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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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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm highly inspired by this discussion. I have always wanted to increase the parent communication in my classroom, but wasn't sure of the route to go. Is this something that the entire school worked on? Or is it something that just the sixth grade did? Did the parents and the teachers begin discussions? What about the parents who aren't connected to the internet? Thanks!

S Hurley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi,

The arts@newman initiative on which I have embarked is a small-scale initiative that, this year, involves just one class of grade seven students. In planning the initiative, I have tried to involve parents as much as possible in both the initial and ongoing communication pieces. The parent meetings allowed me to lay a great deal of ground work with parents, and the web-based communication has enabled me to keep parents in the loop. In addition, a new spirit of two-way communication has emerged where parents can post questions, ideas and responses.

Parents who aren't connected to the Internet are reporting that they are able to send and receive emails to our site from their workplace.

We don't have 100% participation yet, but the participation that we do have is pretty rich and exciting!

I'm using the .Mac environment to develop my communication. I use iWeb to develop the blog pieces and iCal to publish my calendar items...its a really integrated piece, but I would love to hear about others.

Stephen Hurley

Alissa Russell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have tried repeatedly to get my parents involved but they are either too busy or not interested. I do not have current phone numbers for some of them. And, of course, these are also the ones that do not attend th eparent meeting. Do you have any suggestions on how I can reach these parents and get them involved?

S. Hurley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would love to hear other comments about the subject of parent involvement. A couple of thoughts:

I have had years where it seems like I have been isolated from my parent community...years where it was difficult to get parents (and kids) excited about anything that was happening. Other years, it has been just the opposite, with parents at my classroom door every other day.

This year the successes I have had have come from being proactive and from trying things that I've never tried before. For me, the email and website options have really worked quite well. I have posted most of the handouts, newsletters and assignment updates that would normally be left at the bottom of student knapsacks.

For some, however, union recommendations, and technological limitations may make this option impractical.

I'll make one suggestion and look for others to respond with what has worked for them.

What about a letter home at the beginning of each term. Instead of sending it home with students, why not put it in the mail? The letter could introduce you as their child's teacher, outline plans for the term, or even invite them to attend an open house or PTA meeting! I'm thinking that something actually sent to parent homes might be a good start. A follow-up phone call could help a great deal as well.

I'll post this and see what ideas others have!

Stephen Hurley

Joan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Keeping parents involved in their child's education should be a top priority. I email parents weekly with my teaching goals for the week and also include dates for upcoming projects, events, etc.

On occasion, I will ask parents to respond to a certain question in my weekly update and let them know it is worth a treat, bonus point, or whatever other incentive I know would be important to their children. It's amazing how this inspires children to remind their parents to read the email.

I'm fortunate that most of my parents have access to the Internet. I still make hard copies of my updates for those who don't and offer the same incentives. Unfortunately, my responses from them are less frequent.

Thanks for your website suggestions.

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