ClassTag Connect / Feb 12, 2021

What Parents Want: 5 Experts Share Top Parent Engagement Ideas For Districts

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For most of the last 200 years, parents only had two choices, public or private. Now, as we enter the third decade of a new millennium, school choice options mean that PK-12 education has taken on many more characteristics of a market system—with features like competition, market share, and client relationships. As district executives are forced to think more like business leaders, they often seek to answer the question, “What do parents really want?”

We spoke to five district and school communications professionals to get their thoughts on the best parent engagement ideas for districts. Here’s what they had to say:

Parents Want Responsiveness

Above all, parents want and expect that schools and school personnel will respond to their questions and concerns. When choice options broke up the traditional school monopoly, parents inherited a portion of control that was previously reserved to schools and districts. With that newfound sense of agency, parents are empowered to ask questions, demand responses, and choose the option that meets their needs. A district that doesn’t listen will find parents turning up the volume on social media, in community groups, and through word of mouth. If that doesn’t work, parents will increasingly turn to home, charter, and online schools where they can get answers and share authority. Conversely, when parents cite the appeal of neighborhood and traditional schools, they almost always refer to a sense of community. Districts that have a rapid response strategy to build and sustain community will earn and maintain the loyalty of grateful parents. Shayla Cannady, recognized nationally for her work leading district parents engagement, puts it this way: “Focus on creating genuine relationships with parents. Familiarize yourself with the community you are trying to speak to; ensure your communications team is reflective of the communities you serve, and be willing to step out from behind the desk, or venture outside the building to start engaging.”

Parents Want Clarity

One of the most common criticisms of school communications is that parents feel talked down to when districts use acronyms and educational jargon. Instead of drawing parents in, complex and inaccessible messages are more likely to push parents away or cause them to ignore district outreach. As one of the nation’s top 35 school PR specialists under 35, Melissa Reese advises districts to, “Keep your messaging simple. I am a big advocate that people do not read if they see more than two paragraphs. Keep your communication short, to the point, and include visualizations when appropriate. Lastly, remove all education jargon as the majority of your parents will not know what it means and it can create confusion.” Confusion erodes parent confidence and drives down response rates, so engagement efforts might never reach their full potential. Parents want clarity because they want to act with confidence. When districts build parents’ confidence through clear communications, a partnership emerges where both parties know what they have to offer and what they stand to gain.

Parents Want Respectful Efficiency

In a world of bite-sized bits, character limits, and digital stories that disappear, parents want to skip the fluff and get to the point. Districts that value detail over brevity may end up with parents who stop listening. As Audrey Holtzman, an award-winning communications director from a city school system has learned, “Parents are often overwhelmed with the amount of information and the complexity of it and therefore stop reading.” Her insight is echoed by Lesley Bruinton, a public relations director who has been a featured presenter on the national stage, “Busy parents don’t want (or want to read) all the fine details of a plan. Make it accessible, but tell them what they need to know in a way that respects their time.” It’s important to note that concise communication isn’t just a technical expectation, it connotes respect and shows that the district has taken the time to curate information down to the critical, essential message.

Parents Want Empathy

Parenting has always been a challenge, but modern dynamics make those challenges feel more like a competition—a battle against the world for a child’s attention, time, trust. With all the economic and social forces that challenge family stability, it can feel like a thankless task to balance schools with the dynamics of work and life. Shane Haggerty consults with many districts and earned a Gold Medallion from the national association of school communications professionals. He helps us remember that parents want schools to understand their challenges, and communicate as a source of support and stability. “Approach parent engagement with empathy. What I have found over the years is we have no idea what their situations are, and some parents are going through struggles that impact how involved and aware they can be with what is happening at school. That should be top-of-mind.”

These five characteristics are what parents really want from administrators:

  1. A district that responds to their needs and inquiries. 
  2. A district that does the work to anticipate questions and communicate with clarity
  3. They want district leaders to show respect for busy schedules by crafting messages that are efficient and to the point. 
  4. Finally, parents want a district to make the effort to learn and empathize with their situation. 

When districts do what parents want, they separate themselves from other options in the educational marketplace; and they ensure that key leaders hear constructive feedback that will shape enduring district parent engagement.

For more insights on how to build meaningful engagement with parents in your district, download our free whitepaper, From Crisis to Opportunity: The Future of District-Community Collaboration.


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