STRENGTHENING Family-School Partnerships

09/28/2018
Let’s talk!
By Jim Accomando
 

When my children started elementary school, my wife and I wanted to make sure their school had all the tools and resources needed to help them and their classmates succeed.

We didn’t have all the answers and needed guidance in navigating the school community to help meet the individual needs of each of our children.

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We face some challenges in engaging the new generation of parents into our school community. Family demographics have changed, and family schedules are complex and busy, so parents and guardians must strategically choose what’s best.

That was the beginning of our family’s 20-year partnership with teachers, administrators and other parents — as well as community leaders — that over time grew strong through genuine relationships and honest communication. And I became THE PTA DAD, helping other parents cultivate relationships to meet the needs of their child, school, county and state.

“There is no partnership more formidable than that between parents and educators,” PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger once shared with PTA members. “Your voice and your leadership are vital to our country’s ability to prepare the next generation for the opportunities and challenges ahead.”

Over 40 years of research shows that when families are active in their child’s school activities and learning, students are more likely to:

  • Attend school regularly
  • Earn better grades
  • Enroll in higher-level programs, and eventually ...
  • Finish school and graduate!

Research also shows that family engagement is also essential for school turnarounds. When it comes to school improvement efforts, active families are just as important as having a great principal and teachers, strong curriculum and a positive school climate.

While parents and families need to be active participants in the education of their children, schools need to facilitate a welcoming environment, foster clear communication and involve parents in the decision-making process. It’s a shared effort.

Every school year, educators and PTAs across the country work with families in their communities to help our nation’s children learn and grow to their full potential.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 “Parenting in America” report, over 85 percent of parents with school-age children said they talked to a teacher about their children’s academic progress in the 12 months prior to the survey.

But was it effective communication where everyone’s needs were heard and understood? Did those parents leave the discussions feeling empowered and able to help their child?

We face some challenges in engaging the new generation of parents into our school community. Family demographics have changed, and family schedules are complex and busy, so parents and guardians must strategically choose what’s best.

Over half (54 percent) of the parents in the Pew survey said they can never be too involved when it comes to their children’s education, and 46 percent said they wish they could do more.

The challenge for many parents, however, is figuring out what they can do and knowing the most effective ways to get involved. That’s why our communication with families should be clear, collaborative and purposeful.

In building strong family-school partnerships, the mission of our communication is to enhance learning opportunities and inspire student progress and success.

Here are three proven ways to strengthen family-school partnerships.

Establish Your Brand
of Communication

During the “getting to know you” phase, it is essential that parents and educators keep in touch often. Early, regular, two-way, meaningful communication is critical and will help build trust and demonstrate the value of a supportive school community.

Parents can share knowledge and information that will help teachers and administrators get to know their children as individuals and support their growth and achievement. Teachers and administrators can provide parents with tools and resources to support their children at home, as well as outside learning opportunities for their children and information on ways for parents to get involved.

According to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation’s 2017 report, “How Family School, and Community Engagement Can Improve Student Achievement and Influence School Reform,” several studies show that increased communication efforts with families can have a positive impact on school success and student outcomes.

Specifically, school outreach such as PTA and student meetings, teacher communications and reports, and family invites to school events had a positive impact on a student’s reading and math achievement. The report also found that grades, behavior problems and student motivation and participation also improved.

Mandy Manning, 2018 Teacher of the Year, teaches students who are immigrants and refugees. She uses home visits to lay the foundation for parents to trust her and reach out for support during the school year.

“Home visits allow me to see a whole other side of my kids and their families,” said Manning. “We all have the well-being of their child in common, and that is a great place to begin any relationship with a parent.”

  • Freely share with parents the online systems, portals or apps your school is using. Make sure they know how to access these tools and use them to track their child’s progress and ensure they are receiving the right supports.
  • Make messages to parents easy to digest. Most parents do not know specific education and child development terminology, but they are experts on their children. Explain educational jargon in simple terms — because you can bet the parent is thinking, “How does this affect my child and what can I do?”
  • Keep your communication short and use bullets or sub-headlines to break down content. When appropriate, strive to be fun, inspirational and informative — and always include a call to action to foster interaction.
  • Translate materials to reach all families. If possible, translate your messages into at least one of the most popular languages in the school community. Although it takes time and resources, doing this demonstrates a commitment to making sure all parents and families have the information they need to support their child’s learning and development.

Harness the Power of Technology — Strategically

Technology provides important opportunities for families, teachers and school staff to engage in regular and meaningful communication about a child’s strengths, challenges and growth.

A lot of communication between families and schools is via email, text, apps, social media and even video conference. The key to success is to know your families and how they collectively and individually prefer to receive and share information.

While updates and school news can be shared on Facebook and sent via text message with positive response, some of the same parents may not be as responsive to the same information when you send it through email or post it to the parent portal. Knowing the difference can empower parents to best support their child throughout the school year.

  • Invite families to participate through a variety of communications channels, so they are aware of how they can get involved. Findings of a study on “Using Technology to Increase Parent Involvement in School” showed that parents of students in fourth through sixth grades demonstrated a positive perception of technology use to improve family engagement at the school, depending on the type of information being shared. Emails, phone messages or fliers were preferred for information exchanges that involve quick updates or yes/no questions. Phone calls or in-person communications were preferred for discussions about student performance or behavior.
  • Engage parents through social media. Use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to deliver news and important updates, share pictures and encourage parent engagement. Be fun and informative with live announcements, an interactive Question of the Day, inspirational quotes, coupons/deals, and blog posts and news articles.
  • While technology provides great opportunities for family involvement and parent-school communication, it can be a barrier to engagement. For example, a large number of portals and apps require parents to register and save passwords repeatedly, frustrating the parent until they stop using them. Equally frustrating, some systems are not mobile-friendly. These factors can be a hindrance for parents. Evaluate and eliminate such barriers to increase access to and use of technology among families.

Share Power: Include Parents
in the Decision-Making Process

Parents and their children are the consumers of our nation’s public education system, yet they haven’t always been included at the decision-making table. This has caused confusion, mistrust and backlash when new initiatives are considered and implemented at the local, district, state and federal level.

Families play an important role in helping students navigate educational and career decisions and are influential in shaping students’ perceptions of what is possible for their futures. Gain valuable support for your initiatives by building a culture of inclusion, where families have a seat at the table and the opportunity to provide input on decisions that impact their children and schools.

  • Ensure that in these meetings the families at the table represent the entire school community, with parents from all neighborhoods to promote access and diversity. Together, you can inform, influence and create policies, practices and programs.
  • Create the appropriate channels for parents to provide regular feedback, and make sure education decision makers listen when parents share their thoughts. When all voices are heard and valued, it increases engagement and consensus.
  • While it may be easy avoid real or perceived conflict, face it head on. As PTA mom Jennifer Steiner shared, “The beautiful thing about investing in a genuine relationship with the school is that when you have to ask hard questions or raise concerns, it’s coming from a position of partnership.”

As you apply these strategies, remember family-school relationships are cultivated and sustained over time. And don’t be afraid to create relationships with community members who may not be a traditional part of the education system, but have a lot to offer our students, teachers, families and schools.

Jim Accomando is president of National PTA, the nation’s oldest and largest volunteer child advocacy association. He is the parent of two public school educated children and the husband of a public school teacher.
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Issue 20.2 | Fall 2018

          Arkansas State University