things for their kids to do, especially in low-income neighborhoods. There are HUGE disparities between wealthy and poor areas in what’s available—recreation centers, after-school programs, sports leagues, arts programs, and learning facilities like libraries. Schools can work with public agencies and community organizations to improve that.

3. Community organizations are looking for places to locate their services. Think of the resources in a typical school building—library/media center, computer lab, kitchen and cafeteria, meeting space, and gym. If these could be used after hours, on weekends, and during the summer to offer tutoring, health and social services, GED and adult education classes, cultural activities, and academic enrichment in math, science and literature, the learning opportunities for children and families would increase exponentially.

What does it take to build these partnerships? Creating an action team composed of the principal, parents, teachers, students, and business and community leaders, can spread the workload and ensure that all stakeholders have a say in the plan. Some tips:

• Make sure after-school learning is linked to what students are learning and doing in class.

• Focus on improving achievement—bring in partners that can remove barriers to student learning.

• Ask families (including students) what services they would like and respond to their ideas. Better yet, invite them to join the planning team. —AH

In our small rural school district, the structure includes the school board and other parent special-interest committees that range from sports boosters to arts enrichment. I would like to set up an advisory group of parents to work in collaboration with the school board, administrators, and teachers to improve the community-school partnership and school policies. Can you suggest some models for rural districts and parent-advisory groups? Looking forward to your suggestions!

For the answer to this question, I turned to my friend, Ron Mirr, MSW, a former school administrator, who headed Iowa’s Parent Information Resource Center in Iowa for eight years, and currently supports PIRC in Alabama, Wyoming, and Iowa:

As we work with schools in Iowa on this topic, we suggest that all schools (rural or otherwise) take a similar approach. We urge schools to select a range of parents who represent the diversity of the school. Often in rural Iowa people interpret this to mean ethnic diversity and say this is not an issue for them. We also mean socioeconomic diversity as well as the diversity of interests ... like the special interest groups mentioned in the question: music, athletics, etc. We want to ensure that the new advisory group not be slanted toward any one area of interest and that they have taken care to find parents who haven’t traditionally been a part of advisory groups. We realize this takes some recruiting and ongoing support, but it’s important to the group as a whole to reflect the needs of all students. We also urge these groups to make sure they represent the diversity of the school staff as well.

See Also

See a review of Beyond the Bake Sale by Amy Bailey of Teacher Leaders Network.

Beyond the issue of parents from special interest groups, an issue that is just as critical (if not more so) is the group’s commitment to the focus of the committee. We tell schools that all members of the group must make a commitment to linking ALL of their work to learning, and not just the learning or progress of a special group of students (like music students or athletes). We strongly suggest these groups adopt the four core beliefs spelled out in Beyond the Bake Sale (“All Parents Have Dreams for Their Children and Want the Best for Them,” “All Parents Have the Capacity to Support Their Children’s Learning,” “Parents and School Staff Should be Equal Partners,” and “The Responsibility for Building Partnerships Between School and Home Rests Primarily with School Staff, Especially School Leaders”) and use them to provide a framework for their thinking and planning.

We have found that it is helpful for schools and districts to have an external coach, if possible, who can reflect with them on the composition and focus of the group’s work—someone who can meet with them in person, as well as provide more regular support via telephone and e-mail. Because rural communities have fewer people to draw from for participation in groups like this (which sometimes means special interests can be a potential bias), the commitment to the Core Beliefs and the link to learning is essential to keep the groups focused on the most important issues. —RM

I work with the Title I Parental Involvement Program in St. Martin Parish. Our program has been very active for about 20 years. We excitedly try new approaches, but presently we are having difficulty increasing parent/guardian participation. Please share any ideas. Thanks for any assistance.

Your excitement is inspiring! Many families, especially those who did not have a positive experience in school, are reluctant to come to the building and risk being treated with disrespect or indifference. One way to overcome this is to take the school to the community. Many schools have had great success with a community tour or walk before school starts. Parents and residents can plan and lead the tour. Or hold an ice cream social or other get-together at a place in the neighborhood where people congregate or at a community event.

Outreach Tips for Teachers

Ilene Carver

Ilene Carver, a former classroom teacher and advisor for Beyond the Bake Sale, has coordinated family outreach efforts at several schools while teaching. She is currently the Family and Community Engagement Coordinator for the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston.

As teachers we know that families must be critical allies in creating learning communities where all children can achieve equitable outcomes. We need to believe that all families sincerely care about their children and will do everything they can to support them. If we, as teachers, reach out with respect, family members will get involved.

Here are some specific outreach strategies that make a difference.

How family-friendly is your school? One approach we like is a welcoming school walk-through. Invite your families, some community members, teachers, and support staff (cafeteria workers, custodians, school secretaries) to look at your school as a new visitor would see it—how inviting is the entrance? Are there signs letting people know, in a friendly way, where to find what they’re looking for? What happens when they go into the office? Can families easily get their concerns addressed, questions answered, and problems resolved? Several organizations have posted toolkits for doing a walk-through on their Web sites.

As we have been saying throughout this column, the most important thing is to develop relationships among families and school staff. The personal touch is key. A parent I met at a Title I breakfast in St. Louis had never been to the school before. When I asked if she had gotten notices about activities and meetings, she said, “Yes, but I didn’t think they wanted me to come.” Why did she come this time? Because her son’s teacher called and asked her personally.

Be sure to ask families how they would like to be engaged, what days and times are convenient for them, and what the school could do to support their involvement. Small discussion groups or focus groups are a good way to do this; these can be held in places in the community, as part of events at the school, or in people’s homes or front porches. Ask parents to help plan the activities and spread the word. If families say that transportation, childcare, or the need to prepare a meal before coming are barriers, set up a ride network, invite the whole family, have activities for younger children, and serve dinner.

Featuring student work is always a powerful draw. If children are going to be in the spotlight, their families will come. Ask teachers and parents to be “greeters” and welcome families as they come in. Offer interpreters if English is not their first language. Ask local musicians (many may be parents) to provide music. And have fun!

I know this sounds like a lot of work, but the investment will pay off. Title I funds can be used to hire a family-school liaison or coordinator, and that person can recruit a team of families and community members to help. —AH

I am working to enhance parent engagement at a high school in a very poor community. There is a strong culture of silence when it comes to disclosing violent crimes. There is a great deal of generational gang activity and very few parents come to the school unless it is for a confrontation. Parents do not even show up to see their children play sports or perform in musical concerts, although 10-15 years ago they were active and passionate about the school. The principal has supported me in planning a parent-appreciation event to give parents a voice to express what they need from us to become more engaged. If this event flops, how do we get them involved? Is it too dangerous to go to houses for home visits because of the code of silence? Help me help save my students!! (I have buried 7 students in six years, including one to cancer.)

Thank you for all that you do and your concern for your students. You are right to take an appreciation approach to your families and send them a strong signal that the school honors and respects them and all that they do. Home visits are a wonderful way to develop productive collaborations with high school families, and they work well even in poor neighborhoods beset by violence.

One very successful home visiting program is a partnership between Sacramento Area Congregations Together (Sacramento ACT, an interfaith organizing group), the school district, and the teachers’ union. The results include better student attendance, higher graduation rates, more parent involvement, and lower teacher turnover. Carrie Rose, the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project director, says, “Personal safety is a big issue that always comes up at our trainings. We’ve run this program in Sacramento for ten years and, to my knowledge, no teacher has ever been harmed in the course of our home visits.

“At our trainings,” Rose continues, “we always talk about the three things we encourage home visitors to do to keep themselves safe:

• First, go in pairs (some sites also have a white board where teachers will sign in and out for home visits so everyone knows where they are or a coordinator who keeps track of teachers’ plans for visits).

• Second, our model requires an initial phone call and follow-up reminder the day before/or day of the visit. Our visits are never drop-ins and everyone knows you are coming.

• Last, we always support people to follow their instincts. If a teacher gets to a street or house and does not feel safe, s/he always has our full permission to reschedule it in a neutral location in the area (McDonald’s, coffee house, library, park, etc).”

The Sacramento program was started after parents complained that it was almost impossible to see and talk with teachers about their children. “They think we’re prostitutes and drug dealers, and we’re not. Yes, we have this in our neighborhood but it’s not us.” The purpose of the visit is to build relationships and to become partners in supporting children’s success. Once most families have had a visit, they will be much more comfortable to come to school. Be sure to ask them what they think will strengthen their children’s learning and what supports they would like to become more engaged. Then your event will never flop!

For more information on the Sacramento Home Visiting Project, visit their Web site www.pthvp.org/about.html. The project has an excellent training model. —AH

As a parent, I have been asked to participate far more hours than my mother contributed to me, particularly in the elementary and middle school years. For example, I was expected to teach my son his multiplication tables. I find that teachers do not have the time, energy, or patience for parent conferences. They prepare to present to the parents and grow weary if parents contribute. They complain about my child in ways that make him sound like he has a flawed character. Until my son switched to a charter high school this year, I had to beg to get a conference or to get any specific information on areas where he needed to do better. So the question is: If parents are being held responsible for a portion of the teaching, why don’t teachers share more information and appreciate the information that parents share?

It sounds as though your experience in high school has been difficult, leading you to move your son to a charter school. Obviously, you know how important family involvement is! In my experience, teachers’ reluctance to confer with parents is a sure sign of a school community where trust is low and communications are strained.

Joyce Epstein, founder of the National Network of Partnership Schools, and a noted researcher, has found that schools’ practices of family involvement are key. “The strongest and most consistent predictors of parent involvement are the specific school programs and teachers’ practices that encourage and guide parent involvement.”

These practices and programs tend to fall off in middle and high school, which is unfortunate, because parent involvement is more important than ever as children grow older.

Many teachers have little preparation on how to work constructively with families. Believe it or not, they can be just as intimidated and frustrated by parents, as parents are by teachers. Principal leadership and support is critical. We devoted an entire chapter in Beyond the Bake Sale to developing relationships and building trust. In her response to last week’s question number 4, Karen talked about the Joining Process, of welcoming, honoring, and connecting parents and families. Once this happens, a two-way flow of information and support begins to flourish.

What can a parent do to build a trusting relationship with teachers in a school with an indifferent climate? First, just introduce yourself and say you want to do whatever is needed to support your child. Drop by after school, or come early and take your child to the classroom. If your child talks about something good that happened in school, send the teacher a note of appreciation. This puts some credit in the bank should some trouble come up. At the high school level, this takes more doing. It’s a good idea to find out if the school has a program that assigns each student an advisor, and contact that person for advice about how to monitor your student’s progress.

Plan before attending a parent-teacher conference or meeting. What does your child seem to do well? What difficulties is she or he having? What questions do you want to ask? Is there a problem you want to discuss? Talk with your child to get his or her perspective.

Here are some more quick tips:

• Set a convenient time for the meeting and take your notes with you.

• Be on time and respect the schedule. If there is more to be covered, schedule another meeting.

• Lead with something positive and let the teacher know you have questions.

• If something is said during the conference that you don’t understand, ask for an explanation. This is your right.

• Discuss your child’s academic work. Ask to see specific assignments or projects. What is being covered in class and what are students doing? Focus on solutions and take notes. Agree on next steps and who is responsible.

• Set a future meeting time or exchange contact information and convenient times to discuss your child’s progress.

• Discuss the meeting with your child. This will demonstrate that you and the teacher are committed to his or her success and will keep her or him in the loop. —AH

Having an “I can do it” attitude is an important skill for children to develop. What strategies can parents and teachers use to overcome learned helplessness and develop optimism?

You’re right. Researchers who’ve investigated motivation found that a key factor is what they call “efficacy,” or the feeling that we have the power to have an effect. People who believe they can accomplish something are more likely to act in ways that lead to success. Efficacy is contagious. Families with higher feelings of efficacy are more likely to be involved at school. This “can do” attitude and behavior transfers to their children, who tend to do better in school.

Karen L. Mapp

This is why Karen and I talk about the importance of honoring and respecting all families, and sharing power with them. An important recent study found that three practices of teacher outreach led to a 40-50 percent faster rate of gain for Title I (low income) elementary students in reading and math. (Westat and Policy Studies Associates, 2001) These were:

1. Meeting every family in the class face-to-face and building a personal relationship. This can be done as families drop off or pick up their children at school, through home visits and neighborhood walks, at class meetings and other school events that allow time for some one-to-one conversation.

2. Sending families materials each week on ways to help their children at home. These can be interactive homework assignments (such as TIPS), learning kits, or handouts with tips on helping with reading or math.

3. Calling or contacting families routinely with news about how their children are doing, leading with something positive. Not only does this further develop the relationship, it gives families feedback they can use.

Building a relationship and sharing information on how to help their children will develop families’ confidence that they can make an important contribution. Communicating in this way also sends a powerful message to children that learning is important and that they matter.

Sharing power with families is the next step. Ask for their ideas about what would help their children learn and act on those ideas. Invite them to talk to the class about their family traditions, talents, and work. Hold some workshops that respond to their suggestions (taming the homework monster, tips for an effective parent-teacher conference, family math activities) and will build their skills. Invite them to serve on a task force, school improvement committee or action team. —AH


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