ClassTag Connect / Jan 04, 2024
Embracing 2024: Creating Positive Wor...
As we step into 2024, we hit the reset button and explore new ways to enhance our…
If you could gas up your car with a blend that doubled your mileage, would you fill the tank?
If your network could run at the speed of light for no extra cost—would you log on?
What if your schools could close achievement gaps and increase family involvement without spending a dime—would you want to learn more?
Magic gas and light-speed wifi may be a dream, but raising achievement and involving families is a realistic opportunity for every committed district leader (if they know how to do it properly).
If you’re ready to apply three action steps to gain the benefits of meaningful family involvement—read on!
Meaningful relationships are not static. They don’t emerge and stabilize into predictable stagnation. Instead, great relationships have a life cycle. They form, extend and deepen as partners grow and mature together. Districts who value meaningful family involvement have a strategy for every stage of the relationship.
When families first join a district, they have few connections and limited knowledge of how things are done. Perceptive educators plan for that and develop routines to onboard new families and parents. For example, linking new families with existing parent groups builds community and provides a practical forum to share insights and resources. Facilitating mentoring and partnering is a way to support new families and value veteran families, so it works as a single strategy that benefits two distinct groups.
At the same time, veteran families are not only valuable because of their contributions, they are also an excellent source of performance and satisfaction insights that can help school leaders prioritize improvement strategies. Families proceed through the grade levels as their children grow up, so their perspectives expand and their priorities shift.
Parents who have been with the school for years, especially with multiple siblings, are uniquely equipped to compare and report patterns of school performance and program quality. Inviting those veteran parents to join focus groups and inform program evaluation is a respectful way to foster genuine collaboration and model the depth of relationship that new families can envision.
Celebrating exemplar families who have sustained meaningful involvement as they “graduate” to the next level broadcasts a message of value and respect that will incentivize other families to stay engaged with the school and its programs. Engaging with families when they are new and sustaining that involvement through the entire life cycle capitalizes on every benefit of involving parents in their child’s education.
Many school efforts to create family involvement sound more like a monologue than a conversation. Whether comic, educational, or political, monologues are a frequent mode of public communication. They are simple to design, and easy to control. But monologues are not engaging. All the work and wisdom flows from a single source, and the audience remains a passive recipient.
For schools, monologues are easy—and ineffective. Emailing a general message, sending schoolwide flyers, or web hosting standard information requires great anticipation and comes across cold and impersonal. In contrast to monologues, conversations take much more intention and attention. Before schools can create conversation, they have to commit to listen and invest time and resources in listening systems. Whether public forums, surveys, focus groups or in-person discussion, great conversations depend on two-way dialogue.
As schools gain experience with hosting meaningful conversations, they can learn which kinds of questions and settings foster meaningful parent involvement. Some questions that work well for surveys, focus groups, and conversations include:
Parents always want to learn how their child is doing, but they also want to share about their child’s experiences and needs. Parents can’t always initiate the conversation, but when schools invite dialogue, parents are a rich resource to help schools improve and students achieve.
A school that capitalizes on parent insights gains an invaluable resource about community expectations and standards. Leaders still need to be decisive, but engaging the community in conversation can be an effective form of crowdsourcing leadership.
In conversation, classroom and school leaders demonstrate mutual respect, which is inherently engaging. They also learn about parents’ priorities, which means that they can structure responsive programs that deepen parents’ motivation to stay connected.
Another benefit of conversational involvement is that parents who know about school systems are more likely to have children who attend more regularly and learn more powerfully. There is a long tradition of research and illustrations that show how parent and family involvement supports higher academic achievement. When parents are engaged, students are more likely to thrive. When families are engaged, districts are more likely to thrive.
Despite being a people industry, schools can be surprisingly antisocial. It is not uncommon for parents to go an entire year with only one or two visits at conference time. Schools that don’t host events or make a point to invite families are sending a message, and that message isn’t neutral. Those schools come off as disinterested in parent involvement and uncomfortable with parent presence. In contrast, some schools are intentional about hosting family involvement events that welcome the community and even create community.
⭐ Learning-Focused events like “One School One Book” where the entire population reads the same book and then gathers to celebrate with a party or a movie have been very effective. Some popular titles include Willie Wonka, Charlotte’s Web, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and The World According to Humphrey.
⭐ Family-Focused events like parent-child parties, competitions or projects invite family units to attend together and connect with other families. Especially with younger students, it’s okay (even advisable) to be goofy and playful. Schools that create opportunities for lighthearted competition may attract parents who wouldn’t come for a more traditional event. Carving pumpkins, cooking chili, racing matchbox cars and “parent olympics” are all events that schools have used to get more family members through the doors.
⭐ Community-Focused events like a clean-up day in a local park, volunteer service at a charity, or a collection drive to support local food banks are ways to give families shared purpose while introducing philanthropy and service.
⭐ Celebration events like ice cream socials, spring picnics, and holiday parties are a simple way to use food and fellowship to bring families together.
As they age, students tend to resist parental presence and involvement. Especially through the middle years, it can be difficult to convince students to invite their parents or attend with them. Schools can overcome that obstacle by creating events that are inherently interesting, or offering irresistible incentives—pro tip: food is irresistible!
⭐ Career showcase events featuring parents and their professions—think of a science fair where parents are the display, and students explain their profession
⭐ Life skills competitions—where students and parents team up to change a tire, make a snack, offer first aid, apply to vote, plan a purchase, etc. Engaging parents and students with life after school is practical and relevant.
⭐ Topical events that focus on identified needs in the school community, such as financial aid applications, college selection, workforce planning, educational technology, personal wellness—whatever the community identifies as an interest is potential for a topical gathering.
⭐ All types of talent shows or competitions. Parent-student games, concerts, projects, and adventures all have proven appeal.
At all these events foster intrinsic involvement, but strategic school leaders can double the effectiveness by using the events to foster follow-up communications. Using postcard surveys, exit tickets, one-on-one conversations, and large group polling are strategies that can turn even the most lighthearted event into a source of information and further involvement.
When schools have done a great job of planning for the family life cycle, and if they are engaged in real conversations with many parents, they will be able to plan and host events that parents want to attend. The three steps work together to form a robust culture of family involvement.
Role model schools with great involvement do not attract families because they have the best ideas or the most polished communications. Instead, they win families over because they try a lot of different strategies and keep what works. They ask a lot of different questions and pay attention to common responses. And, they host a series of events and track participation so they can do more of what’s working and be even more supportive of parent involvement. Like the idea of magic fuel or super speedy wifi, parental involvement seems too good to be true. But unlike those fantastical ideas, meaningful family involvement is real, and really worth pursuing.
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