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Essential Reads

 Woman reading Essential Reads

» A Culture that Engages Every Family, Steven M. Constantino, Ed.D.

» How to Revitalize Your School-Parent Compact, Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D.

» How Do You Know if You're Really Open to Partnership, Anne Henderson & Karen Mapp

»PTA--Gateway to Engagement, Advocacy, and Access, Meryl Ain, Ed.D.

» The Power of Asking-Instead of Telling, Jody McVittie, M.D.

» Empathy in Action, Rick Ackerly, Ed.M.

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Parent Engagement: Do you have a policy on that?

By Myrdin Thompson

Parent-MeetingAs parents we don't often rigidly define what "engagement" in our child's educational experience looks like. For some, parent engagement is making sure that their child has been fed, clothed, and made it to school on time. For others, being engaged means spending time in our child's school or classroom, attending a field trip, or volunteering to serve on a PTA/PTO/parent board or be the dedicated "band booster" fundraising officer. 

While many states and school districts have policies that encourage and support parents as partners in public education, there are some states that don't have a specific policy. Perhaps they aren't quite sure what "engagement" means either. According to Kentucky Revised Statutes, Chapter 158, Section 158.645 "[t]he General Assembly recognizes that public education involves shared responsibilities. State government, local communities, parents, students, and school employees must work together to create an efficient public school system. Parents and students must assist schools with efforts to assure student attendance, preparation for school, and involvement in learning. The cooperation of all is necessary to assure that desired outcomes are achieved..."

Shared responsibilities. Working together. Assist. Cooperate. If we break it down, it is about how parents and schools are part of a community of learning and their collaborative, respectful partnership would lead to student success. Right?

Unfortunately, far too many parents find that their school district supports parent engagement only in policy but not practice. A district can define "shared responsibility" in a variety of ways. Even "working together" can change as the job changes. And since parents aren't usually asked to contribute to the conversation about how they think about those terms, assistance and cooperation often doesn't occur. It's not because a parent isn't willing, it's just that they haven't been asked to assist or cooperate in a way that they feel is valuable and essential.

Certainly school leadership is quick to encourage and support an additional fundraiser when budgets get tight, but this doesn't create a sense of shared responsibilities about education, it creates a level of resentment and frustration. If a school's budget has been cut so has a parent's. And if we measure engagement by the amount of money a parent contributes to a school or extracurricular activity, then we lose the opportunity to connect with a parent as an educator.  Furthermore, while many of us understand the complexities of building cohesive partnerships, and that policy can help in this endeavor, there are still those who (perhaps with the best of intentions) create barriers to these important relationships.

Recently EdWeek reporter Michele Molnar wrote about pending legislation in Louisiana which would grade parent participation. While the policy intent may be to help facilitate shared responsibility, the effect may be that parents feel judged for their efforts (or lack thereof).

As we all know, policy without partnership and support is only worth the paper it is written on. While many school districts may have designated staff to help implement these policies, if school leadership doesn't support the policy, then the parents lose out.  Far too often there is a lack of clear communication between the members of our school communities which could lead to stronger, more successful students and schools. And I find that even my definitions of what "engagement" looks like changes depending on the situation or circumstance. If to one parent it may mean making sure that they had a place to sleep and were able to make sure their children didn't go to bed hungry. To another parent it is being able to attend a field trip or be a room parent. To another, it means attending a conference or a webinar and sharing that information with those who couldn't be there.

Larry Ferlazzo recently wrote a series of three articles for EdWeek about this topic, stating that " [S]imply put, parent involvement is often more of a "doing to," while engagement is a "doing with." With involvement, schools tend to lead with their mouth - generally telling parents what they should be doing. Engagement, on the other hand, has schools leading with their ears. By listening to parents' ideas and by eliciting from them what they have found works best with their children, we can develop a more genuine partnership that is helpful to young people."

How do we have these crucial conversations then? How do we start to break down barriers to this type of engagement when parents continually feel disconnected from education? Certainly one way is to rely on and support the parent group that exists within the school. Reach out to parents through their communication piece if possible. Attend those important parent group meetings. And talk with and listen to those parents who are in attendance. School board members and district leadership can do the same thing. For example, did a school board member or other school administrative staff recently attend America's Promise Grad Nation Summit? If so, would you know about it if you didn't ask? Why not host a "community coffee talk" about what was learned and how the district is going to apply that knowledge to our schools --the schools that our children attend. Where we are engaged in their learning opportunities?

Sharing is not difficult. We do it all the time on our social networking sites, telling all our friends about the movie we just saw, the book we just read, the dinner we just ate, and who we are rooting for in the Final Four during March Madness. We post videos, photos, and links to articles we've read. So if a district wants parents to be ‘authentically' engaged in education, then create an authentic relationship. Assist us so we can cooperate, collaborate, communicate, and create a school where all are productively participating in education.

That's a policy I think all of us can get behind.

Posted on March 31, 2012 by Myrdin Thompson

Myrdin Thompson has been a public school parent, volunteer and advocate since 2002. She is the Parenting Mom Congress delegate for Kentucky (2010), and also a United Nations Foundation Champion for [email protected] and was recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change. She writes about education and parenting/family engagement on her blog  and you can follow her on Twitter.  

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Tags: *Educational Policy, *School-Family Partnership, Building trust & respect, PTA - PTO


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