CEOs of top companies obsess over their customers. Jeff Bezos of Amazon famously requires managers to spend two days in call-center training, and he leaves an empty chair in board meetings to remind executives of “the most important person in the room.” Tim Cook of Apple, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, and Howard Schultz of Starbucks are all similarly known for the way they use customer voices to guide decisions. 

Like these companies, Harlem Academy in New York City has always believed that capturing ideas from a range of stakeholders is the best way to strengthen its product. This ethos is reflected in the school’s core values: “Serious questions get pushed to everyone, and we are open to solutions coming from anywhere.” 

Yet, even with our genuine openness toward families, we recognized a disconnect between the ideal of learning from parents and the amount of collaboration that was actually taking place. 

Simple Experiment: Meet Over Coffee

In September 2015, Harlem Academy launched a monthly coffee meeting to provide parents and school leaders with an informal but structured opportunity for exchange around key issues. In our first year, about half our families attended at least one coffee session; one-third attended multiple sessions. Parents have reacted enthusiastically to the initiative, with one parent summarizing the overall sentiment in our annual survey by noting, “The coffee series has been transformational for the interaction parents have with the school.”

Benefits of True Engagement

Collaborative culture. Decades of research have connected parental involvement with student outcomes. By providing access to school leadership, sharing the rationale for decisions, and demonstrating that parents’ opinions are valued, these meetings lay the groundwork for authentic collaboration. It is an investment in building the goodwill, trust, and shared understanding that’s needed to realize the ambitious goals educators and parents have for their students.

Informed parents. These meetings provide a chance to dive into subject areas where parents may feel less comfortable supporting their children. For instance, our middle school director led a presentation about our math program, describing key elements, offering tips for how to best support a child’s math development, and role-playing the Singapore math problem-solving model. The meeting offered parents a chance to ask questions and gain familiarity with the strategies their children are using, leaving them better equipped to engage them at home.

Stronger program. We structure morning coffee meetings to tap parents’ wisdom, solicit their input, and engage them in problem solving. After just one year, discussions with parents have already sparked several powerful opportunities to move the school forward. 

At one meeting, for instance, parents noted they were unsure how to support their children in following a seemingly straightforward line of our school creed: “I seek help when I need it.” We had not developed formal instruction related to seeking help, and upon discussion with the teaching and advising teams, we found that parents were struggling with how best to support student growth in this area. In response, we have allocated time to review research on seeking help and have incorporated it into our curriculum development cycle. 

Strategies for Success

Ultimately, these meetings are successful because we envision parents as extensions of our team. In practice, this means:

  • Decision makers attend each session. The head of school attends every meeting alongside specialists on each topic to ensure feedback is heard directly by those best positioned to implement it. 
  • Focus each session on a single, important topic. This allows for deeper exploration and provides an opportunity to cultivate more substantive discussion. We always select a topic critical to the realization of the school’s mission, but one that’s also of interest and significance to families.
  • Share context. We position parents to add value by formally sharing relevant background information, including work to date, comparisons, current data, constraints, and goals.
  • Spark a conversation. We use a short list of key questions to frame discussion, but leave space for unexpected ideas to emerge. 
  • Give everyone a voice. Just as with any team, some individuals are more likely to speak than others. To make sure you’re hearing from everyone, try simply going around the room to get the discussion started. 
  • Create a process for synthesis and follow up. We take notes at each meeting, and publish and distribute summaries from the meetings to all parents (not just those who attended), including a description of the changes they sparked. This encourages future participation and builds an environment for partnership.
  • Make it convenient and appealing. For Harlem Academy, this means scheduling meetings following drop-off when parents are already at the school, starting and ending on time, and making coffee and snacks readily available.

Set the Tone

When the leadership of a school cares about learning from parents, the benefits go far beyond executive-level decisions; it sets the tone for the whole organization. It represents a powerful, cost-effective opportunity to build a collaborative community, strengthen student outcomes, and improve your program. 

Vincent Dotoli is the founder and head of school at Harlem Academy, a private school for gifted, low-income children in New York City. Vanessa Scanfeld is a strategy director at Harlem Academy.