Parent involvement has always been a hot topic in schools, but the pandemic brought the issue to light in an abrupt way. In truth, as educators and as an educational system, we have not done a consistent job in bringing parents and the community into schools as full and equal partners. However, with COVID-19, the genie is out of the bottle and will not go back as we look to school recovery and restoration. A paradigm shift needs to occur in the school, parent, and community relations space.
Schools must be embedded within the community and parents, and the community and parents must be embedded in the school. If you imagine a Venn diagram, not only would the three circles of school, community, and parents overlap, they would be blended within one circle.
Consider these 10 suggestions for principals to move toward this integrated paradigm shift.
1. Create a reciprocal relationship. It is common practice for a principal to call upon parents and the community when an important issue goes before the board of education; however, when there is an issue of importance in the community, how often do the school’s personnel show up to the city council in support of the community? Make this a two-way street and exercise micropolitical leadership. Advocate for the community that is home to your school.
2. Remember the leader-member exchange theory. Who are the parents on your leadership team, serving on your Booster Club, and running your PTA? What percentage of your overall parent population is this—less than 1%? What are you actively doing to engage, recruit, and motivate the remaining 99% of your school’s parents? Don’t settle for an “in” group of parents who show up at school to volunteer or participate. Go on the offensive—without being offensive—and reach out to your entire parent community over and over again. Remember, the best salespeople don’t make just one call. Close the deal with as many parents as you can.
3. Use the community as a source for curriculum. Every principal reading this is probably saying, “Wait a minute, I have standards, pacing guides, textbooks—and now you’re asking me to add the community as part of my curriculum and instruction?” Yes! Unless you live in California or Texas, your textbook is not fully aligned to you and your local context. We know that when we can bring the local community into the classroom, not only are students more engaged because the curriculum is relevant, but the community is engaged as well because they feel connected to the school.
4. Speak to your community. Go beyond English. Write your materials in the languages of your community. There are many online translation services and programs available. Develop a pool of translators. When appropriate, you can use students, community members, and parents to help translate during meetings or programs. Cultivate talent and work with your translators to learn and to be more comfortable speaking in a different language in public. Your ability to translate your words effectively will increase parent contributions.
5. Create a public relations video. What is your brand? What are you most proud of? What are your achievements? Or better yet, what do your students experience on a daily basis that those in athletics or extracurricular activities do not experience? Make a real-world video that invites every child and parent to be a part of your school. Of course, be proud of your football field, the bucket seats in the basketball gym, and the trophy won 20 years ago, but be just as excited about the students working with STEM, painting in the art room, and dissecting frogs in science. Sell your school; brag about your teachers. Be truthful so you are credible. Highlight your students—not just the valedictorian, but also the child who lives around the corner.
6. Generate opportunities for parents to channel their energy. If you do not give parents something to do in your school, they will give you something to do. Keep them busy with interesting adult-oriented activities. For example, freshmen entering high school today will graduate with a four-year college degree in 2028 and work for the next 30 years, almost to 2060. Create a team of parents to envision life in 2060 and then invite them to work with you and your leadership team to audit your curriculum and instruction to see if they are aligned to this mid-21st-century vision. Create a team of parents to study the Blue Ribbon Schools program or another program of distinction and encourage them to co-lead with a group of your teachers and staff a long-range strategic plan to move your school from its current state to that achievement state.
7. Fight to correct the community wrongs. Today, social justice issues abound. If we take the approach that these issues are too controversial and too political to be discussed, explored, written about, and reflected upon, not only will we be silencing a significant portion of our children, we will be cutting them off from a vital support network they need and have not been able to access during the COVID-19 crisis. Knowing that what exists in society exists in our schools means school principals should prepare and role-play strategies with staff, teachers, and students on how to approach these discussions while maintaining focus on respect, voice, and instruction.
8. Take your school out into the community. Depending upon your demographics and population, it may not always be possible for parents and other members of your community to make it to school during school hours. Get mobile. Partner with a local church or Boys and Girls Club that may be on the far side of your attendance zone and set up shop one afternoon with your registrar, counselor, or yourself until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m.
Make sure you invite a couple of people from your team of translators to help; you’ll likely be busy now that your school office is mobile.
9. Open up your school to the community. Remember who owns the school—the community—so open it up to them. Create a Sunday afternoon men’s basketball league and volunteer to referee. Create a women’s walking club on the track with the lights turned on, music playing, and a security guard present. Not only will you create a tidal wave of goodwill, but you will have a team of talent ready to assist you at a moment’s notice.
10. Watch your words. Remember that over 70% of a principal’s work is done by talking, so what you say and how you say it matters, and it especially matters to parents and the community. Motivating Language Theory is an educational leadership communications framework that supports and assists principals in communicating thoughtfully, strategically, and with positive impact not only with individuals but large organizations and communities as well. Tailor your communications strategically for maximum effectiveness, sensitivity, and cultural competency to increase clarity, improve the sense of belonging for each member of the school community, and generate buy-in and identification with the school’s mission and vision through sense-making and culture building.
Schools and communities do not exist in isolation but are two sides of the same coin, inseparable and vital to one another—necessary for the success of the other. So, prepare your team. Parents are going to be demanding more from education and from teachers going forward—and you’ll all be stronger together.
William T. Holmes, EdD, is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, NM. He is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and vice chairman of the Nevada Advisory Council on Parental Involvement and Family Engagement.