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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do Schools Work Hard Enough to Engage Parents?

By Peter DeWitt — August 01, 2013 6 min read
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“The Phone is your best friend...until it rings.” Todd Whitaker

(Courtesy of DNY59 at iStock Photo)

Schools sometimes send conflicting messages to parents. One day...they hold one hand up asking them to come in...and other times hold a hand up stopping them from entering. School communication isn’t perfect, and parents aren’t always perfect either. Every day a very diverse set of parents send their kids to school; some of whom want communication every day and others who could care less if they ever hear from the school at all.

The parents who want daily communication may feel as though they need to know they are staying on top of things and “doing things right.” The parents who do not seem to want any communication at all may feel it’s their job to parent and the school’s job to educate...or they may feel insecure about communicating with the school system at all.

We never know the baggage parents carry with them, nor do we know the reasons why...unless we foster relationships with them. A parent’s needs are as diverse as the needs of the children they send to us.

Example of a conflicting message Schools that say they want to communicate but getting an e-mail address of a staff member is like breaking into Fort Knox. It’s almost impossible to find someone’s e-mail address. Other times they have a “Contact Us” link but it doesn’t give an address and parents have to hope they will hear back.

No matter how much communication happens, there are times when both parties do not get what they want. It doesn’t mean that one part wasn’t listening to the other, it just might mean that the end result will not be the solution that each party agrees with. Schools should always go for Win-Win but it’s not always easy.

What’s the Public Agenda?
Recently, Public Agenda put out a report about the needs of parents in the Kansas City School District in Missouri. What once was called the Kansas City Missouri School District is now called the Kansas City Public Schools because they lost their accreditation in 2012.

Public Agenda’s report says,
“Nearly a third of the region’s parents may be ready to take on a greater role in shaping how local schools operate and advocating for reform in K-12 education. These parents say they would be very comfortable serving on committees focused on teacher selection and the use of school resources.”

The report, which was written by Public Agenda’s Director of Research Carolin Hagelskamp, goes on to say, “Their sense of “parental engagement” extends beyond such traditional activities as attending PTA meetings, coaching sports, volunteering for bake sales, chaperoning school trips and seeing that their children are prepared for school each day.”

Although this report highlights one school district, it has implications for how we, as leaders and educators, should view parents. The report suggests that there are three distinct groups of parents. Those groups are:
Potential transformers -- parents who seem ready to play a bigger role in deciding how schools operate;
School helpers -- parents who say they could do more to help out at the schools their children attend; and
Help seekers -- parents who are concerned about their own children’s learning and seem to look for more guidance from their schools on how to help their children succeed.”

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
One way to involve parents is to actually communicate with them (I know that sounds like common sense). Schools have a plethora of ways to communicate with parents and need to make sure they are not sending mixed messages while they say they are communicating. Communication does not mean just sending out an e-mail or newsletter that results in one-way communication.

• It means flipping communication (sending out informational videos about school) so that parents can send feedback.
• It means taking phone calls when parents need something.
• It means answering the tough questions that parents may ask.

For full disclosure, I used to feel as though if I did not hear from a parent then there must not be an issue. However, over time my thinking has been stretched by colleagues and parents. It’s a goal every year to communicate better, and this year in my end of the year e-mail thanking parents I asked them for input into how I can communicate better. So far...no response! However, that does not always mean I am doing a good job. It could mean that parents are intimidated to tell me. Only time will tell.

Just to be clear....sending a newsletter home once a month is not communicating with parents. Well, it is, but it’s not a very good method! If schools are using a monthly newsletter as their only form of communication they are missing out on a real opportunity to engage with parents. And let’s not forget, those parents are sending us the best kids they have every day.

Some schools districts work really hard to communicate. They engage in stakeholder groups to get a clearer picture of what parents want out of their child’s education. Stakeholder groups involve a very diverse set of parents, and not just the ones that are going to agree with everything the school district wants to do. Depending on the group of individuals, stakeholder groups can work very well. And during these times of mandates, increased accountability and budget cuts, stakeholder groups are important.

Lazy Days of Summer
One time of year that communication is lacking is during the summer but recently I read about a great idea from Joe Mazza, who is the Principal of Knapp Elementary School in Philadelphia. Actually, Joe is the “lead learner” because he is a strong advocate for professional development for all staff, including himself. Joe also completed his doctoral work in parent engagement.

Every summer Joe engages parents and students in a summer classroom using Edmodo, which is a free service. According to Joe’s blog on the topic,

“Two weeks prior to the last day of school, we sent a letter informing the parents of all students entering grades four through six that we’d be offering an optional Summer Knappmodo.

The letter aimed to provide an introduction to the tool, as well as invite students and parents to join together. The first of ten summer topics began during the last week of school to help get the buzz going on our new online summer efforts.”

What a great way to keep parents and students engaged!

In the End
Schools need their parents. To be perfectly honest with you, I think my parent community is the best. We get standing room only audiences, they care about their children and the school, and they love to participate whenever they can.

Just like everyone else, we have our issues from time to time. There are parents who are not happy with things we do, but we try to work it out. Confrontation is not bad. It’s human nature to have issues; it’s how we work it out that matters.

Parental involvement is about involving parents in all aspects of the educational conversation. Not everyone will take part in it, but those who do may help stretch everyone’s thinking. We want to make sure that when our parents and students leave us, they feel as though we listened to what they were saying at the same time we educated their children.

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Correction: Public Agenda worked with around 30 districts, across five counties in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area, including in Kansas.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.