Engaging parents in their children’s education is a critical piece of education reform. Yet too many parents remain disconnected from schools. Typically the parents who are involved are those who understand how school works, feel valued, and feel empowered to be there. Traditional ways of involving parents, such as Back-to-School Nights or tightly scheduled day-time parent/teacher conferences are often intimidating or challenging to many parents.
There are ways to connect with the absent parents, and they are essential if we are serious about education reform. Parents of every background have dreams for their child and want that child to succeed in school. Sometimes they never have a chance to voice those dreams, with the constant stream of information from school telling them what to do.
Strategic tips to engage disconnected parents:
- Assume every parent cares about their child’s education.Schools should not make assumptions about parents just because they aren’t visible. Many families believe it is their job to support education at home, but the teacher’s job at school. They show respect by not interfering with the teacher’s work. Sometimes parents are intimidated to talk to a teacher they didn’t have a good education themselves or they found school a place of negative experiences. For immigrants, expectations of American schools can be confusing. Many immigrants are shocked to learn that American schools expect them to be involved!
- Respect the strengths of family members and engage them as partners. The goal of engaging families is to build a partnership to support the students and the school itself. Families of diverse backgrounds bring many strengths that are often overlooked. Think of the organization and resiliency of an immigrant family who made the challenging journey to the United States… or the perseverance of a parent who could not attend college but works long hours to assure his child will have that chance… or the commitment of a grandmother who is determined that her grandchildren will understand the value of hard work by doing chores at home. When you learn about and respect these strengths, you understand that communication with diverse families should be two-way, as family members have many lessons to teach as well as learn.
- Go beyond traditional programs for family involvement Back-to-school nights and parent meetings work for some families, but others find them overwhelming or intimidating. Schools should look for non-threatening ways to encourage parent involvement: a classroom celebration of children’s writing where family members accompany their child to class; a breakfast with their child before work; a chance to meet with other families from their culture. Invitations sent out in multiple ways is critical, including personal notes home with the child and follow-up phone calls – the more personal, the better. A community leader who is known and respected by school families can be a great ally in connecting with diverse families.
- Get out of the school Some families find it intimidating to just walk through the school doors. To connect with families in a more comfortable setting, schools can hold meetings in community rooms, libraries, or religious institutions in the neighborhood.Sometimes a lunchroom in a local factory is a great place to connect with parents who can’t leave work.
- Support families so they can support their students Parents play a vital role as mentors, teachers, supporters, encouragers for their children. Schools can support families in these roles by providing training on parenting issues (e.g., workshops on child behavior or disciplining adolescents), as well as education issues (family literacy or math nights where parents and children learn together). Leadership development training targeted to those parents who are not yet empowered to be involved can create a new generation of diverse parent leaders.
- Collaborate with involved families As schools look for innovative ways to reach families, success can’t be judged by the number of families who initially respond. Build on the outreach by collaborating with new families who do bcome involved. Give them the opportunity to do substantive work alongside long-active parents. When family leaders in the school represent the diversity of the community, family engagement across the board will snowball.
Many parents remain disconnected from schools because they don’t feel welcome or valued at school. When schools look for innovative ways to help families understand their role at school and build true two-way partnerships, authentic education reform takes place.