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Engagement is in the Eye of the Beholder

By Myrdin Thompson

A recent video has hit the family engagement circuit "Shake You Down (The Association Song, aka the PTA Rap)." While a tongue-in-cheek look at the PTA, the sad truth is that this is often the public perception of the PTA (or other school parent/family groups) when for those involved in these groups it is actually about advocacy. Far too often due to a lack of funds (due to budget cuts), these parent groups are asked to raise more to fund for things that they technically shouldn't be funding (text books, teacher salary, etc). Instead of "shaking down" the local sushi restaurant, these parents should be at their state capitol speaking to their elected leaders.

Which actually brings me to the point of this article, why is fundraising seen as "acceptable" parent engagement behavior, but advocacy (a la the Maggie  Gyllenhal character in "Won't Back Down") seen as adversarial and disruptive? As someone who has been involved at a variety of levels within the PTA, and who is an active member of Mom Congress, I have often written about how this over-reliance on supplementary family funding for a public school education can create a level of resentment which can cause burnout, disharmony, and a general indifference by those who are asked to either run the fundraiser or those who are being asked to support the fundraiser.

This is why as an advocate for positive family engagement in education I urge those that I know to learn more about how our schools are funded, who makes those decisions, and how we can better advocate for that funding thus making a more substantial difference than just buying a roll of wrapping paper or a coupon book.

We do this by

  • Being a volunteer. Offer to participate in a school's Site Based Management Board (committee/council) or whatever moniker it is entitled. Doing this gives a one a better understanding how a school has to spend it's funds, and why they then turn to the existing parent group to perhaps supplement (or out right fund altogether) where there are deficits. 

  • Being a voter. Voting for school board members who we feel best understand the relationship and partnership that must exist between our school, families, and community. If our board member isn't running, we still need to connect with them to see what their vision is for the schools in our community. Furthermore, we need to know where all the potential candidates stand when it comes to teacher evaluation, assessments, curriculum, programs, funding, and how important they believe that school to home relationship is, or should be. Sometimes we disconnect from an election because we don't have our board member running. However, someone (or several someones) will be elected. It's important to know where all the candidates stand on all the issues, as one of these people will be part of a board making decisions for ALL the children in the district, not just those that live in their district. So read about the candidates. Attend debates. Ask questions. And most importantly, vote. 
  • Being a voice. We must speak out. Whether in a humorous way as this group did, or by responding to action alerts, or by posting links to information, or by writing a blog. We must become educated about the process of education. Be must be willing to acknowledge where gaps in our knowledge exist and ask for assistance to fill those gaps. And most importantly, if we have knowledge and understanding we must share it with others. 

As Joyce Epstein states in her book School, Family, and Community Partnerships, "the ebb and flow (or flow and ebb) of policies and practices may encourage or prevent the development of permanent partnership programs" (360).  The very nature of our education system creates this catch-22: we want parents (families) to be involved but have often created policies which inhibit this involvement so we create more policies to encourage parent (family) involvement which gets parents involved, then leadership changes and different policies are created...and confusion follows. And out of this confusion, parents often just...fill the role they are assigned: that of the fundraising arm of the school. A role that they don't necessarily want, or a role that the community gives any respect too, but a role that they do to the best of their abilities under the most difficult of circumstances. A role that is critical and provides support most importantly to the students in a school. A role that keeps the wheels on that bus rolling round and round. 

But we have the power to drive that bus to a different destination, one where instead of seeing those parents who do speak out as adversarial, we see them as essential allies in a community of care and learning, where everyone creates and understands the policy, where everyone is respected, and where parents don't have to shake anyone down for any reason, except at the graduation dance where they are celebrating student success and achievement.

Posted on October 13, 2012 by Myrdin Thompson

Myrdin is the Regional Director (Central States) of the National Family Engagement Alliance. She was recognized in 2011 as a White House Champion of Change (Parents on Education), and is currently a volunteer advocate for the United Nations Foundation [email protected] program, a group leader for RESULTS, and writes about local/global community sustainability, social good, and education on her blog "Roots and Wings." She can be found on twitter at @MyrdinJT. 

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