My first month teaching, I peeked in on the first parent meeting of the year, and a lone parent sat listening to the presentation. There were over 500 students in the school.
Eight years later, over 300 families attended that meeting. Our biggest challenge had been getting parents—who often didn’t like school themselves—to see us as a loving and supportive community, so we deliberately fostered an environment in which families could feel comfortable. If a serious discussion about a student was needed, it was saved for a different time—the larger gatherings were about community.
Over the course of those eight years, my Title 1 school went from being one of the lowest performing in the state to one of the highest performing in the country. Parent participation led to better attendance, more school-home communication, increased parent-requested meetings about academic support, and more homework completed and returned. Parents became more willing to help their kids read and practice math at home when they felt they understood the content.
The results: 100 percent of third and fourth graders and 98 percent of fifth graders met or exceeded proficiency standards in reading, and 98 percent of each group met or exceeded proficiency standards in math within the first five years that changes were implemented.
Students spend about half of their waking hours outside the classroom. Research indicates that parental involvement is directly linked to academic achievement. Teachers know it too. In a Scholastic survey, 98 percent of teachers cited family involvement and support as key to student success.
Impactful Parent Engagement
Many schools are successful at family involvement—the whole-school, fun activities that encourage participation and low-stakes commitment. Where they may struggle is in active engagement that is classroom-based and linked to learning.
At our school, this meant parents in their child’s classroom, participating in the same kinds of learning and activities their students did in school, and reading and understanding data about their children. In the same way we want students to know and take ownership of their learning, we need parents to be actively working on the same skills alongside their children.
Every community is unique, but there are some guiding principles that can help engage families no matter the situation.
Strategies to Engage Parents
Bang for your buck: If you truly want to build academic achievement through involving families, inviting parents to every last parade and class party isn’t going to cut it. Pare down events and make them meaningful and focused for the best chance at change. Consider how to add meaning to events parents want to and already attend, like student performances. Something that has historically been fun, like a Halloween parade, can now include math games in the classroom with a monster theme. Parents come for the parade and get math practice to boot.
Focus on key ideas areas in involving parents. We needed every student reading fluently on grade level and knowing basic math facts. After those were firmly in place, we shared skills like questioning for comprehension and tying math to everyday life.
Planning: Timing is key. If you have an event in December, when families and teachers are busy and stressed, you’ll get less attendance and focus than you would in April.
Keep an eye on community events as well. If your community has youth group events at the church on Wednesday nights, fewer people will attend a Wednesday night school event. If you’re a football town, Friday evenings in fall are going to be booked.
Timing: Many of our families worked shifts, and planning events near the start or end of shift times was most convenient. If most of your families work professional jobs, school-day events are not likely to draw a crowd. In our neighborhood, parents didn’t have transportation and needed to walk to the school, so all events needed to conclude before it got dark. We found great success holding events from 4 to 6 p.m.—teachers could stay after school, parents could come right from work, and everyone was home for dinner.
Themes: We created themed events built around academics that had a fun twist. For example, weeks before our circus night, teachers began teaching standards through a circus theme. My class read the history of Barnum and Bailey as a close reading passage, we did math with circus concessions, and we studied circus animals. Circus-themed work lined the halls, creating a fun and inviting environment while focusing on academics. The week of the event, kid circus performers taught balance and juggling to students during physical education.
In short, we kept working on academics while building interest and hype among the students. They insisted on coming to circus night, where academic skills were shared with parents as well. Football, financial literacy, and monsters in October were other popular themes.
Food: We needed to feed families when we carved into their evenings, so we provided boxed spaghetti dinners. Families got a ticket for visiting classrooms that could be exchanged for the dinners. The boxes meant no teachers were left cleaning up at the end of the night and cafeteria staff could help with the prep, getting boxes ready before leaving for the day.
Community partners, including the power company and local banks, provided funds for food. Working with the cafeteria staff, we were able to produce a large number of meals for a cost similar to school breakfast or lunch. Many businesses work on family partnership and community outreach—sometimes all you have to do is ask.
Family engagement can be a challenge, but it also offers an incredible opportunity to drive student success as a community, so it can’t be overlooked.