Parents as Partners
How to Build Relations on the Homefront
Excerpted from At-Risk to Excellence: What Successful Leaders Do
Want to bridge the gap between home and school? These days administrators need to do more than organize bake sales and attend basketball games.
Once upon a time, teachers were teachers and parents were parents. Teachers taught children how to read and write, add and subtract, diagram a sentence, and dissect a lab specimen; parents taught practical life skills, values, and beliefs. Roles and responsibilities were clearly defined.
As society grew more complex, schools began to take on some of the responsibilities once reserved to the home. Today, parents and teachers share many roles. The boundaries have shifted and blurred. Even the definition of what constitutes a family has changed in America today. Many of America’s children are not raised by their parents. Some children live in foster homes or in the custody of aunts, uncles, or grandparents. Some are homeless or raising themselves. Some are even responsible for their parents. These circumstances call for adjustments to the old ways of doing business.
Most of our at-risk learners lack family support. For many, the only adults they see during their waking hours are those in the educational community. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only eight percent of middle school parents are involved as volunteers in school, compared with 33 percent in the first grade. The department also reports that while parents find 52 percent of interactions with their child’s first-grade teachers positive, that drops to only 36 percent by eighth grade.
Educators know that as a child progresses through the educational system, parental or family involvement wanes.
Unfortunately, this happens just at the time when a child is under increased peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol, have sex, commit crimes, or ditch school. Schools where many students are already at risk cannot afford to let this support fall away. If we are to leave no child behind, we must also leave no family behind. We need families, whatever their makeup, to join the push for academic achievement, and we need them to stick with it as their children advance through middle school and high school.
School leaders who want to bridge the gap between home and school have shown tremendous creativity, stopping short of outright bribery. Often, the first step is just to get families through the schoolhouse door. Once family members feel comfortable at school, they can contribute in a host of ways. No longer do they simply drop off cookies for the bake sale or cheer from the stands at the basketball game. Today, they monitor hallways and lunchrooms, spruce up for the first day of school, serve on the panel of judges for senior project exhibitions, and add to the ranks of volunteer tutors.
One way to build that relationship is to develop written contracts between the school and the home. Expectations outlined in the contract might include the following for parents:
* Attend parent meetings and participate in at least one committee.
* Volunteer at the school on a regular basis.
* Participate in the decision-making process about school policies, curriculum, and budgets.
On the school’s part, the expectations may be as follows:
* Get to know family members by name.
* Report absences and tardiness promptly.
* Maintain regular communication about academic progress.
Such contracts go a long way toward eliminating misconceptions about the need for parental involvement, while simultaneously emphasizing the school’s sincerity about welcoming parents as part of the schooling process.
Communication is key
The first step in welcoming parents and families is to keep them informed of what goes on in the school and the district. Schools must reach out by whatever means are available. Newsletters, flyers posted in local businesses, e-mails sent to the home and to employers, announcements in churches and community organizations about impending open houses and meetings, and school Web sites can increase family participation. Schools also must make parent meetings and family events interesting, relevant, engaging, and positive.
Effective schools keep up a steady flow of feedback to parents, and not just when trouble rears its head. Counselors and other support personnel should make affirmative phone calls thanking parents for sending their children on time and prepared to work with appropriate tools like paper, pens, and other instructional materials.
One principal of an alternative school reported using upbeat phone calls to great effect. Whenever he saw or heard about a student doing something good or scoring well on a test when that was not the norm, he would call the student’s parents. He always ended the conversation by saying, “I am very proud of your child, and I knew you would want an opportunity to say how proud you are, too.” He would then hand the phone to the student so the parent and the child could have a positive conversation. The principal asserted that the phone calls changed the entire tenor of the relationship between the parents and the school. He also credits the calls with making families more willing to participate in school-sponsored activities.
Counselors should monitor the academic performance of at-risk learners, with immediate feedback to both parents and students if students fall short of mastering the material taught. Waiting until the end of a marking period or term to notify parents that their child has failed a subject puts parents in a position where they cannot do anything about the situation. That is akin to handing them an autopsy report; no matter how detailed and accurate, it is worth far less than an early diagnosis.
Schools also must make it possible for parents to monitor their child’s academic progress. They can do so through the use of e-mails, hotlines, and even Web sites where teachers post assignments on a weekly basis. Keeping parents informed goes a long way toward keeping students on the path to academic achievement.
If a child has had a disruptive incident in a classroom or the school, school personnel should meet with the parents to develop a strategy to avoid recurrence and provide assistance if outside referral is advisable. Schools must keep family adults informed of school rules, alternative programs, grades, absences, and disciplinary actions. Otherwise, part of the blame for a troubled situation sits squarely on the shoulders of the school and its leaders.
Homework: More Harm Than Good?
Schools must be acutely aware of the repercussions of their homework policies, particularly for at-risk students and their families. Consider this scenario: A student who can barely keep up with the pace of algebra class takes home a sheet of binomial multiplication problems and gets stuck on the second one. Can we automatically expect that an adult at home remembers “FOIL: first–outer–inner–last” and how to apply it? Do you? Or consider the biology student trying to decipher the parts of a cell. Can we assume that someone at home can help? Can we even assume that the at-risk student has time to work on the problem, or a quiet place to do so?
If not, assigning homework is a callous decision that borders on the absurd. Such decisions often lead to frustration in the home that evolves into ill feelings toward the school. The outcome is rarely positive for either the student or the school. Schools that truly care about the welfare of their at-risk students must address their homework policies or run the risk of both losing students and alienating their families.
Educators may not be able to change the fact that Johnny comes to school without his homework. They often find it difficult to change the fact that Johnny’s parents won’t consistently support the school’s efforts to have Johnny do his homework. Rather than spending professional development and planning time on ways to get Johnny to finish his homework, educators should devote time and energy to learning about homework, its effective use, its design, its impact on student learning, and alternative ways to reinforce new concepts or to get feedback about students’ learning.
Schools that strive to meet the needs of all learners cannot stop at strengthening their own programs. The bridge that effective educators build between school and home is a two-way street. It brings parents and family members into the school, and it sends the lessons and messages of school home with students every day.
Many parents of struggling students did not have positive experiences in school themselves. They may think of the schooling process as inherently unfair. They may not value an education system that they perceive did not value them. They may not offer the support their children need. But if we can prove to them that we value them as parents, we may win them over. If we can build a relationship with them through continual, honest communication, we may strengthen the environment for learning at home as well as at school. Consider the image of a sturdy bridge, buttressed securely at both ends. That is the learning environment we seek for students at risk.
About the authors: Franklin Schargel’s education career spans 33 years of classroom teaching and counseling and eight years of supervision and administration as assistant principal. Tony Thacker is a member of the Classroom Improvement section of the Alabama Department of Education. He has served as a principal, science teacher, and national trainer for the University of Alabama’s integrated science program, and he initiated the Torchbearer School Program. John Bell is coordinator of leadership development at the Alabama Department of Education. He spent 18 years in Alabama’s Montgomery Public School System.