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8 Ways to Encourage Family Engagement in Secondary Schools

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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We cannot have a serious talk about student achievement without having a serious talk about engaging our students' families. But this talk needs to go beyond the movie night or spring carnival. It must be about creating an environment where all families feel embraced by a school's culture, not just invited to attend its events.

Many times there's a tapering off of family engagement between elementary school and the secondary levels. Some of that is due to the teachers themselves. It's as if once we don't have holiday parties to organize, we don't seem to reach out as often to our students' families.

Some of it is also due to the families themselves. Maybe they represent a minority group in the school, a fact that can be intimidating for both the students and their parents. Maybe they themselves don't have a high level of schooling, and are not totally comfortable in a school environment. They might also be experimenting with backing away from their student. However, there's a fine line between encouraging independence and disengaging from the school all together.

And some of it is also due to a school's lack of effort in actively reaching out to all families, not just equitably, but with determination.

Why It's so Vital

We all know the impact that a school and its teachers can have on a student's growth. However, as stated by The U.S. Department of Education, "Raising the next generation is a shared responsibility. When families, communities, and schools work together, students are more successful and the entire community benefits."

If a school makes the decision to actively engage its diverse community of families, the possible benefits far outweigh the effort. According to DropOutPrevention.org, studies show that with more family engagement:

  • There is greater student achievement.
  • Student attendance is higher.
  • Graduation rates are higher.
  • Alcohol abuse is lower.
  • Students from diverse backgrounds and who are farthest behind benefit.

So how does a school walk this tightrope of asking for age-appropriate involvement? It all begins with communication.

Taking Action: Family Engagement

Earlier this year, I spoke to educational consultant Lisa Dabbs about family engagement, primarily for our non-English speakers and underserved demographics. Our conversation spoke of the need for schools to reach out, not just fairly, but in a determined way. It isn't just about ensuring a family has the opportunity to learn about the school; it's about ensuring we are doing everything we can to encourage those conversations to happen.

Dabbs and I spoke for a while on the topic, and I've boiled down some of our discussion into eight ways to engage our families.

1. Engage Families in Their Elementary School First

Secondary schools tend to have larger gatherings, and this can be intimidating to many families who aren't already actively involved in a school. Seed the transition between elementary and middle school by having administration visit the elementary sites with PTA parents in tow. A multilingual PTA parent can help translate during an informal meeting or be available for breakouts after a larger gathering.

2. Create a Parent Advocacy Group

Identify parents who speak particular languages and help train them in facts about the school. Perhaps those parents are given a badge of sorts to identify them as go-to parent leaders. See if any of these willing parents would host an informal Coffee with the Principal event in their home. Ensure that there are some parent leaders that share the demographic of those who are least engaged.

3. Take School Information on the Road

Find out the churches or community centers where groups of families congregate. See if that location can host a meet-and-greet with admin and parent leaders. Meet families where they are rather than expecting them to always come to the school. For many of our families, the school environment can be a scary place. Help them get to know the players in the school, and the school site itself might become more comfortable in the future.

4. Utilize Your Local Businesses

Ask to set up and maintain a bulletin board in local markets, bakeries, and restaurants. Advertise an upcoming event or celebrate a student's accomplishments.

5. Find Out What Your Families Need

Conduct a needs assessment (available in different languages) during registration. Set up a station of computers manned by student or parent leaders to help family members set up email accounts if they don't already have them. Have them fill out a quick survey asking how they would like to best be reached throughout the school year and what concerns them the most. Have these topics become the themes for Coffee with the Principal get-togethers.

6. Reach Out to Families Just to Build a Relationship

So many times we reach out to families because of discipline issues, but a little proactive positivity can go a long way in building trust and comfort between a parent and school.

7. Provide Trainings

Schools can help ensure that families know how to access information online. Host a night where the school website is introduced. Demonstrate Google Translate to model how a web page can be easily translated. Embed student-hosted videos on the school website that are in different languages. These can be clicked on for reminders of where to find staff contact numbers, event information, and homework pages.

8. Host an EdCamp for Parents

Host an un-conference for parents that can involve staff, and even students, as well. Use topics that are developed by the parents based on the earlier needs assessment or on-the-spot surveys of questions and interests. It's vital that families feel their input is heard and that they are able to take part in developing their school's culture.

We know that in every school there are the families who will always be involved and there are those who, for whatever reason, might not be. The school, however, can no longer be a part of the reason for this split. Reach out in any way they need.

How do you encourage engagement from your families? Please share in the comments below.

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

Heather...I think one of the largest problems is how parents are engaged in the early years. Too often, parents are kept out of the buildings/conversations unless they are discussing fundraisers, events, parties. For those not part of "the in crowd" it can be so intimidating to walk into an event. Bringing the meetings and such to a place they are comfortable (we've gone to several places in our community such as the mosque), and then livestreaming our PTO meetings is a big help.

By the time parents get to MS, those who have been actively participating, are often burned out. Add to that that there are fewer opps for parties/fundraisers/volunteering, now they don't know if or how to jump into the real conversations they need to be part of because they've never really been a part of them up to this point. Families being part of the learning needs to be a culture that the district creates. It needs to happen from day one when a student steps into kindergarten (or earlier if possible).

One of the best things we did (in my opinon) at our middle school 3 years ago when my oldest started there was make each PTO meeting a resource. We bring in guest "experts" to lead discussions on topics that help us better support our children. Sometimes the experts are local businesses (say talking about saving for college in the early years), sometimes they're teachers (sharing tips on course selection or how technology is used in class), and sometimes it's students (talking social media use, or like our conversation last night, life in high school). We've hosted ParentCamp (www.parentcamp.org) in our district (or as you referred to it, educamp for parents). These monthly conversations mimic an Edcamp session - but occur more frequently than a ParentCamp event (and only take up an hour of one's time vs an entire Saturday morning).

Our final PTO meeting each year is hosted at the transitioning school (ES>>MS and MS>>HS) and includes students, parents and staff from the school to not only answer questions and provide insight, but also provide an opp for the incoming families to meet people before the new year in hopes it makes them a bit more comfortable.

One thing I would add to this is to provide a window into the classroom/school/learning/meetings for families through use of technology/social media. The more the school/staff can share with families the better. How our children are learning today often doesn't look like how we learned when we were in school (or it shouldn't). It is incredibly powerful to see a photo, video or statement (from a student) coming out of a classroom about what is happening. We, as parents, then have the ability to ask our children to tell us more...and ask the teachers and/or administrators questions. Something that is more difficult to do if we rely on our child telling us what they used, did or learned in class...or what is shared in a short 15 minute parent-teacher conference one or two times per year.

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert - Gawron
Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

Thanks for chiming in, Gwen!
I think schools don't realize how un-inviting school can be for those who aren't linguistically-inclined in the home language. I've also been told that parents get confused by middle school as to their role in the school itself. Many know they need to start backing away from their growing student, but that doesn't mean disappearing from the school-family relationship altogether. Schools have a role to play in helping families feel welcome in decision-making and helping to educate them in this transitional chapter that redefines how to advocate for one's child without fighting battles for them.

Thanks again for your voice!

-Heather

Lisa_MCcoy's picture
Lisa_MCcoy
Parent. Teacher. Budding Writer

An enlightening article! I believe parents support is essential in children's education and even more so when kids enter secondary schools. Time has come for schools to reach out to parents than just organizing parent teacher meetings.

Leigh's picture

If only all schools knew about tools like Livingtree. I can send out messages to all of my parents and it translates to everyone in their own language automatically. Everything can run from my phone so it is so easy!

Manuita's picture

Loved this article, except for the suggestion to use Google Translate to translate a webpage. Google Translate translations are for the most part worse than mediocre, particularly for an entire document or website. If a document is full of words in Spanish, but is incomprehensible, it's neither accessible nor equitable for monolingual Spanish speaking parents.

Patrice Klitz's picture
Patrice Klitz
Educator - English: Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening Grade 9

@screenteacher good article. I am learning that teachers and educators are not particularly familiar with keeping customers front and center to their work. In other businesses it is a no-brainer, you need to keep those relationships going and stay in front of clients as often as possible. This "marketing" or "P.R." is not trained in education and actually never considered important. Many teachers just wonder why they haven't heard from the parents. It is time to reach out to every parent. Google Classroom is an excellent tool because once your students have enrolled in the class, you can invite the parent/guardian in to watch their child's assignment, due dates, when turned in, and returned and grades. It is the most transparent way for parents to see everything pertaining to that class and their child.

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