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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

Kimberly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Personally, I feel that there is a time to stop calling an unwilling parent when faced with a constant behavior problem in school. With the exception of serious behavior issues which could harm other students or teachers, I think the school needs to try to find a way to handle the issue. Behavior charts, discipline plans, reward charts, and/or reflection exercises are all be ways that the issues can be handled at school. Some students need that extra structure with definite rewards and consequences. Calling parents and hoping they will fix the problem from their end is just not enough anymore.

Kristin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I currently teach fifth grade. My partner and I believe parent communication is vital to the success of our students. Each week, we send home a Friday letter, which is in the form of a newsletter with different headings and topics about all of the things that we are going to be doing in the upcoming week. We also include a calendar with due dates of important projects, and anything else that may be taking place on our team.

We also email all of our parents before a major test. In the email, we include the study guide that was given to the students. After each test is graded and passed back to the students, they have two days to get the test signed by their parents. This ensures that our parents are not shocked when grades go out.

In addition, each Friday, my partner and I have "Positive Phone Call Friday". During our planning period, we call the parents of four children who have done something extremely positive throughout the week. Parents have responded so well to this! It seems that it is refreshing to receive positive news when the teacher calls.

Laura Hildebrand's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have always worked in the Lutheran school system. Home visits have been part of the back to school regimen and although it makes for a long couple of days, the value is high. When you enter a student's home, you get to see many things that you wouldn't normally see in the classroom. Family background, interests, and style to mention a few. For the shy child seeing you on their "turf" can bring an openness and comfort level which may help them develop trust.

I really like the level of parent intereaction that Stephen has set up at his school. I think it is important to remember that we need to let parents know the positive things their children are involved in. Too often we wait for things to sour before we call home. The Friday phone calls may be timely, but it sounds as though they are worth it. I have always tried to draw a couple of my student's names each week and truly focus on them and their progress. Adding a positive phone call home would enhance that experience.

Richard McKee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am excited by this discussion and hope to take some of the suggestions back to my school. For many years now, my elementary school has suffered from poor parental involvement and poor relations with the school. We recently received a new Principal and nearly a whole new teaching staff. One of the district programs that has been put into place is for the school to demonstrate an effort to increase parental involvement. Yet it has been difficult. Many of our parents are very hostile to the teachers and the school. Many seem to feel that when their children are in school it is our problem to educate them and keep discipline. They do not understand that educators can not do it alone, that it has to be a team effort. What are some suggestions anyone may have on increasing parent buy-in and involvement in a school with issues that I have described above?

Nicole Krestel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 5th grade math and science, and I agree that homework is very important. Every child always needs practice in math. I have learned to not give a lot of homework because it doesn't get done and then I become frustrated when it is not complete. I feel that sometimes it wastes more time to assign it and go over it with the students that have completed it, because then I feel like I am answering double the questions the next day when the rest have completed it. The district that I teach in is very large, so we have a very diverse group of parents and amount of involvement. Sometimes I find myself giving less so that I don't become frustrated. It is the same group of kids each day that don't have homework done, and when you hear their home story, it is no wonder why it isn't done.

I do not grade homework all of the time, but each day i do check to see if it is done. At the end of the nine weeks, homework is put into a grade. This can either help some of them a little or some it does hurt their grade.

I would like to know how some people get all students to always complete homework.

Nicole Krestel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

teach 5th grade math and science, and I agree that homework is very important. Every child always needs practice in math. I have learned to not give a lot of homework because it doesn't get done and then I become frustrated when it is not complete. I feel that sometimes it wastes more time to assign it and go over it with the students that have completed it, because then I feel like I am answering double the questions the next day when the rest have completed it. The district that I teach in is very large, so we have a very diverse group of parents and amount of involvement. Sometimes I find myself giving less so that I don't become frustrated. It is the same group of kids each day that don't have homework done, and when you hear their home story, it is no wonder why it isn't done.

I do not grade homework all of the time, but each day i do check to see if it is done. At the end of the nine weeks, homework is put into a grade. This can either help some of them a little or some it does hurt their grade.

I would like to know how some people get all students to always complete homework.

Erica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is very interesting that you are required to make 5 phone calls a week. It seems like it must be time consuming, but I think it really is a good idea. This way you are constantly connected with the parents, and that leaves little room for confusion. Parents probaly like this too, because it provides a good time for them to voice any concerns that they may have. It also gives you the opportunity, like you said, to focus on the good things. Parent phone calls have been viewed for so long as a bad thing. Whenever a teacher calls home, they usually have bad news, and the child altimately gets in trouble. I currently am a substitute teacher, but when I have my own classroom I think that I will try to make several phone calls a week to touch base with parents.

Laura Goss's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have struggled with parent involvement since I've started teacher 4 years ago. The past two years at my school we have made a personal "good" phone call to each parent during the first month of school. This really helps open communication with parents. By simply calling and letting the parent know how well their child is doing in math, reading, behavior, etc. it sets a great tone with the parents. If problems arrive later on in the year parents are more willing to listen and work with you on the issues. I also have webpage on schoolnotes.com which allows me to post the skills we are working on each week.

Angie B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that making a positive contact with the parents at the beginning of the year is a great way to start the communication process with parents. The more positive communication with the parents, the easier it is to approach them when problems arise. In order to gain parental involvement, a friend of mine who teaches first grade gives the parents a grade for the child's homework. When the parents know they are the ones being held responsible, more of them are likely to help their children.

S. Hurley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

These "testimonies", as well as the frustrations around parent communication are really important. I just opened my email and found 2 messages from parents who wanted to let me know how much they appreciated the efforts to keep them informed about what was going on. I'm finding that if we can build a sense of connection with our parents, and build a sense of connection between our parents and what is happening in our classroom, then things run so much more smoothly.

I'm wondering whether those of you who have experienced positive communication building within your parent community are noticing improvements in student attitudes and achievement.

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