Over the last month, several events had me thinking about parent engagement in our schools.
First was Back to School Night for my youngest child. He was starting high school in Denver and I was looking forward to meeting his teachers and getting a feel for the school. I was surprised as I pulled up to the school to find that I was nervous and a little anxious. This was after all a relatively easy exercise. Those feelings, however, stayed with me through eight classroom visits.
I also realized that a shockingly low number of parents attended that night. In most of my son’s classes there were no more than three sets of parents. In honors and X classes, there were more, but fewer than half of the kids in these classes had parents present. The school had made a huge effort to get parents to attend. It was in their newsletters. I received two robo-calls to remind me of the event. There were e-mail messages and the teachers repeatedly reminded the students to ask their parents to attend.
On Labor Day, I was reminded of a phone call I made five Labor Days ago to then Superintendent Michael Bennet. He was in the process of writing the Denver Plan and I wanted to be sure that the plan would include meaningful parent engagement. He assured me that it would. My first four years on the board taught me to be skeptical about a commitment to parent engagement. We had made small gains in policy and some parent training, but we were light years from where we needed to be.
Next, I attended a PTA meeting. There was great information to be gleaned that night. The principal did a terrific job talking about the progress the school had made and what the priorities for this year would be. While everyone was excited about the number of parents who had come to the meeting, there were still fewer than 40 parents in attendance.
As I reflected on these events, questions continued to linger in my mind. Why did Back to School Night intimidate me? Why did so few parents attend? Are we engaging parents in the most productive ways to leverage their support and help? Do we really believe that engaging parents can change the outcome for students and if we do believe that, how do we help parents understand how to effectively help their children?
I know that parent engagement is not as cool as other reform and turnaround strategies that we are so engrossed in these days. I get that parents are often hard to reach for a number of reasons – some valid and some not so valid. Yet, the research on parent engagement is so striking that it seems amazing that we are not trying to do more to engage parents.
In 2002, the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory summarized much of the research conducted on parent engagement and found that, “Taken as a whole, these studies found a positive and convincing relationship between family involvement and benefits for students, including improved academic achievement. This relationship holds across families of all economic, racial/ethnic, and educational backgrounds and for students at all ages.”
The Michigan Department of Education sites research that shows that, “Family participation in education was twice as predictive of students’ academic success as family socioeconomic status. Some of the more intensive programs had effects that were 10 times greater than other factors.” The Harvard Family Research Project web site has hundreds of studies and reports on the positive effect of parent engagement.
With my questions in hand, I decided to visit Patsy Roybal. Patsy manages the Office of Parent Engagement for Denver Public Schools. Patsy and I had a long history of working to improve parent engagement in the district. She is a dynamic and avid crusader for parents in our schools.
After two hours, Patsy had convinced me that DPS has really made progress from where it had been five years ago. Her body of work in DPS is amazing.
Last year, Patsy’s office worked with DPS’s 20 lowest-performing schools to ensure that their Collaborative School Committees had parents working with the school team. The goal was to provide input on the school improvement plan, including how to engage parents for the purpose of increasing student achievement. The parents were taught how to look at budgets, time, and staffing to improve achievement.
The parent liaisons are working to find parents to fill spots on CSC’s across the city.
Tom Boasberg created the Superintendent’s Parent Forum. Two parents from every school in the city meet with Tom once a month with the parents setting the agenda for the meetings. Parents can choose between a 9:15 a.m. or a 6:15 p.m. meeting. So far, the number one concern of these parents is effective communication. The goal is to establish ongoing, constructive dialogue directly with the superintendent in areas of interest and concern to parents and to get these parents to go back and discuss issues with the parents in their schools.
A Parent Communication Toolkit has been created by the district in an effort to improve communication with parents.
The district continues to seek out creative and innovative ways to connect with families. Alex Sanchez, director of the DPS Multicultural Outreach Office, hosts a live Spanish radio talk show four days a week to engage parents, and Patsy Roybal is often a guest on the show.
This year both offices are piloting a program called Maestro en Casa or Teacher at Home that has a goal of teaching English to 5,000 Spanish-speaking parents via the radio – all paid for by private sponsors. The Multicultural Outreach Office also publishes quarterly newsletters for Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic and French speaking parents.
On Saturday, October 9th, DPS will sponsor a Parent Leadership Institute. Parents from across the city will meet for workshops, resource information, and inspiration. Parents and community members from across the city are invited to this free event to engage parents. At this same meeting, the superintendent will be meeting with his Parent Forum to discuss school turnaround.
On November 6th, DPS will host a Collaborative School Committee Summit in an effort to strengthen the role of parents on CSC.
Last year, schools were encouraged to apply for Title I grants from the parent engagement office to implement best practices in parent engagement. Twenty-two schools were awarded grants up to $8,000.
Finally, by spring recommendations will be made to the superintendent on how to measure the quality and quantity of parent engagement programs on the School Performance Framework.
This is incredible work by both Patsy and the district. Yet, there is still much to be done. What struck me most about what Patsy said was that we really have to recondition all of the stakeholders to look at parent engagement in terms of how it will affect student achievement.
We need to reanalyze what we are doing with parents to see if it is really meeting the intended goal. Are we using our time wisely? Are we helping parents understand how they can best help their students?
The time has come for school districts to change the way they interact with parents. If there is to be a revolution in education in the country, parents must play a central role. We must teach parents how to advocate for their children and make good choices for them. Instead of blaming them for the problems in education, we need to teach them how to effectively drive the outcomes they want for their children.
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