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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"Welcome to School, Parents!"

Anna M. Hurst

Assistant Principal of Walter Bracken STEAM Academy and Walter Long Elementary School
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Dad and daughter together smiling

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by copies, projects, and the never-ending to do list? This is a normal feeling for educators across the country. The solution to this feeling of helplessness lies in our very own schoolyards: parents! Parents give freely from their heart on a daily basis and want to be an asset to your school community. All you have to do is ask.

The Parent Center

Parents are an integral part of any school community. Kathleen Decker, our principal at Walter Bracken STEAM Academy Elementary School, lives by the philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child and build a school. Fostering partnerships with parents, graduates, and community members is an integral part of our learning community. It provides a culture of learning and giving back when you see so many facets of your school community coming together to make each and every day special.

We've heard over and over again that teachers, who are encouraged to utilize parent volunteers, are sometimes at a loss for what to do with that volunteer once he or she is in the classroom. Many first-year teachers are already struggling with their day-to-day responsibilities, and to throw in another body that they're responsible for teaching and monitoring can be overwhelming. It's the same from the parent's point of view. Many parents would love to dedicate their time to assisting an already overworked teacher, but sometimes they may feel more in the way than helpful. This is where a room specifically dedicated to parents can be beneficial -- and a much better resource -- for the entire school. This is where a parent center comes into play, building a partnership between the parent and school.

These partnerships help facilitate many essential tasks that teachers would otherwise spend their evenings and weekends completing. At Bracken, we've created a parent center within our library, an area that includes a kitchen table, coffee maker, and microwave -- and this is where teachers leave their projects and copies that they need completed. We want our parent center to be parents' home away from home, a space where they'll feel comfortable doing work that can help the teachers. On any given day, you can walk by the parent center and see parents working together to help complete these essential tasks.

An interesting dynamic of partnership and friendship develops among the parents. This friendship entices them to come back regularly. The parent center also serves as a resource and outlet for parents who want to become more involved in their child's education. Many times, parents can be intimidated by the word "volunteer" or simply don't know what a school's expectation is for parent helpers. The parent center solves all of these problems by giving them a safe space to be involved in their child's education while still being part of the school community and culture.

Volunteers and Watch D.O.G.S.

In order to welcome parents into our culture, we created a paid position called the Parent Volunteer Coordinator. He or she reaches out to the community for support through greeting parents on campus and encouraging them to volunteer. The coordinator is already part of the community. This person can be a mother, father, or grandparent. We find him or her among the parents that we see talking each day after their students are already settled in their classrooms learning. The coordinator's role is social butterfly, salesperson, and friend -- with the job of getting the support that our school needs. The Parent Volunteer Coordinator works closely with administration, teachers, and parents to create a culture of cooperation, support, and community.

In addition to our volunteer center, we participate in a national program called Watch D.O.G.S. It stands for Dads of Great Students. Our counselor and parent volunteer coordinator host a kickoff at the beginning of the year to obtain father support. The dads are visible role models that volunteer in the classroom, at lunch, and walking the campus for safety. Fathers on campus are seen as a valuable asset and an opportunity to build relationships. This opportunity allows working fathers to take an active role in their child's school community. Students enjoy school and are motivated to do well when they see their dad involved at school. This also provides a great outlet and opportunity for fathers who would be a bit hesitant to participate in other ways like the parent center, which we find is predominantly staffed by mothers.

Creating a climate of parent volunteers is not as easy as simply asking them to be there. Parents need a purpose and understanding of their role within the school building. This is where programs like the Parent Volunteer Center and Watch D.O.G.S. can play an integral part in enhancing your school culture and building positive relations with all stake holders. As an administrator, I love walking my parents over to the Parent Volunteer Center or to our counselor to explain the Watch D.O.G.S. program -- especially after we've just finished a parent conference!

How do you welcome parent participation in your school culture? Please tell us about it below in the comments of this post.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Walter Bracken STEAM Academy Elementary School.

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Anna M. Hurst

Assistant Principal of Walter Bracken STEAM Academy and Walter Long Elementary School

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Emily Lavender's picture

I am currently a college student, but I would love to see such programs implemented in the school I choose to work in. I definitely want the parents involved in my future classroom! Parent involvement gets students motivated, making them work harder. "Parents need a purpose and understanding of their role within the school building." This is great advice. Even if the school I teach at does not have such programs, this is a good start for getting parents involved in my future classroom. There needs to be a set plan or instructions ready for them.

Nona Craft's picture

Getting parents involved is so important and it can be a challenge. It is the responsibility of the school to maintain an environment that is welcoming.

vlevans3's picture

Parent involvment in schools is vital to support student success. It is the responsibility of the educators and school staff to give the parents support and show that you want the best for the child as much as they do.

vcrunnfe's picture

I think it is amazing that your school has a paid Parent Volunteer Coordinator position that helps reach out to parents and takes some of the stress off of the teachers and administration. Our school also does Watch D.O.G.S., however, it was a very difficult task for our guidance counselor constantly try to enlist new volunteers along with her other duties. I was curious as to how many parents of students with special needs are regular volunteers? Also, is there a way that you help parents who may be unable to come to school and volunteer, due to lack of transportation, job obligations, etc. to feel welcome and as though they are an important and valued member of the school as well?

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Emily, I think it's great to offer many ways for parents to get involved at school- but I would use caution when associating volunteer efforts with levels of engagement or as a measure of supporting education. There are many ways parents support their children in academics and beyond that may never be seen by individuals in a school. It's important to remember that not all have the flexibility, means of transportation, or comfort to lend a hand during the school day. As far as parents needing purpose & understanding their role...that is something that would be a great start-of-the-year conversation WITH families & educators. How do each see their roles in working together? Educating our children requires no assumptions, and a true partnership & respect for one another. That requires us to work together to find solutions that work for all.

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

vcrunnfe: I can't speak for the author, but at our school we made a conscious effort to make sure we had a voice for each student as often as possible. That meant various grades, neighborhoods, races, religions, learning support (including our ESL, gifted & autistic support). I believe we were quite fortunate in that in any given month, most all had at least one family lending a hand in some way. We treated all families with same respect, asking for their thoughts, ideas & feedback on how something may impact them/their student.

As far as making all families feeling valued...regardless of if they can physically volunteer at the school or not, I think you first need to believe that & continue to verbally convey that message. We all place such pressure on ourselves, and often naturally feel some guilt if we can't contribute in a way we feel is "equal" to others. Making a list of ways families can lend a hand, broken down by amount of time & location needed helps. Things like creating flyers, sending email reminders, recruiting extra hands, and more, can all easily be done from home. I've seen ESL families volunteer in school, helping ESL students/staff...and also serve as liaisons/translators for those in their community. Everyone has something of value they can contribute. I think it just takes a little creativity at times, and then getting to know what family's passions & strengths are.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Well said, Gwen!

vcrunnfe's picture

Thank you for sharing your ideas. I agree that we need to always verbally convey the message that we value all parents!

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