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Doing More Than Involving Parents

I was recently asked to talk about the difference between parent engagement and parent involvement in public schools. Thanks to the extremely talented Larry Ferlazzo, I had some excellent answers.

Here are his words:

"When schools involve parents they are leading with their institutional self-interest and desires -- school staff are leading with their mouths. When schools engage parents they are leading with the parents' self-interests (their wants and dreams) in an effort to develop a genuine partnership. In this instance, school staff are leading with their ears.

When we're involving parents, the parent is generally directed towards completing tasks selected by the school staff -- or the parent may be a client who receives services and information.

When we're engaging parents, the parent is considered a leader or a potential leader who is integral to identifying a vision and goals. He/she encourages others to contribute their own vision to that big picture and helps perform the tasks that need to be achieved in order to reach those goals."

Of course, as Mr. Ferlazzo points out, parent involvement is not bad. It's just that sometimes engagement is better. And as with everything in education, this is not an "either/or" -- all districts/schools/teachers/parents can do both at different times.

But the question that followed in my conversation, and that often follows in these types of discussions, is what does parent engagement look like?

There is no one answer to that question. Parent engagement looks different in high schools than in elementary schools. It looks different in schools serving large populations of English learners than in schools serving mainly native English speakers. And so on. Schools have to meet parents where they are.

Engaging Conferences

Take Washington's Granger High School, where over 88 percent of students receive free or reduced price meals (more than double the state average) and over 12 percent are identified as migrant (more than six times the state average). In the past, on parent-teacher conference day teachers would sit in the gym. Parents would line up and try to talk to the teachers, getting in maybe five minutes. Just enough time for a teacher to say, "Your child is struggling in math. Help him. Next parent, please."

Not surprisingly, few parents at Granger came to these conferences. But under former principal Ricardo LeBlanc-Esparza, and continuing under current principal Paul Chartrand, the school developed a new model. Today, the school schedules individual appointments for each parent-twice a year, just like the dentist. These appointments are private, and the student comes too. So the parent, educator and student have private time to talk about what is going on with the student and to develop a strategy to help him or her improve -- a strategy that all three (parent, student, teacher) truly have a stake in.

Since the school moved to this model several years ago, parent participation in conferences has steadily increased. This school has had one hundred percent participation in parent-teacher conferences for several years in a row. And thanks in part to increasing parental engagement and awareness, the school now has on-time and extended graduation rates exceeding those of the state as a whole, despite serving a population that is significantly more disadvantaged.

Book Clubs

Pennsylvania's Caley Elementary School also engages parents, thanks to part to the work of School Counselor of the Year Barbara Micucci. Take the principal-counselor-parent book club she runs -- a club that does more than just read.

This group studies issues relevant to their school and takes action based on what they learn. For example, the book club (all moms) looked to Raising Cain to learn more about the social and emotional development of boys. After reading about the importance of male role models, parents and educators worked together to create "Boys Night Out." Boys got to bring one significant male -- dad, step dad, grandfather, uncle, coach, whomever -- to the school for an evening of activities designed with their interests in mind.

Based on the success of this program, the school is launching Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students) to try to get more dads involved in their kids' education.

These are just two examples of how educators across the country are truly engaging parents -- there are others in every state. If you are looking for ways to get started in your school, the PTA has a number of resources available to help you do so.

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lisa Gundlach's picture

Enjoyed reading your distinction between a parent involvement vs. parent engagement. Agree that the first step is to get people involved then get them engaged. THought you might like this link about PTOs to add to your article (in addition to the PTA link). PTOs are independent are are also provide great ways to get parents engaged.

Kyla R. Johnson-Trammell's picture

I think one of the largest contributors to low parent involvement and definitely parental engagement is the mistake of schools assuming they know what parents need or should do to support their children. Sometimes we are so anxious to have parental support/volunteers that we skip over the important step of formatively assessing what parents want from school, for their children and how they want to be involved.

I found that our parent involvement, especially among my parents of color and low socio-economic families, increased when I took time to ask them what they wanted and needed. I gathered this qualitative data via informal chats, surveys for my ELL parents regarding effective translation services and focus groups of different parental subgroups to help parents with similar needs build their own mini-communities so they felt a stronger connection to the larger school community.

Once parents feel that the school listens, parents tend to feel empowered, which leads to stronger parent engagement.

Toni-Marie's picture

I would say that I have to agree with the idea that parent engagement should be a must for every school in every state whether public or private. I think about the saying "it takes a whole village to raise a child". Teachers today have become more than just a teacher to most students. Teachers today play the role of parent, friend, counselor, nurse and it seems that in most cases last but not least they teach. I think that not only should teachers be in communication with parents about their children but schools should be recognizing the need for parents to get involved.
Just to give a couple examples from the school where I teach: this friday in fact we are having what's called "Donuts for dads". The parents involved in the PTA are inviting all the dads friday morning for donuts and coffee. Another thing that we do is stress the importance for the parents to check their student's grade that are posted on line. Now while my school is trying to engage parents there are still a number of parents who have not and will not respond to the efforts of engaging them. This is one challenge that will unfortunatly continue to be there.

LQ's picture

Teachers, staff and administrator want parents to be involved in the child's school life. We have those parents who are always involved and are constantly asking about their child's academic performance and those parents that will not even return a teacher's phone call. I agree there is a need for parent involvement and engagement. My school district has a high Korean population; there is a Korean PTO that meets after the PTO to provide parents with information. My school district also sends home flyers in English as well as the language that is spoken at home for our ELL students.

Jillian Fletcher's picture

I agree wholeheartedly with this. I teach in an urban school district and I think the main reason students are struggling to succeed is a lack of parental involvement in their education. Part of the blame for this lack of involvement has to fall on the parent. But part of the blame is the school not doing enough to get them engaged. Many of these parents do not speak English well and/or did not go to school in America. I think the first thing we need to do is educate the parents about what is going on in the classroom so they can help their child at home. It is very difficult for children to succeed if they do not have someone at home to help reinforce what they learned at school.

Carla Cardoso's picture

Parent involvement has always been an issue that I have had to struggle with has a teacher. I work in an urban district where either both parents work to meet their needs or the students are being raised in a one parent family household. I completely understand the struggles that my parents face to provide for the family and meet their needs. What I don't understand is their lack of involvement in their children's' education. If anything they should want to be involved to demonstrate to their children the importance of their education. Being involved and interested in their children's education will encourage their children to be more dedicated and would want to achieve academically.
As an example of amount of parent involvement: We are well into our second month of school and I have yet to meet all of my parents. Before school started parent were invited to meet the teacher. I didn't have a good turnout. Out of 20 students only five parents came. And on back to school night only 7 parents came. Parents also have opportunities to get involved with our PTA and choose not to. I hope that I get a greater turnout of parent involvement for conference night.

Eric's picture

I love the idea of motivating class communities to engage them selves in what the school is offering and more than, is the volunteering of the teacher to have that group in an after school activity in the first place. We have a community garden in our setting and if parents just want to stop in and spend time with their children, its an amazing opportunity.

Isha Fairman's picture

Parent Involvement

Teachers and administrators do want parents to be involved and engaged with their child's learning however, it can also be very intimidating for some parents to be involved. Coming from a household where both my parents were high school dropouts it was very difficult for my parents to be engaged with my education. It was difficult for my parents to help me complete homework or study for a test. In my opinion it is important to make parents feel welcomed in a school or classroom. Inviting parents for a discussion on what they expect their child to learn. Also, be aware of the cultural differences that may prevent a parent from being involve. Most parents want to be involved but may lack the communication skills to become involved. It is essential to know your students cultural background. Knowing their culture could be vital to how they learn or understand certain concepts.

Stephanie's picture

I enjoyed reading your blog! It was interesting to hear the difference between parent involvement vs. parent engagement. Parent engagement is something my school is constantly struggling with. Thank you Lisa for the link to I think this could be very helpful in trying to get the parents in our school engaged. Thanks again!

Jennifer Erbelding's picture

I am excited to read your posts and comments because I have just finished researching the effect of parent involvement on student achievement. What I have found is that the defined role of parental involvement differs between educators, parents, and students. Students value parental moral support more so than HOW parents show this support (Harris & Goodall, 2008). Students want parents to take an interest in what they are learning. Schools on the other hand, usually want parents involved in school activities or they try to find ways to bring parents into the school, but do not give parents the support they need to encourage learning in the home.
Instead, schools should be looking at parents as contractual partners (Levin & Belfield, 2002). Giving parents support in being ENGAGED AT HOME is the most effective way of raising student achievement. There were a lot of good ideas of how to engage parents as partners at home in their article. I agree with engaging parents in learning, rather than schooling as mentioned above.

Harris, A. & Goodall J. (2008) Do parents know they matter? Engaging all parents in learning. Educational Research, 50, 277-238.
Levin H.M. & Belfield, C.R. (2002) Families as contractual partners in education. In New Forms of Governance: Ceding Public Power to Private Actors. Los Angeles, CA: Columbia.

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