Families & the Community

How Schools Can Benefit From the Power of Positive Parents

By Elizabeth Heubeck — January 13, 2023 5 min read
Illustration of a parent and child outside of a school building.
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Book bans led by school boards. Parents protesting COVID-related safety protocols. Punches thrown at school board meetings. Over the past few years, parent-school conflicts frequently have been at the center of media attention—much of it negative.

But despite highly publicized incidents showcasing parents’ bad behavior, an untold number of exceptional efforts by parents, most happening far from the public eye, are creating positive change in school communities. Here are two recent examples that led school systems to create new positions—no small feat in light of today’s educator shortages.

Parent groups raising awareness of important issues, call for action

MaryLu Hertz has had four children go through the Manassas City school system in Virginia, all identified as gifted and enrolled in the school’s gifted and talented program. Hertz, who is white, is part of a district gifted and talented advisory committee, or GTAC (which includes parents, staff, and faculty), that sought to achieve racial parity in the program. At the onset of the 2017-18 school year, when Hertz and other GTAC members took on this challenge, around 65 percent of the district’s students were Hispanic, but that was the case for only about 26 percent of students in the GT program.

In GTAC’s 2017-18 annual report to the superintendent and school board, Hertz and two other members of the GTAC shared a research-heavy, highly organized document that included, among many recommendations, “more robust identification of GT students, with a view toward more representative demographic distribution.” The committee’s primary goal was to get the district to hire a full-time staff member exclusively to coordinate the GT program.

“We took care not to place blame, but to call attention to what we thought was a statistically significant problem, and a problem affecting programs across the country,” Hertz said.

The superintendent and his staff viewed the presentation before the committee presented it to the school board. “They made recommendations to smooth over some of the impassioned edges of our presentation so that it focused on making productive suggestions, getting everyone on the same team, and making a plan forward,” Hertz said.

The GTAC’s primary goal was realized the following school year. The district created a new full-time position and hired someone to fill it: supervisor of gifted and talented and advanced programs. Since then, a revision to the GT identification process has been completed and new programs geared specifically toward underrepresented populations have been put into place. The result: A 2023 report shows an upward shift in Hispanic representation in the GT program, now at 40 percent.

In another example, Erika Slater has served on Gilman School’s parent association in various capacities for the past 15 years—as long as her two sons have attended the Baltimore-based independent boys’ school. But in the 2021-22 school year, she experienced perhaps her proudest moment of that long stretch.

After a two-and-a-half year effort initiated by a dedicated wellness committee within the parents’ association, the school hired its first director of wellness, whose job is to promote a culture of wellness for students, staff, and faculty members. Initially, it wasn’t an easy sell.

“At the beginning of this journey, there wasn’t as much of a recognition that mental and physical wellness needed to be addressed in a more authentic and substantive way,” Slater said.

Henry P. A. Smyth, Gilman’s head of school, acknowledges the sometimes complicated relationship between parents and school leadership. He explains his efforts to maintain a level perspective in the face of parent “asks.”

“I try to keep in mind the fact that we are all deeply invested in the education of the students—we as educators and they as parents,” Smyth wrote in an email. “We all want our children and students to be their best selves, even if we (parents and educators) are not always in sync with what that ‘best self’ looks like or how to achieve it.”

To support the change they were asking for, Slater and other committee members developed what she referred to as “a book of information” that included extensive research, starting with the American School Counselor Association’s recommended ratio of one counselor to every 250 students. They also collected and shared detailed information with the school leadership on the mental health resources offered by other schools with demographics similar to theirs, including curriculum, space, and personnel.

Eventually, the school’s leadership was persuaded to create the new director of wellness position; they also included the parent committee in the hiring process.

“We helped formulate the job description and were involved in the interview process,” Slater said.

Slater believes the two-and-a-half year effort also led to a new and improved perception of the parents’ association by school leadership. “Because we [parents association committee and faculty] united behind a common goal and saw it to fruition, and it’s had such a positive impact on our entire community, I think it bolstered the fact that the PA is there for support of our community,” Slater said. “The school saw that we could work together.”

Essential factors of effective parent–school partnerships

Slater pointed to a few key factors in developing that working relationship.

One, she explains, was having a “champion” within the school community. Their committee had two: a school administrator, who saw the need for the position even before the committee did, and an influential alumnus/board member who was committed and passionate about mental health. “It would have been impossible to do what we did without their support,” Slater said.

Also critical to the parent-led wellness committee’s effort was data. “Do your research. You want to come with data,” Slater said.

In both of parent-led initiatives, relevant and accurate data was key to influencing school leaders. But if the school leaders hadn’t been willing to listen to parents’ concerns, the data wouldn’t have mattered.

“If leaders listened to parents and tried to work together, they would find that parents have amazing insight as to what the school might be lacking or what is working really well at the school,” Slater said.

Hertz agrees that schools’ willingness to hear parents’ concerns can be the start of a productive partnership. “Sometimes,” she said, “things that feel like an attack on the teacher or program can really be turned into a process improvement or a revisioning of a system.”

Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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