In my 20 years as a PTA dad and parent leader, one thing is certain: Parents know they play an important role in their child’s success, but they don’t always feel like they have a voice or enough support to ensure their child has the academic and life skills needed to thrive in the world. Many decisions that impact children’s education come from district, state, or federal officials. When it comes to issues affecting children and schools, families must join forces with teachers and school administrators to be heard.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows educators to look at family engagement with a new lens as states and districts implement required changes that will, hopefully, make high-quality, equitable education a reality for every child. ESSA acknowledges the role families play in student success and school improvement efforts by requiring their involvement in the development of new education plans. While this provides an opportunity for states and districts to tailor their education systems to meet the needs of all students, this new level of authority also requires increased responsibility from families to ensure achievement gaps are closed with school improvement plans.
More than 40 years of research show that when families are active in their child’s education, students are more likely to attend school regularly, earn better grades, enroll in higher-level programs, and eventually graduate. When it comes to school improvement efforts, active families are just as important as having a great principal and teachers, strong curriculum, and a positive school climate.
Alec Hobbs, principal of Vineyard Elementary, a STEM Magnet School in Ontario, CA, says family involvement has given students access to careers they may not have otherwise considered. “By helping to foster a knowledgeable parent community, our school gives families a chance to learn more about what STEM education means and to become a voice in the community for STEM education,” he says.
Pew Research Center Report
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 “Parenting in America” report (https://tinyurl.com/pewparenting), 64 percent of parents said they attended a PTA or other school meeting, or volunteered for special projects, activities, or class trips.
Fifty-four percent of parents in the Pew survey said they could never be too involved when it came to their children’s education, and 46 percent said they wished they could do more. However, traditional engagement practices don’t always meet the needs of every family.
Use these strategies to strengthen your family-school partnerships as part of ESSA (or any new education initiative).
Keep your communication trending. Establish regular, two-way, meaningful communication with parents. The Nellie Mae Education Foundation’s 2017 report “How Family, School, and Community Engagement Can Improve Student Achievement and Influence School Reform” found that principal reports of school engagement—such as PTA and student meetings, teacher communications, and family invites to school events—had a positive impact on a student’s reading and math achievement. The report also found that grades, behavior, and student participation improved.
Be transparent. Provide clear timelines for developing improvement plans or other initiatives in the school, identify specific opportunities for families to participate, and publicly distribute this information in a variety of ways. Include who’s involved and how parents can provide feedback.
Keep it simple. Parents may not know specific education and child development terminology, but they are experts on their children. Explain educational jargon in simple terms. Provide families with context about how new plans or programs will impact current practices and benefit students.
Strive for equity. Address any barriers to engagement. Offer a variety of dates, times, and locations. Translate your messages into at least one of the most common languages in the school community. Make sure you are meeting in family-friendly locations, accessible for anyone with disabilities.
Be Strategic With Technology
Keep your communication trending. A lot of communication between families and schools today occurs through email, texts, apps, social media—even video conferencing. Know your families and how they prefer to receive and share information. While updates and news can be shared on Facebook and sent via text message with positive response, parents may not be as responsive to the same information when sent through email or posted to the parent portal. Knowing how to communicate can make all the difference when you empower parents to best support their child throughout the school year.
Use a variety of communications channels. A study on “Using Technology to Increase Parent Involvement in Schools” published in TechTrends (https://tinyurl.com/techtrendsparent) showed that parents of fourth- through sixth-grade students responded positively to technology to improve family engagement at school, depending on the type of information being shared. Emails, phone messages, or fliers were preferred for exchanges that involve quick updates or yes/no questions. Phone calls or in-person communications were preferred for discussions about student performance or behavior.
Engage parents through social media. Use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to deliver news and important updates, share pictures, and encourage parent engagement.
Identify technology barriers to engagement. While technology provides great opportunities for family involvement, it can be a barrier to engagement. A lot of portals and apps require parents to register and save passwords repeatedly, and some systems are not mobile-friendly. Evaluate and eliminate such barriers to increase access to and use of technology among families.
Share Power With Parents
Parents and children are the consumers of our nation’s public education system, yet they haven’t always been included in decisions. This has caused confusion, mistrust, and backlash when new initiatives were implemented at the local, district, state, and federal levels. Families play an important role in helping students navigate educational and career decisions, and are influential in shaping students’ perceptions of their futures. Gain valuable support for your initiatives by building a culture of inclusion, where families have a seat at the table and the opportunity to provide input on decisions.
Ensure there is equal representation. In meetings and events, families should represent the entire school community. Together, you can inform policies, practices, and programs that will address your entire community’s needs. Any committee, working group, or task force must include representatives who solely represent the parent voice. This is the only way to ensure groups are reflective of those who will be most impacted by changes in policy or practice—students and parents.
Make it easy for parents to give feedback. Systems and structures should be established for parents to provide regular input and feedback. Providing several opportunities for parents to share feedback will ensure new policies reflect the needs of all students. Offer multiple opportunities to get perspectives, including online surveys, webinars, and other multimedia presentations and in-person events. When planning in-person events, school leaders should go where parents are, instead of making parents always come to them. Keep an open mind when parents share their thoughts. If families are included throughout all stages of ESSA implementation, they will understand how it relates not only to their child, but to every child in the community, in the state, and across the country.
Face real or perceived conflict head-on. Jerome D. Mack Middle School in Las Vegas adopted a successful parent-teacher home visiting program to build relationships with families who did not feel like partners. “The parents rarely felt comfortable coming to our school,” says Principal Roxanne James. “Yet they were sending us their most important resource—their kids. So, we decided to flip the script on what family engagement means.” Through the home visits, the teachers learned more about themselves, their implicit biases, and judgments than they ever anticipated—which resulted in increased positive engagement among teachers, parents, and their students.
ESSA allows the entire school community to come together and design the best education system possible for our nation’s children. But for education to be truly successful, effective family engagement must go beyond ESSA. To learn about how you can leverage ESSA to enhance family engagement and improve student outcomes in your school, visit www.pta.org/essa.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. It starts with inviting parents to the table for the important decisions that are needed to better the education and welfare of our children. We must work together to prioritize family engagement and adopt systematic and sustained efforts to integrate families into the fabric of our schools.
Jim Accomando is president of National PTA, the nation’s oldest and largest volunteer child advocacy association, and he’s the parent of two public school-educated children and the husband of a public school teacher.