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Let’s Invite Parents and Families Into “The Room Where It Happens”

By Aaron Butler, PhD

October 9, 2020

Do parents and families in your school or district ever feel like Aaron Burr? Maybe they feel like Alexander Hamilton? How do you know? Or maybe a better follow-up question is: What do you mean? Like millions of people across the country, and the world really, I have enjoyed watching Hamilton: An American Musical both live and via online streaming. While watching it with my family this summer, plus enjoying multiple song performances by my kids, I began to wonder whether there was a lesson we could take away from this cultural phenomenon for dealing with our current times in education. Then, during the second act, it hit me. So much of what you deal with as a school or district leader involves parents and families who want to be made aware of what is going on and to have a voice in important decisions that affect their children and other students. No matter their race, religion, or socioeconomic status, parents and families want to make the school a better place for their children to learn and grow. They have a desire for their voice to be in “The Room Where It Happens.”

Many important decisions have been or will be made in classrooms, principals’ offices, and superintendents’ conference rooms, whether in person or virtually, this school year. I wonder how many parents and families feel like their voices are left out or not wanted in those rooms? Parents, families, teachers, and principals have always been under a great deal of stress, but 2020 has taken it to a new level. It seems like new challenges emerge every day without the existing ones having been resolved. So, what can you do as a school or district leader to ensure that your schools are meeting the needs of students in this virtual or hybrid world that we’ve found ourselves in? Well, you can start by finding some creative ways to bring parents and families into the rooms where it happens.

“It Must Be Nice to Have [Parents and Families] on Your Side”

The research has been clear throughout the years. When parents and families are actively engaged with schools, their students are more likely to attend regularly and achieve at higher levels. In other words, there are a lot of benefits to getting parents, families, and schools on the same side! For example, a recent federally funded study conducted by the American Institutes for Research showed promising results for the impact text messaging can have on improving student attendance. Other available research addresses the impact that school and family connections have on student achievement and health. However, just because the research is clear and consistent on the importance of engaging parents and families doesn’t mean that all schools and districts are doing it equitably and transparently.

Why is that the case? Well, if you are a school or district leader reading this article, you probably already know part of the reason. Effective parent and family engagement is hard work. It requires extra effort on the part of school leaders and teachers that often occurs outside the school day. It requires a commitment to seeking out the voices of historically underrepresented groups and families rather than settling for always hearing from the same people. It depends on the confidence, ability, and willingness of parents and families to build relationships, plan, coordinate, and participate in shared decision-making with teachers and administrators. Building consistent and effective family engagement requires full-time work often without dedicated staff having full-time hours to give.

You’re Going to Need a “Right Hand Man”

The long history of research on the positive impact of parent and family engagement on student achievement has led to overwhelming lists of activities for schools and parent teacher organizations to consider. If you feel like parent and family engagement is going well in your school and are looking to add a few new strategies, you may consider this summary of research-based strategies for family engagement from REL Mid-Atlantic. However, maybe you are like General Washington in the early days of the Revolutionary War and just trying to keep your head above water as your school has started virtual, hybrid, or in-person instruction this fall. Either way, I believe that every leader can enhance parent and family engagement without a lot of extra effort by considering three simple actions to make parents and families your “Right Hand Man” that can work in a virtual or in-person setting.

1. Invite Parents and Families to Participate on School-Based Teams and Committees

The beauty of this action is its simplicity in actually inviting parents and families into the rooms where it happens. It doesn’t cost any money and doesn’t require any extra time or additional meetings for school staff. Obviously, schools can’t realistically open all meetings up to include unlimited numbers of participants. However, including just one parent or guardian representative on relevant school-based teams would provide opportunities for their voices to contribute to collaborative decision-making and leadership. I also encourage you to prioritize an inclusive approach when extending these invitations and be an advocate for creating diverse teams and committees that reflect your student and family populations.

2. Engage in Authentic, Regular Two-Way Communication With Parents and Families

This action may require a little extra effort but can be accomplished by asking parents and families for their input and feedback. Many schools have mastered the art of parent and family communication through emails, newsletters, social media posts, and the good ol’ beginning of the school year Open House. However, most of these methods are still just one-way communication. They consist of the school sharing information about what happened or is going to happen with little or no opportunity for parents and families to ask questions, discuss concerns, or provide input on how to improve the learning environment for their students. School leaders can encourage their staff members to become active partners in their parent teacher organization meetings, schedule simple events like monthly Parent Cafes, send out simple quarterly online surveys, or even set a personal goal of talking to three parents or guardians per day at student drop-off or pick-up. Maybe your teachers engaged with parents and families in new ways when schools were unexpectedly closed in spring 2020 due to COVID-19. If so, how can they continue or improve upon those strategies? The initial steps you take don’t have to be elaborate, expensive, or even outside of your daily responsibilities in order to be effective.

3. Adopt a Family-Driven Perspective

Many schools have established a system that prioritizes student achievement, attendance, and other measures of accountability. Unfortunately, these systems typically view parents and families as external to the so-called real work that needs to be done to improve student achievement. When parents and families are viewed this way, it becomes easier to make excuses about why the first two actions I proposed aren’t possible or aren’t priorities. Fortunately, adopting a family-driven perspective is free for school leaders. It can begin by examining monthly activities to include a variety of events at times that are most convenient for families or inviting parents and families into discussion about their students early in the process so they can help troubleshoot or provide options for support. Adopting this type of perspective simply takes commitment from leaders who want to challenge themselves to explore new ways to create safe, equitable, and engaging schools.

“Not Throwing Away [Your] Shot”

The challenges that schools, parents, and families are facing this school year are unprecedented. Teachers, principals, and superintendents cannot address all these challenges and make all the necessary decisions alone. School and district leaders should follow the advice of Alexander Hamilton: be bold in these times and don’t throw away your shot to get creative in engaging with parents and families. Use this opportunity to lay a foundation for a safe, supportive learning environment where all parents, families, and students truly feel that their voices are welcome and valued. School and district leaders, don’t settle for the status quo that has too often left parents, families, teachers, and yourself asking “What’d I Miss”?

Aaron Butler, PhD, is the director of the Region 9 Comprehensive Center and a principal technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research. Dr. Butler has more than 20 years of experience supporting school improvement in public education and is a former teacher and administrator.

Photo courtesy of Pexels/Ketut Subiyanto.