As we begin this new school year, principals and assistant principals across the country face the perennial challenge of engaging parents in the life of a school. There is no secret to successful parental involvement, but it does take work. In my eight years as principal of Western Branch Middle School (WBMS) in Chesapeake, VA, I’ve developed a keen understanding of why parent engagement is so important, honed our process for getting parents involved, and experienced firsthand the positive effects of parent engagement on our school. 

Many factors impact a school’s culture: student leadership, student voice, clubs, sports, music programs, and events. These are what bring joy to students’ hearts, fueling their investment in the academic programs that feed their minds. Parent participation also contributes to academic performance. As school leaders, we must find ways to mobilize parents to channel their desire to be involved in the areas where we have the greatest need. 

Research shows that the more involved parents are with their children’s education, regardless of family income or background, the better their children tend to do in school. But there is a distinction between parental attendance versus parental engagement in school meetings or events. While parents attending music concerts and athletic events, selling tickets for dances, chaperoning events, and answering phones in the main office are valued and essential ways that parents can and should be encouraged to get involved in school, only a few have the time and resources to volunteer in this way. And other parents may long to have deeper and more substantive experiences with their children’s schools. 

Over the years, parents have consistently shared their disappointment about the decreased opportunities for parental involvement at the middle school level compared to elementary school. At WBMS, I have engaged with many parents on this topic (more frequently in my first three years here before we made several changes). 

Earlier in my career, when I served as assistant principal for instruction at the neighborhood high school, I also heard similar stories of disappointment with the lack of opportunities for parents to engage as students matriculated from eighth grade (middle school) to ninth grade (high school). It is clear these transition years are difficult for both students and parents alike, so any opportunities for parental engagement that receiving schools can offer to create a more seamless transition should be encouraged.

Making Intentional Improvements

With such transitions in mind, the staff and leadership team at WBMS have made intentional changes to the way we encourage and offer parental engagement activities. Because parents are their children’s first teachers, we have brainstormed ways to give parents more of an opportunity to be partners with teachers at WBMS. To that end, we have moved from expanding their involvement as simply attendees at events to becoming engaged participants at school-sponsored events.

How did we do this? By actively engaging and connecting with our parents in the following programs and events, all of which have ultimately allowed them to be an integral part of our positive school culture. 

Family Fitness Night

One of our first moves toward more fully engaging parents was this evening event. Students were encouraged to arrive with their families to participate in a showcase of athleticism. We were careful not to make this a competition, as we wanted all participants to have a positive experience. At this event, families engage in various games as a team, and at the end of the evening, everyone who attends receives a certificate for participating, orange slices to eat, and bottled water to take home. 

Social Justice Council (SJC)

Parents began to participate in virtual meetings of our SJC immediately following the school closure due to COVID-19. Because of inequities that staff and students had identified, and that the pandemic had exacerbated, such as the lack of internet access at home or an adult to help with schoolwork at home, it was time to seek input from parents as well. We focused our council discussions on selected chapters of the book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race, by Beverly Daniel Tatum. After five weeks of meaningful dialogue, we helped to ensure that the 21 parents who volunteered had a safe environment to share their stories and hear others’ perspectives on race relations in our school community. This experience offered groundbreaking opportunities for parents to connect as a community; consequently, it produced some very powerful conversations.

Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA)

This is a staple organization for most schools. In ours, participants have the chance to collaborate on projects and fundraising events and engage in what is often one of the most rewarding and fruitful volunteer experiences. The PTSA is a leadership group that has hosted staff luncheons and sponsored events such as student dances and our annual parent/teacher/student basketball games. With all of their combined talents and hearts for service, our PTSA members ensure that the organization shines as a beacon for parent support and involvement.

Parent Advisory Council (PAC)

We hold three PAC meetings throughout the year to share information about upcoming events and hear parent perspectives on our school’s culture. The advantage of this group is that it is less of a time commitment compared to the PTSA, but it still enables us to hear the views of parents. 

Bruin Basketball Bash 

As previously mentioned, our PTSA sponsors our parent/teacher/student basketball game (our mascot is the Bruin). This event in the Western Branch area brings students from the feeder elementary schools together with our middle school students. Students from the elementary schools play six-minute quarters against one another, while cheerleaders from their schools cheer them on. Our middle schoolers then take the floor as they play two quarters against one another, while their grade-level peers serve as cheerleaders. The “main event” features eighth graders playing the final quarter against the WBMS staff. Throughout the event, we have multiple business partners hosting fundraising events for the fans including a free-throw contest, baskets of products from Taste Unlimited (a local eatery) and Starbucks that are raffled, and the three-point shot for a year of free food from Chick-fil-A. 

Formal dance 

This annual tradition is also sponsored by the PTSA and has evolved in many ways based on feedback from our student body. In its latest format, we hold a Saturday night dance that has become THE event students most look forward to during the year. As students enter the main gym in their dress-to-impress attire, they can have formal pictures taken by a professional photographer. They then walk the red carpet (literally) into the auxiliary gym to find a beautifully decorated atmosphere (based on the theme for that year). Students can choose between staying in the dance or venturing to the cafeteria for their deliciously catered dinner. As an added privilege for eighth graders, a special VIP section is roped off for them to enjoy their dinner apart from the younger students. 

Coming Attractions 

Because we are always evolving to suit the needs of our community, we add new events annually as we solicit ideas from students, staff, and parents. Unfortunately, the pandemic put many of our events on hold; however, as soon as it’s safe to do so the school plans to host the following new attractions.

Family Movie Night

WBMS recently purchased a movie license and a large screen to host our first-ever Family Movie Night. Parents and students will join outside at the front of the school in this “bring-your-own chair or blanket” event. Concessions will be available for families to enjoy while they watch the most requested movie as voted on by students. 

In It to Win It: Parent Version 

We limited this activity to students only for the first three versions, so now we are ready to expand it to parents. We will invite them to join their middle school students in a team format. After clips of songs are played for three to five seconds, families will say the name of the artist and song title, with bonus points being awarded for speed and accuracy. The winning parent-student team will win a meal at one of our business partners, Texas Roadhouse.

Parent/Student Dodgeball 

This annual event is held in June, as each grade level of students plays with and against their peers. Teams are organized based on class rosters for PE classes each bell. This year, parents will join in with their children. As parents and students play on teams together, they will have the unique opportunity to be athletic teammates who work toward a common goal: winning the tournament championship!

Parents to the Rescue

Parental engagement is not limited to activities and meetings that are strategically planned and organized. There are many instances in which parents can help solve issues that schools are unable to remedy themselves. Take, for example, Jnel Duncan, one of our parents. A few years ago, we set a goal of having every child connect to school by joining at least one club, sport, or music program. At the time, we had 92% of our student body meeting that goal, and I felt frustrated that there were still 8% of students we were not reaching. Although I presented this situation at a PAC meeting, I was not necessarily looking for a solution; instead, I was simply sharing a struggle. To my relief, Jnel quickly stepped in. As the owner of her own catering business, The Catering Place, she volunteered to host a special luncheon for these “unconnected” students to meet with me and explain why they were not joining one of our school organizations. We gained valuable insights from them, and it never would have been possible without her volunteer spirit. 

Or consider the example of Dr. Wendy Schofer. Even though her son graduated from our school five years ago, she continues to donate her time and expertise. In addition to providing exceptional training to the staff about childhood psychiatric disorders (for which she is an expert in the medical field), she has also volunteered to fund additional intramural activities and art classes beyond what our school can afford to provide. Dr. Schofer offered the support of these programs in response to a conversation I had with her about a unique need: finding more effective ways to integrate our students in the English Learner program with their English-speaking peers. Offering non-language-based activities—such as soccer, volleyball, and art—will surely help all students connect more with one another.

A final example of the tremendous help our families offer at WBMS involves the Sapp family. After telling Roger Sapp that we had an issue with an excessive amount of lost and found items left in hallways and classrooms, he assured me that he and his wife Katherine could solve the issue. They set up a monthly table display of lost and found items just outside of our cafeteria. During their lunch period, students could visit the table to reclaim a lost hat or shirt. Items that were not claimed were donated to our local Goodwill store. By donating their time and organizational skills, the Sapp family solved our overflow situation. 

School leaders are regularly searching for ways to collaborate with community members to address the many challenges that arise during the school day. Parents can and should be at the heart of this collaborative effort. The importance of their insights into what motivates their children cannot be overstated. By creating events and opportunities for parents to be more engaged with their children’s school experiences, students reap the academic and social-emotional benefits. 

There are numerous ways to strengthen the connection between home and school. I sincerely hope that our ideas at WBMS add to that body of knowledge. 

S. Kambar Khoshaba is the principal of South County High School in Lorton, VA, and the former principal of Western Branch Middle School in Chesapeake, VA.