Professional Learning

Doing More Than Involving Parents

September 15, 2010

I was recently asked to talk about the difference between parent engagement and parent involvement in public schools. Thanks to the extremely talented Larry Ferlazzo, I had some excellent answers.

Here are his words:

"When schools involve parents they are leading with their institutional self-interest and desires -- school staff are leading with their mouths. When schools engage parents they are leading with the parents' self-interests (their wants and dreams) in an effort to develop a genuine partnership. In this instance, school staff are leading with their ears.

When we're involving parents, the parent is generally directed towards completing tasks selected by the school staff -- or the parent may be a client who receives services and information.

When we're engaging parents, the parent is considered a leader or a potential leader who is integral to identifying a vision and goals. He/she encourages others to contribute their own vision to that big picture and helps perform the tasks that need to be achieved in order to reach those goals."

Of course, as Mr. Ferlazzo points out, parent involvement is not bad. It's just that sometimes engagement is better. And as with everything in education, this is not an "either/or" -- all districts/schools/teachers/parents can do both at different times.

But the question that followed in my conversation, and that often follows in these types of discussions, is what does parent engagement look like?

There is no one answer to that question. Parent engagement looks different in high schools than in elementary schools. It looks different in schools serving large populations of English learners than in schools serving mainly native English speakers. And so on. Schools have to meet parents where they are.

Engaging Conferences

Take Washington's Granger High School, where over 88 percent of students receive free or reduced price meals (more than double the state average) and over 12 percent are identified as migrant (more than six times the state average). In the past, on parent-teacher conference day teachers would sit in the gym. Parents would line up and try to talk to the teachers, getting in maybe five minutes. Just enough time for a teacher to say, "Your child is struggling in math. Help him. Next parent, please."

Not surprisingly, few parents at Granger came to these conferences. But under former principal Ricardo LeBlanc-Esparza, and continuing under current principal Paul Chartrand, the school developed a new model. Today, the school schedules individual appointments for each parent-twice a year, just like the dentist. These appointments are private, and the student comes too. So the parent, educator and student have private time to talk about what is going on with the student and to develop a strategy to help him or her improve -- a strategy that all three (parent, student, teacher) truly have a stake in.

Since the school moved to this model several years ago, parent participation in conferences has steadily increased. This school has had one hundred percent participation in parent-teacher conferences for several years in a row. And thanks in part to increasing parental engagement and awareness, the school now has on-time and extended graduation rates exceeding those of the state as a whole, despite serving a population that is significantly more disadvantaged.

Book Clubs

Pennsylvania's Caley Elementary School also engages parents, thanks to part to the work of School Counselor of the Year Barbara Micucci. Take the principal-counselor-parent book club she runs -- a club that does more than just read.

This group studies issues relevant to their school and takes action based on what they learn. For example, the book club (all moms) looked to Raising Cain to learn more about the social and emotional development of boys. After reading about the importance of male role models, parents and educators worked together to create "Boys Night Out." Boys got to bring one significant male -- dad, step dad, grandfather, uncle, coach, whomever -- to the school for an evening of activities designed with their interests in mind.

Based on the success of this program, the school is launching Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students) to try to get more dads involved in their kids' education.

These are just two examples of how educators across the country are truly engaging parents -- there are others in every state. If you are looking for ways to get started in your school, the PTA has a number of resources available to help you do so.

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