Boosting Parent Involvement in Schools

Few teachers would deny that successful partnerships with parents are critical to student achievement and are key in transforming public schools into true communities. But engaging parents can be a formidable challenge, especially for newer educators.

Anne T. Henderson is a Senior Consultant with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and based in Washington D.C., where her specialty is the relationship between families and schools.  She tracks both research and effective practice on how engaging families contributes to student achievement.  She has also written many articles and books on the topic, including Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships and A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement.

Anne T. Henderson

Anne Henderson is currently serving as a consultant to a project of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign that highlights initiatives to engage families and community that our affiliates and members are partnering in.  The upcoming report, Best Practices in Family-School-Community Partnerships is due out this Fall.

Below is an interview with Henderson on how educators can bring more families into our public schools.

Why do so many educators find engaging parents to be a major challenge?

First and foremost, our teachers need to get some good professional development. According to the 2005 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, parent engagement is the number one area where they feel least prepared — and they’re crying out for help. This is something student teachers should learn about, but we still haven’t incorporated parental and family engagement into their coursework. When I ask educators how many have had good preparation for working with families while they were training to become a teacher, I might get one or two hands in a room of 100 people. When I ask how many have gotten professional development on the topic since becoming a teacher, again, it’s just one or two hands. We know it’s important to do, but it’s still not happening.

Another new study by Tony Bryk, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, published last year, found that there were five essential ingredients necessary for transforming struggling Chicago Public Schools over the past 15 years. The schools that were successfully turned around had strong leadership, professional capacity, instructional support, a positive, child-centered school climate, and strong family and community ties.

All five factors are equally important, but the schools that had strong family and community ties, regardless of anything else, were also four times more likely to improve in reading, and 10 times more likely to improve in math. Yet reform movements ignore the family component. There’s no mention of it anywhere. It’s like they think these kids were hatched from eggs!

What can educators start doing now to engage more parents?

One of the best ways to reenergize family relationships is through home visits, which not only boost parental involvement but can dramatically decrease dropout rates. But the visit can’t be a home inspection where you’re going to see what’s wrong. And it can’t be an information dump visit – where you give parents a laundry list of everything they need to do with their child for school. It must be a one-to-one relationship building visit – that’s what community organizers would call it. You’re not there to tell parents how to do anything. You’re there to establish a human connection between teacher and family.

Ideally, educators should be compensated for the time they spend on home visits, and they should be trained on how to do them. They should start out with something positive about the child, not about what’s wrong. Then they should ask the parent, “Tell me more about your child. What are your hopes and dreams for her?” That gets most parents to totally open up. They think, “This teacher has come to my home to find out about my child. This teacher must really care.”

After that, you can begin a conversation about how the parent thinks the child is doing, and you can both talk about where he’s doing well, where he can improve, and how best to help him. The meeting ends with exchanging phone numbers and email addresses, and a promise that both will let the other know if they notice anything in the child’s schoolwork. And with that, a collaboration has started. The parents start coming to school more. They start listening to what the teachers say. And the teacher feels supported and better prepared to teach that parent’s student.

How has the relationship between families and schools changed over the past few decades?

We first have to look at how our families have changed. We’re a very dynamic society, which is a good thing, but it means there’s not much consistency in terms of who goes to a neighborhood school. People will say, “Oh, the neighborhood has changed,” and from the tone of their voice and their facial expressions, you can tell they don’t think it’s a good thing.

In many ways, we’re still stuck in the 1950s, still wishing we had Leave it to Beaver families where the mom is at home tending to the kids and getting them totally ready for school, physically, emotionally, and academically. But families don’t look like Leave it to Beaver anymore.

We’ve experienced an unprecedented wave of immigration in last the 30 years from all over the world. As immigrants pour into cities like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, and San Francisco, they don’t all stay in the port city — many continue on into the heartland. There are Asian communities in Nebraska, Hispanic communities in the Dakotas, and Somali families in Minnesota. Recently in Fairfield, Iowa, I saw a Turkish restaurant. But the communities and schools haven’t figured out how to embrace and include the diversity of families. Some figure if they don’t, maybe they’ll move on. But we’ve always been a nation of immigrants. Most of us descended from immigrant families, and we tend to forget that.

If communities could see their newest members as the assets that they truly are, we’d reap great rewards. We live in a global society and our kids are going to be working with people from all over the world. With new waves of immigrants coming into our communities, we can prepare kids for the global economy while they’re still in school, and help take the mystery out of new and different cultures. We need to prepare them for the world they will be entering – not the world we grew up in, or the world we might wish it were.