George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Doing More Than Involving Parents

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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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Comments (26) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

JP's picture

I was really intrigued by the suggestion about "engaging" type of Parent-Teacher Conferences, and the success rate at 100% for attendance. I have been really looking for a new way to conduct conferences to get more attendace from parents. We have been struggling with getting parent participation at Parent-Teacher Conferences. We need a new avenue to share that information about students in our classroom, and this post gave a great suggestion. I also like the idea of thinking of parent invovlement as more than just that, it is finding ways and opportunities for parent engagement. We talk in proffesional learning communities, staff development settings about finding new ways to engage students, this gave some great perspectives on ways to engage our parents.

On the topic of Parent-Teacher Conferences, I am all ears for ideas on what other school systems do for their middle school level conferences. Any suggestions or ideas would be great to hear.

C.S.'s picture

Since parents are the first and most important teachers of their child, we need to utilize their knowledge. Just as you mentioned, "we need to meet parents where they are." As a special education teacher, it is my goal to meet students where they are, address strengths and weaknesses, and then move them forward and upward. I involve parents in IEP meetings and stay in contact with parents, but your article made me question whether or not I was "engaging" parents. I had not really thought of the difference in involvement and engagement. I am currently working on a project that addresses declining parental participation at IEP meetings within my school and district. I am concerned that we are not doing enough to get parents into our school and engaged in their child's education. I like the ideas you found, and I especially feel that parent conferences are important. I am working on initiating student-led IEP meetings, because we have student-led parent-teacher conferences that are a great success. I think often when the student is not included in meetings, the parents have less desire to become involved. By asking the students to be involved, we are not only engaging them and giving them ownership of their education, but we are encouraging parents to become actively engaged in the process as well. One great tool that we often overlook is the power of the parent, and this parent-teacher relationship should be established early in the year and maintained throughout.

Eric's picture

Both parental involvement and parental engagement have to do with the positive social change in their child's school, but it is like comparing the schooling a child must do to the learning that takes place. By schooling I am referring to the "work" that needs to be done around a classroom. Some parents just want to do the minimum and only apply themselves when they are asked or even nudged a bit. Other parents want to be involved all the time and be a large factor in the education of their children. I think if we utilize the devotion and drive from the engaged parents and use the involved parents to fill positions and have warm bodies at events, the team would run smoother.

Denise Littman's picture
Denise Littman
Student in master's degree program

Fantastic idea to have the student present at a parent-teacher conference. Many issues can be resolved if the student is there to participate.

The Watch DOGS program is fantastic in theory. There is a great need for male role models, particularly in elementary school where a large majority of teachers are female. The issue I have with it is that there are no background checks or classes that the fathers need to go through in order to participate. They just sign up, buy a shirt, and are free to roam the halls of the schools. Last year at a neighborhood school, there was an incident with a father who was using the boys bathroom (not the adult bathroom). A class of 2nd graders walked in to see this man standing at the urinal. Misunderstanding, I'm sure...but it could be a scary situation.

As far as parental engagement is concerned, I think parents need to be presented with specific ways to be involved in the school. Teachers may have to schedule a conference before school or after school to accomodate a parent's schedule. Phone conferences are another alternative. Although it will never be as effective as a face-to-face meeting, it may be the only option for people.

J Recchio's picture

This is a great blog. We are always wanting parents be a part of the school community. This blog makes a very good point about engaging parents. We work everyday to try engage our students in their learning knowing that if they are engaged they will take more ownership in their learning. So, it makes total sense to do this with our school community parents. Very interesting take on parent involvement vs. parent engagement.

Tracey's picture

I had never considered the difference between involvement and engagement. The examples you listed were great examples of how to better engage your parent population in order meet their needs. With this model, as you stated, parents are leaders or potential leaders who are integral in identifying a vision and goals for the school. 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."

Our school is very similar to the ones mentioned in your posting (low income, high percentage of students receiving free and reduced meals, high transiency). We have family days/nights were students invite any member of their family or someone who is special to them (like a coach, mentor, etc...) to play games related to reading or math. We also have a Watch DOGS (Dad of Great Students) program were our dads or male role models visit our school weekly; eating lunch with the students, being "heroes in the hallways", and visiting classrooms to talk about character education focus words like respect, perseverance, honesty, responsibility, and cooperation.

Thank you for opening my mind to the difference between involving our parents and engaging them. This something I will definitely share with our parent involvement committee.

Tracey's picture

I agree, Denise,it can be a concern to have adults who may not be the best role models "roaming the halls" of our schools. Our school also put Watch DOGS into place last yera and as part of this we have a class for our fathers or male role model. When have completed the course they sign a contract. We also have 3 members of our leadership team who are continuously roaming the halls as well to make sure great things are happening with our visitors and our students. If not, they simply intervene and escort them to the office or out of the building.

I agree with your point about accomodating parent's schedules. With the hard economic times facing many of our familes we must be aware that their time is precious as they may be working extra hours or additional jobs to make ends meet. This inturn makes it difficult for our parents to make it to school functions. I have been reading articles on this very topic and have found the following idea intriquing. Incorporating technology as a tool to conference with parents. With this in mind, I was considering videoing our back to school night presentations and uploading them onto our school website so students, parents, and guardians can view (or review) key information they might need to know about our class and how it functions. I also considered asking parents if they would like a phone call (what time), a note, a text message, or an email. WIth the increased use of smartphones and texting, many parents may choose a text instead of phone call. Do you have any suggestions for ways a classroom teacher could help actively engage their parents?

Ms. Lourdes's picture
Ms. Lourdes
Preschool Teacher

One of the best ways to create a "Professional Learning Communities"
is integrating parents. Many parents approach me and ask me that how I can help? or Can I involve me or get closer to school?. Many of them do not want to be just informed about the decisions of the school also want to participate, this is a good sign to start a permanent dialogue with parents and involve them in our activities and to be part of our school community. Invite parents to actively participate and listen to their views is important. Many of them have good ideas, experiences and perspectives that might be useful to the school and our community. I'm sure that once parents are involved and especially when they know more about the daily task of the teacher, we will have a good ally and an effective support at home.

senegal's picture

While I agree that having the ideal professional community would intergate parents, at our school we are having diffculty getting parents involved and taking leadership roles. I work at a school where the students have free or reduced lunch. People move in and out of the community frequently. We are running out of ideas on how to involve parents and keep them engaged through the school year. Over the years we have tried having dinners during PTA night to encourage parent to stay for the meeting. We have tried clothing drives. Parental support is short lived. Any ideas?

Ms. Deames's picture

When parents are more involved in the school, the students have more connection to what they are learning. Therefore, student achievement and success will rise. My school has struggled in the past to get parents to get involved. We have a high percentage of students who receive free or reduced lunch. We would have parent nights and provide free meals, but still would have limited participation. Then, a few years back we had a Title 1 Parent Night and our halls were packed. Each teacher took three learning stations from their classroom and had students lead learning centers in the hallway. They were stations that our student already do, so we did not have to create anything new. It was amazing the parent participation that occurred. It has now become an anticipated event for parents and students.

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