Parental engagement is one of the most important issues for any secondary school principal. In recent years, we’ve seen the appearance of helicopter parents, who necessitate a certain kind of attention, and the continuance of absentee parents, who require a completely different kind of approach—and everything in between. 

So, how should school principals approach this issue? Simply put, principals need to reach out to parents, approaching the relationship as a partnership. “Parents like to know that we enjoy talking with them. And we need to know their story to better help them connect to the school community,” says Ted Huff, principal at Francis Howell Middle School in St. Charles, MO. “Mapp and Henderson, in Beyond the Bake Sale, explain that by extending a personal invitation to parents, secondary school principals will be able to develop a stronger connection.”

“Just as in a romantic relationship, an engagement signifies a long-term commitment on both ends,” says Sanée Bell, principal at Morton Ranch Junior High in Katy, TX. “Being simply ‘involved’ with someone may be serious, but it lacks the commitment of a lasting relationship. When we engage parents, we are establishing a partnership where both parties know their role in the development of the students they’re supporting,” Bell explains.

Be sure to set the bar high when involving parents, says Joe Mazza, faculty/director of innovation and educational leadership at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education in Philadelphia. If principals are truly invested in engaging families, Mazza explains, they’re “maximizing the day-to-day opportunities—both on- and offline—to implement strategies that include parents and community members from the start.” How we engage students in their own learning should be a team effort, he says. “If what we’re doing as part of our family-​community engagement strategies is not directly related to student learning, it doesn’t count as a family-community engagement strategy; it’s as simple as that,” Mazza says.

The Power of Listening 

Survey parents to determine their communication needs, Huff suggests. It’s important to develop four or five important questions to use in a separate parent survey (distributed one to two times each year) that you can track and monitor over time, he explains, noting that this will help monitor parent communication and climate. Huff highly recommends reaching out to the National Network of Partnership Schools in Washington, D.C., a group that helped his school and district increase parent engagement at all levels. “They foster six keys to parent engagement. Those six keys include parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making, and collaborating with the community,” he says. “Once you know the needs of your parents, you can develop initiatives and programs to increase engagement. We have added Social Media 101 for parents” to help them learn more about technology, apps, and social media, Huff notes. 

For Bell, creating healthy partnerships with families supports the learning and the social and emotional development of middle school students. “Before creating any parent engagement plan for my campus, I conduct a needs assessment [survey]. Surveys give great insight into the needs of my community. Also, informal conversations, parent advisory groups, and being present and available make me approachable to the families that I serve.” 

A principal’s responsibility, Bell says, is to help teachers practice and build engagement strategies that are effective and meaningful. This is especially important as kids transition from elementary school to middle school or middle school to high school. “Teaching teachers how to tap into the … knowledge that students bring with them to school each day is critical,” Bell says. “Students and parents leave supportive elementary environments, and we expect them to traverse one of the most significant transitions in their child’s academic journey with limited support. We must be intentional about how we support families during the middle school years.”

There are several questions principals need to ask as they implement parental engagement policies, Mazza says:

  • Are parents and community members viewed more as acquaintances, or are they seen as welcomed, honored, and respected members of our teaching and learning teams?
  • Are we talking about what’s best for students or what’s best for the adults?
  • What would parents say we do well to engage them?
  • What would they say we need help with? 
  • What if we saw parents as “part of the team” instead of “the other side?”

Successful Engagement 

Make parents feel like a part of the school by asking for their assistance and getting them to invest their time and talents. Consider these ideas that schools have used to successfully drive parental/family involvement:

  • Deploy parents to help with school beautification projects. Parents at Morton Ranch Junior High donated flowers, mulch, paint, and their time to make the campus look amazing. Because the school was located in the middle of the community, parents passed the building multiple times a day. “Seeing the work they put into landscaping our campus instilled a sense of pride and belonging within our school community,” Bell says.
  • Reach out to parents to assist with a career fair. For this event at Morton Ranch Junior High, parents showcased their careers and talked to students about their career pathways. “The number of parents who were willing to participate was overwhelming,” Bell says. “My community consisted of working parents, so taking time off to share their career journey with our students was greatly appreciated. In fact, without the parents, the event would not have been possible.”
  • Sponsor fun activities and events like Family Trivia Night, Adult Trivia Night, Spring Craft Fair, or Book Talk. Events that pair parents with other parents in the school or with students build connections within the school community.
  • Consider organizing a Parent Camp. came about during a building in-service with teachers and staff that stemmed from exposing how professional educators were learning during a 2012 in-service day at Knapp Elementary School in Lansdale, PA. “We kept the ‘EdCamp Knapp’ board on display for that evening’s Home and School/PTA meeting, and parent curiosity led to conversation, which led to, ‘Might we offer this kind of a potluck adult learning opportunity for the families of Knapp?'” Mazza reveals. Today, more than 100 Parent Camp events have happened, and the effort—which has been awarded national nonprofit status—is now supported and modeled by the U.S. Department of Education. Mazza and his Parent Camp Board of Directors are now working to raise funds in hopes of distributing the models to more communities.

A Plethora of Challenges

For every success there are numerous challenges, but facing them brings a stronger school community.

Three years ago, Francis Howell Middle School was at a crossroads with its two parent organizations (PTO and the Parent Involvement Team), Huff says. The PTO was struggling to engage parents in the fundraising efforts for the school. Parents viewed the PTO as a fundraising-only organization, and parent membership dwindled. During the summer of 2016, the school’s administrative team met with parent leaders and decided to merge the two parent groups into one working group. In doing so, the group created the Family and Community Engagement (FACE) team. They became the FACE of Francis Howell Middle’s parent engagement and involvement efforts. Since its inception, this new parent organization has fostered relationships all around, Huff says. “We have more parent engagement, and we continue to introduce additional opportunities for parents to become involved in school,” he says.

“Parents have busy schedules, so finding ways to engage them at times when they are available can sometimes be a challenge,” Bell points out. It’s important to honor parents’ time and make every engagement opportunity beneficial. “Each time I have the opportunity to engage with parents, I try to capitalize on the moment so they see the value and have the desire to work in partnership with the school,” she says. Another challenge can be that some parents at the secondary level don’t recognize that they’re still needed during the adolescent years. “Most parents struggle with their role during this time, because their child is fighting for autonomy and they want to give them more responsibility,” Bell says. “This often leads to a more hands-off approach, until their child begins to struggle academically or emotionally. Finding the delicate balance of autonomous support can be hard for parents and teachers, especially when teens are struggling to find out who they are,” she explains.

Keeping the relationship between the school and parents interesting also can be a challenge, Huff notes. “Even though we have 476 parents as part of our building Remind HQ communication system and 56 percent of our parents completed the annual Parent Climate Survey, what we struggle with is getting more parents involved with our different parent education activities (e.g., book talks, Social Media 101 sessions),” he says. 

“Custody battles, children that are classified as homeless according to the state, and related challenges make this partnership extremely difficult, and these situations can change during a single class period or over the weekend,” Mazza notes. When the parent is not invested in the school mindset because of outside factors, he notes, it’s very difficult to make the desired culture work.

Extending the Engagement 

How far should principals take parental involvement? Mazza has engaged parents in developing curriculum and parent camp, and has also included them in the teacher hiring process.

Huff says he does not directly involve parents in curriculum development at the building level, but he has parents who are members of the School Improvement Plan (SIP) team. “This team writes the goals, strategies, and action steps for our four areas of academics, attendance, behavior, and climate,” he says. “Parents are also members of our Building Improvement Group. This committee serves as the building leadership team.”

Bell has utilized parents to teach Junior Achievement lessons. “This gives parents the opportunity to engage with students and deliver lessons that are relevant to work readiness, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy,” she says.

The bottom line on parental involvement, Bell says, is embracing those connections between parents, kids, and the school. “It amazes me what parents are able to do when they pull together to address a need of the school. Building relationships with parents and respecting what they have to offer makes them feel like a valuable contributor to the school community,” she says. “Whether it is fundraising, decorating for dances, making costumes, or supporting athletic coaches and fine arts programs, when parents are utilized in a way that honors their time, expertise, and their contributions to the school, they always exceed my expectations.” 

Michael Levin-Epstein is senior editor of Principal Leadership.

Making It Work

Communication is key 

Use a variety of communication methods to ensure parental engagement.

“Communication is key to building relationships and promoting deeper engagement,” says Sanée Bell, principal at Morton Ranch Junior High in Katy, TX. “It is important to find out the preferred methods of communication for your families so that you can meet them in that space. Showcase the great things that are going on in your school, and be transparent about areas where improvement is needed. Call on parents to help and support, and make sure communication is two-way. Communicate clearly and often. Make yourself available and approachable to the families that you serve.”

“It’s important to use multiple communication resources when you reach out to your parents—the more you communicate, the better,” says Ted Huff, principal at Francis Howell Middle School in St. Charles, MO. Parents will have different opportunities to access and read the information they receive from you. “I use the traditional email platform to send out ‘group lists’ or all-parent emails. Remind HQ has become very popular with parents. I can send out Remind HQ text messages, and parents immediately receive this notification. I use this for updates, event reminders, special events, and inclement weather notifications.”

Huff recently added social media as a newer communication tool. He uses Facebook to share information and says that Twitter, although not as popular as Facebook, is still a beneficial way to share and communicate with parents. The web-based program Smore has transformed how the school sends out parent newsletters. Parents receive a quarterly newsletter as well as quarterly School Improvement Plan updates. 

To establish a team approach with families, it’s important to listen, which includes using online and offline surveys, one-on-one conversations, and related data, says Joe Mazza of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education in Philadelphia. Then decide with families what will make up your high- and low-tech menu of communication offerings. “Remember, the communication menu is aimed to support your families, not ones down the road, or in a neighboring state or town,” Mazza says. “If the majority of the families in town are using Facebook to communicate, use that medium.”

A Dicey Dilemma

Principal Leadership asked the three current and former principals a vexing question: “Do you ever contact parents without involving students?” 

Mazza: As an elementary school principal, I did contact parents without involving the students. The more important context in “contacting parents” is that it is not only for things we would like to be improved, but also to add opportunities for at-home kudos and acknowledging the body of learning and growing that happens outside the home. If we spent as much time on sharing where our kids really succeeded and “knocked it out of the park” with our families, I have to believe the level of mutual trust, respect, and potential for partnership would skyrocket. 

Bell: I contact parents who are new to my campus to introduce myself and to gather insight about how they are getting acclimated to our school. I also ask for feedback regarding certain aspects of our campus and if there is anything that they experienced at their previous campus that they feel would be beneficial for us to implement at our campus. It is really important to build relationships with parents. As the principal, it is my responsibility to make myself available and to initiate contact. 

Huff: If I have a student who is struggling at school [socially or academically], I will reach out to the parents to get a better understanding of other circumstances that could be impacting their child here at school. I often talk with parents regarding our parent education events and activities. I also talk and visit with parents during schoolwide events or when they stop by school. Typically, when working on setting up book talks, or schoolwide events, or fundraisers, we meet with our Family and Community Engagement team to help facilitate those activities.

A Unique Engagement

At Francis Howell Middle School several years ago, the band teacher introduced the Family and Friends Community Band. Now, every February, she organizes current and former students, parents, siblings, and staff members to become members of this band. After a month of rehearsals, the band holds an evening concert. “The exciting piece is that through music, we are able to engage multiple generations in a single activity,” Huff says.