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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Home Work: Getting Parents to Buy Into Radical Reform

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman

If you're going to set out to change the way people look at this place we call school, you had better be prepared to spend a great deal of time communicating your vision, the research you've done, and your implementation plans. It's important when you're looking for financial and political support, but it is most important when you're asking for the support of your parent community. This is one of the big lessons I've learned as I've tried to implement a small-scale change initiative in our school district this year.

Indeed, there was a great deal of excitement about the potential of my school's arts@newman initiative from many levels of the system. (See my previous post about this program.) District-level personnel responded enthusiastically to the research that indicated how an arts-based model could improve both the engagement and achievement levels of all students. Administrative support at the school level pointed to the positive impact that our program could have on everyone at Cardinal Newman.

Not surprisingly, however, the stakeholders who responded with the highest level of passion, the most poignant questions, and the greatest appreciation for the information that has been forthcoming over the past several months were the parents. After all, these are the folks who entrust their most valuable gifts to us each day and, in the case of this particular community, have been doing so for forty years. This is a community that is very familiar with the school's culture. Older and younger siblings, as well as relatives and the parents themselves, have called Cardinal Newman home.

So, one of the big questions for me has been how best to respect that sense of familiarity -- that sense of home -- and, at the same time, challenge people to think differently. It's taken a combination of tools and strategies to make our first term of implementation a positive experience, but the key has been powerful, ongoing communication. Here's a list of some of the communication tactics that have brought us to this point:

  • We held two parent meetings in spring 2007. The first of these was designed as an informational session for all sixth-grade parents and students at Cardinal Newman. We sent letters of invitation home to all parents and made personal follow-up phone calls three days prior to the event. (I think sixth grade is the year when many students become less reliable about bringing home material from school.) We held the second meeting in late June for parents who had enrolled their child in the arts@newman program for seventh grade, striving to bring greater clarity and precision to their understanding of what was going to happen over the next couple of years.
  • In late July, we established an arts@newman Web site. We designed this invitation-only site to be an electronic meeting place for parents, students, and friends of our program. It includes a calendar of events, a general bulletin board where students and parents can communicate, separate parent and student blog spaces where they can discuss issues, assignments, and ideas, and a place for students to post photos and other media pieces they have created as part of our program.
  • We invited parents to write a brief description of their child I could use to help plan my program. I asked for insights on learning styles, interests, hobbies, what really engages their child, past difficulties in school, and other information that might be useful for me to know as I prepared to meet their child for the first time.
  • We made a personal phone call to every parent during the first week of school. Although many parents were surprised to get a call during the first few days of school, this step established a sense of openness and made communicating throughout the term much more natural.

I could write more about each of these elements in our communication plan, but I will say only that the ongoing sense of connection these strategies have afforded us has been incredible. Parents feel linked to the program, students are reporting a greater sense of buying in, and I, as a teacher, am more confident we are all working on the same page!

A couple of weeks ago, we completed our first round of parent-teacher-student interviews in conjunction with the term-one report cards. In some years (despite our best intentions), this would have been the first opportunity for the teacher and parents to sit down and discuss the program and progress. The ten minutes allotted for these interviews is seldom enough time, and the whole encounter seems more than a little surreal.

This year, however, when I met face-to-face and over the phone with parents, our conversations tended to pick up from where prior discussions had left off. That's how I think it should be. I'm still keeping in touch with all levels of school and district administration, and we're still highlighting our program in the school newsletters, but it is this strong sense of ongoing, day-to-day communication that keeps the heart of our program beating.

So, here's to the value of good parent communication. I would love to hear about the strategies and ideas that have helped you build bridges and create relationships with your parent community!

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman
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Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, like most teachers, have a lot of difficulty getting parents involved or even having contact with them at some point during the year.

I don't understand the hesitation, the reservation, or the lack of priority to stay closely communicated with your child's teachers.

I have been thinking of ways to implement parent involvement.
First, I like the idea that Stephanie mentioned mail the letter to the home. The formality of doing sends the message that it is important for the teacher to have each parent get that letter in their hands.
Second, a week to two weeks before school starts, schedule parent and student and teacher introductions. About 20 minutes of casual talk time. My daughter's preschool teacher did this and I really appreciated having her attention without distractions for me and my daughter.
There will be a lot of technicalities to work out, I know.
I would appreciate any suggestions as work towards implementing these ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I read your posting I realized how common of a problem this is in schools. I admire the efforts you are taking to improve upon this in your district. I too have difficult time getting all of my parents on board with homework. Our district has just begun the process of how to work on this area. We as 5th graders follow the Marzano rule, 10 times the grade of the student. If the student is in 5th grade they can handle up to 50 min. of homework. We really try not to go over that amount of time. However, to get the parents to understand and be supportive is the area which is the most difficult. They want their child to have homework, but they do not always produce the best environment for the students to work on their homework. Has having the parents be involved in meetings and communicating more with the students helped improve their homework completion?

sandra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Stephen,

I think parental involvment should come from the top; The principal and the school board office. They are the ones who make the school exciting, important and relevant to everyone. I have also found that help from the PTA can improve parental participation. Support their efforts to support the school. The years the PTA is weak, the involvment is also weak.
I also love email communication. Parents can respond quickly and seem to appreciate the information.

Laurie Strickland's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am very interested in this subject. I like the idea of calling parents during the first weeks of school and asking them a weekly question to respond to in a newsletter or what not. I was wondering how often is too often though to be speaking to parents if their child has bahavior issues? Is there a point when we should just stop calling and handle the issue ourselves at school if the parent does not seem to be on board?

Derek Beet's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our county is quite the same as yours with the 10 times rule, unless it is an honors class. I teacher Algebra in 8th grade. I am allowed to assign them up to 30 minutes of homework for my class alone instead of the 15 minutes usually alloted. Of course the other teachers make up the other hour and a half. However, I give all of my homework at the beginning of the unit, so that the students can plan out when they will do their homework so that they are not crunched for time all in one night.

Brianna Falvey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Currently, I'm working in a Pre-K classroom within the Holland Patent Central School District. It's the first year our school district has had a Pre-K classroom. The classroom is located right inside one of our Elementary buildings and our students are treated much like a Kindergarten class. In the aspect that they go to specials, such as Art, Music, Library and Physical Education.

One of the most important parts of my day is communication with the parents. Especially at this age level (age 3-5) parents are excited and eager to know what their child is doing in school, but to be involved as well. The Pre-K program makes a strong attempt to send out a weekly newsletter, and the children bring home their work on a daily basis. This keeps parents informed of what we have been doing in school.

We do not have report cards and/or set parent-teacher conference days within our Pre-K classroom. However, the states mandates that we conduct Home Visits to each child's home. Half of them were completed in October, and the remaining half will be completed in April. My initial thought to this experience is that the parents would be against the teachers visiting their homes. However, much to my surprise the parents were thrilled and welcomed us into their homes with open arms. During the home visit we were able to view where the student lives, their pets, siblings, toys, etc. We also presented the parents with examples of student work and suggestions of activities they could do with their child to help them develop academically.

As much as both the teachers and parents enjoyed it, the students are the ones who enjoyed it the most. Within my class, there are two extremely shy students. One of which would not speak or give any verbal response to us for the first several weeks of school. During the visitation at her house, she was animated, laughed, smiled, spoke freely and shocked us on how outgoing she actually was. Following the home visit, she did a complete 180 at school. She answers questions, participates, speaks with other students, laughs, etc. It's amazing to see how much she has changed after we visited her home.

Although, the home visits are required by the states, I feel that the high level of parent involvement and open communication played a huge part in the success of these visits.

We frequently have parents volunteering to read the students a story, prepare fun activities, help out serving lunch or helping at center time. The parents of this Pre-K class show a great deal of parent involvement and the it is reflected in the success of each child.

Recently, I had a mother write a note to me stating that she felt her son had trouble spelling and writing his name. I responded on the same day, and also sent in two forms of the students work that showed he was able to spell and write his own name, along with a copy of the screening we did regarding letter and number recognition.

As a teacher, I feel the students with parents who are involved in their school work and have an open communication system with their teacher are the ones who tend to do the best in school. I honestly, can't complain about the level of parent involvement and communication within my Pre-K class this year. It's not only my duty to keep these parents well informed of the progress of their children, but my privilege as well.

Julie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the idea of a personal phone call or possibly a home visit to each family either prior to the school year beginning or during the first week. I personally like the idea of a short home visit. I think you gain valuable insight into how a family works and interacts when you see them in their most natural environment. My husband and I have been invited to dinner by several families throughout my career. After getting over the idea of a teacher not possibly going to a student's home, I accepted one time. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences we have had. I have had several families in the last couple of years who have experienced various tragedies. I have brought dinner to their homes or gone over to drop off homework, etc. With each token of kindness, I have only seen gratefulness and appreciation. So I am very much for the idea of teachers beginning the parent, student, and teacher relationship with a visit to our student's homes. I do not think it has to be a taboo thing for a teacher to visit a student's home.

S. Hurley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm very much appreciating and enjoying this conversation.

What do others think about bridging the inside and outside student space. When you think of it, a teacher who spends six or seven hours a day with a particular group of students is just as involved in the "raising" of those students as the parent may be. Perhaps not as responsible, but certainly as involved.

Over the past few decades, our unions and teaching associations have warned us against parent involvement that might put is in "compromising positions". While I respect and appreciate this position, have we really created two worlds for our students: the school and the non-school? Is it time to begin to build some solid bridges or, at least, some walkways between the two worlds?

Stephen Hurley

Leslie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One suggestion that I have for you about parent contact is buy a prepaid cell phone where you can purchase additional minutes as you need. Many parents work late, do not like to call the school, and you do not want them to have your personal number. With a prepaid cell phone, parents will feel like you care giving them a direct number to you. You may want to set up "office hours" and let parents know that you will only answer calls between six and nine.

I have also learned that when parents can be involved with a special event they will come in for their children. A colleague and I do a Thanksgiving Unit (we teach 2nd grade) every year. A local store donates turkeys and mashed potatoes, but we put out a request for parents to donate bread, vegatables, drinks, pies, and their time. For 37 students we have almost 20 parents in there to help serve. Once you get the parents in for something special, they will be more willing to come in at othertimes.

DeAnna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This was very interesting. I have never made a home visit; however, I have worked in a school where I was required to make 5 phone calls per week to parents. This ensured that I spoke to each family at least once a month. I was overwhelmed by this at first, but I grew to love it! I realized that I didn't have to contact a parent with something negative. I was able to use this time to get to know the background of my students as well as being able to give positive feedback to their parents. My parents grew to love this too! They looked forward to my phone calls and often let me know if it had been to long since the last one. I am thinking that parents would also like a home visit. My thinking is that they would really appreciate the fact that I took time away from my own family to visit their family. Maybe I will have to start making some visits.

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