Parental involvement is a considerable factor in student success, but achieving that engagement is sometimes easier said than done. Many students have two parents who work full time, and some parents may also still harbor negative feelings toward school from their time as students.
To learn more about how administrators work to bring and keep families in the fold, we asked a handful of superintendents and principals from a variety of districts nationwide how they approach family engagement. Here's what they had to say.
Hamish Brewer, principal at Fred Lynn Middle School, Woodbridge, Virginia
It's critical to make it about asking families to participate and not asking them to always be in charge, or to always run things. The family unit has evolved, family time commitments have changed, and we as educators have to be flexible and adapt with our families.
When families do have opportunities, make that time count with authentic experiences that have meaningful opportunities for dialogue and relationship building.
Parents want to be in the loop. We need to communicate regularly with them, ensure that we are communicating using the various tools and modes of communication that they are employing such as smartphones and social media. One example is I send out an email blast on Sundays with the upcoming schedule for the week. Parents will receive this via email and phone.
If you have a strong student program, make sure there are ways for parents to feel part of the programs and communities. For example, if you sell student swag, sell parent swag to go along with it.
Susan Kessler, executive principal at Hunters Lane High School, Nashville, Tennessee
We must be open to and available to listen to parents, not just speak to them. This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but in practice, many parents feel ignored or patronized by school personnel.
Often, schools attempt to engage with parents with the intent of the parent being the audience. In reality, true parent engagement is a collaborative experience where we are discussing issues and brainstorming solutions together.
The whole notion of the village being responsible for the child means that there are many perspectives coming from the different people within the village and one voice is not more important than the other. Hence, the most important step to building connections with our families is to give them our undivided attention while we listen to their individual perspectives.
Joe Sanfelippo, superintendent of Fall Creek School District, Wisconsin
The most important step in engaging and building stronger connections in Fall Creek has simply been to listen. We have to understand that not everyone had a positive school experience. When those who did not have a great experience in school have kids, the emotions of that experience often get transferred to their current student.
Understanding that walking through our hallways often brings up feelings of inadequacy, stress and even fear at least puts us in the right mindset to make a better connection. Being in the moment when they walk through has been crucial to changing their mindset. Some of our favorite ways to connect with our families are:
- Going into the parking lot to say hello.
- Sending a positive note to the parent to let them know what their student did to make you smile.
- Using social media to "show" the story of our school.
- Moving from "direct people to the office when they enter" to "acknowledge and direct people to the office when they enter."
People want to be seen. They want to know they have value. When they enter a place that may bring up feelings of resentment, we see it as an opportunity to help change their mindset. When we acknowledge that their presence has value, they are more likely to come back with a smile and be more invested in our school.
Scott Baytosh, head of school at Alexandria Country Day School, Virginia
Our teachers invest a great deal of time communicating with parents about their children, including successes and accomplishments as well as challenges and problems. They are also expected to invite parents to share their concerns, hopes and expectations, and to respond to each family in a thoughtful way.
We work hard to convey how well we know our students and understand their needs, affording them an experience that is not so much "individualized" as "personalized." Each student is expected to meet our standards, but we understand that each may get there by a somewhat different path, need different incentives, or bring different assets to the effort.
When we can convey that we understand our students and recognize these differences, we foster trust and engagement. Of course, our small size contributes to a sense of community and is a tremendous advantage in providing such an experience for our students and encouraging parent engagement. No child or parent can fall through the cracks.