Home Work: Getting Parents to Buy Into Radical Reform
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!