Now is the time to seize the parent engagement moment


Colleen You

Well-informed, engaged parents make a vital difference in the health and education of children. When families, schools and communities work as partners, student achievement is boosted and children are better prepared to lead happy and productive lives.

With new academic standards, new tests and new funding and local accountability systems all underway in California, it’s more crucial than ever that parents engage, not only to support their own children’s education, but to help guide decision-making at their schools.

The new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) offers a historic opportunity to usher in a new era of greater parent and family engagement in our schools. This is an exciting time – a moment we all must seize to help all children succeed.

And yet, a recent EdSource poll showed 57 percent of parents with children in public schools are not aware of the new funding formula. This is not entirely surprising, since it takes some time for statewide initiatives to resonate locally – but it’s also a call to action. Simply adding a requirement in a law for more parent engagement is not enough. Engagement takes hard work, and it starts with getting the word out to make all parents aware of the new opportunity and importance of the new funding formula and the new Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) it requires.

As we work to make all parents aware of the new funding formula – and as school districts, educators and parents prepare to set goals and measurements for parent engagement – here are some key ideas to keep in mind, based on PTA’s extensive research and experience connecting parents and schools.

Parent and family engagement is an investment

There are no shortcuts to raising student achievement – or to successful parent and family engagement. It takes an investment of time and resources, and ongoing commitment.

Authentic engagement is much more than a one-time check-box on a form. It’s about building a culture at every school where parents and family members feel welcomed, respected and appreciated – a culture where information is freely shared and input is sought and genuinely considered. Many school districts are already doing excellent work to engage parents, but there is much more to do across the state, especially to reach parents from all school sites, all backgrounds and in all languages.

Teachers and principals are vital

Teachers are parents’ most important links to their schools. Any communications plan to reach parents which fails to include a role for teachers is an incomplete plan. Similarly, we know that the best outreach and engagement occurs at school sites where the principal has established it as a priority. Authentic engagement is a collaborative effort between parents and our educators – when we work together, students succeed.

Make it real, and make it relevant

State policymakers are infamous for making education policy sound complicated. Jargon and acronyms abound: LCAP, Common Core, NCLB, Title I – the list goes on – and it can quickly cause parents to rub their temples. One of the best ways to engage parents is to ditch the jargon and communicate in a clear, straightforward way. Educators should explain to parents how a particular program or service affects their child in his or her classroom.

Build bridges and break down barriers

When developing engagement plans, school districts must focus on what the parents in their communities need. It is imperative that schools meet parents “where they are.” That means offering multiple meeting locations and times to accommodate parents’ schedules and transportation capabilities. It means providing translation and interpretation to break down language barriers. It also means recognizing that parents come to the table with different levels of knowledge about educational issues, different comfort levels about participating in meetings, and different past experiences interacting with schools.

As we’ve seen through our School Smarts parent engagement program, parents from all backgrounds often desire more foundational training about the school system, how their children learn and the different ways to get involved before they feel comfortable and confident to attend or speak up at a school board meeting, especially on a specific budget matter. A strong foundational training program offered to all parents builds a great bridge to more active and representative participation in all school district decision-making.

Make it local

A vital premise of the new funding formula is that decisions affecting student success are best made by those closest to the classroom. PTA’s research-based National Standards for Family School Partnerships Assessment Guide provides a valuable framework to facilitate conversations at schools and in school districts about goals and activities for parent and family engagement, as required by the accountability plan. We recommend that every district plan address the six accepted national standards, and that educators and parents have conversations together about the standards and indicators based on local priorities and needs. And what is the best way to measure progress toward the standards? In the spirit of local control, we encourage that question to be part of every district’s discussions around the Local Control and Accountability Plan.

Parent engagement strategies should be embedded throughout the LCAP

While parent engagement is specifically identified as one of the eight state priority areas that all accountability plans must address, it is important to recognize that parent engagement is also a strategy that will enable school districts to achieve their goals in each of the other priority areas. As such, districts should be sure to embed parent engagement components throughout their entire LCAP plans.

Lastly, embrace the opportunity for a new spirit of collaboration

All parents want the best for their children. They want to be able to know what is going on at their children’s schools, and they want to provide informed input. They also want to know their input is seriously considered and helps make a positive difference.

Similarly, teachers and school administrators go into the education field because they want to positively impact lives. They want to help students succeed.

The greatest promise of the new era of engagement is that parents, educators and elected school board members will talk more often and work together even more. The results, when we do, will be amazing for children.


Colleen A.R. You is the president of the California State PTA and a Belmont resident. PTA connects families and schools, and has more than 800,000 members at more than 3,600 sites throughout the state.

Filed under: Commentary, Local Control Funding Formula, Parent Involvement



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24 Responses to “Now is the time to seize the parent engagement moment”

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  1. Floyd Thursby on Mar 14, 2014 at 3:01 am03/14/2014 3:01 am

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    Too often this is spent on what is convenient for the principal, who convinces the teachers and parents in the PTA to support what they want. A P.E. program so they don’t have to go to the yard, an additional assistant principal, family psychologists, language specialists. They should really spend all this money on one-on-one tutors to close the achievement gap. Truth be told, the LCCF will probably come and go with no improvement in test scores in SF, just an across the board raise tied to LIFO.


    • Don on Mar 14, 2014 at 11:03 am03/14/2014 11:03 am

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      PTAs do what the membership votes on and what is legal within the charter. PTA funding has a mandate to serve all students at the school, not select groups. Funding for remediation should come through the school budget for that purpose.

      PTAs often focus on providing enrichment activities because school budgets have stripped the arts over the years.

  2. Floyd Thursby on Mar 7, 2014 at 5:07 am03/7/2014 5:07 am

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    Imagine if you could get every parent to pitch in $1000 a year. You could have tutors and world class test results. Good parents contribute that, if they can afford it, or find free resources. But imagine if everyone did. Wow!

  3. Don on Mar 4, 2014 at 9:43 am03/4/2014 9:43 am

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    Navigio, you said: – Engagement is hard. It usurps the authority of the people ‘in charge’-

    That is a mischaracterization and perhaps that’s why you put “in charge” in quotes. School site councils are a requirement of both state and federal law and it squarely places community representatives on that council in charge of the school budget and the school plan (Single Plan for Student Achievement) along with school staff members. The idea that principals should be the sole authorities and decision-makers at schools runs counter to law and volumes of research on the benefits of parent/community participation in schools both as it relates to site governance and fundraising. But I don’t doubt that a lot of principals would prefer for parents to donate. money, conduct bake sales and otherwise keep quiet. That way principals don’t have to deal with all those pesky parents who ought to know that their place is in the home supporting their children’s school efforts. That last sentence was sarcasm.


    • navigio on Mar 7, 2014 at 6:01 am03/7/2014 6:01 am

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      Don, school site councils are largely a facade. In some places they work as theorized, but in most they have no real authority and worse, effectively operate at the whim of the principal (in all cases, the principal is the sole source of information that goes into the decision-making process, so even when people are really involved, they are still completely dependent on the principal). It is also difficult to call them representative as their actions have much less transparency than something like, say, the pta (not legally, but in practice). And dont even get me started on the SPSA. Let’s just say I understand that more than any one person should ever have to..

      And to be clear, my implication was not that principals should be sole strategic authorities at schools. Your sarcastic sentence is reality in many places. That applies not only to principals in large part, but to (many) district leaders in general. This is why I said engagement usurps authority.

      • Don on Mar 7, 2014 at 7:15 am03/7/2014 7:15 am

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        1005 agree with you, Navigio. But it would be nice if school budgets weren’t treated as a principal’s person business account. Having someone oversee it seems like a decent idea. That’s sarcasm.

  4. Brenda Drummer Martin on Mar 3, 2014 at 4:34 pm03/3/2014 4:34 pm

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    School Smarts sounds like a wonderfully innovative tool that enhances parents’ engagement by equipping them with information and inclusion. I am encouraged by its creative approach and invigorated by the policy behind it. This session involves explanations about the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP). I am not a Californian, but upon researching the LCAP a bit, I am impressed that this 3 year plan is updated annually and includes Community Engagement; Goal and Progress Updates; Actions and Expenditures. It’s priorities are: Conditions of learning; Pupil outcomes; Student and Parent Engagement with conducive climates; and County review of district accountability plans. This information alone is empowering! Imagine what parents can do with All the other information also offered in these classes! I am hopeful that our PTAs not only will offer more such classes, but that parents will see them as the Valuable necessity that they are, and Participate!


    • Don on Mar 11, 2014 at 5:42 pm03/11/2014 5:42 pm

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      There’s a great deal of accountability language written into the LCAP, but no accountability for the accountability, if you get my drift. Without any enforcement mechanism it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. I don’t want to rain on your parade, but LCFF is the State punting the football to the districts. It has no intention of refereeing how that works out on a local level. That’s the point.

      • navigio on Mar 12, 2014 at 6:25 am03/12/2014 6:25 am

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        agreed. in fact, i think its explicitly a way to defer ‘blame’ for lack of funding from the state to local authorities, but without also transferring revenue authority. in other words, jokes on you local people.

  5. Simon Dixon on Feb 28, 2014 at 10:25 pm02/28/2014 10:25 pm

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    Great article. Thanks. I am the PTO President of a very parent-active school: Washington Elementary in Santa Barbara. Parent engagement is everything. It is how we put bodies in the classrooms and elsewhere to assist. (25-50 parents on any day) it is how we fund-raise the money we need. ($500k per year) It is how we apply political pressure. One thing that certainly has helped the last couple of years is ParentSquare. Not sure how widespread this is. It is a school-focused communications package we found that has allowed us to tie our efforts together. We used to waste so much time on e-mail strings and especially duplication of efforts caused by them. Seems like a small thing but avoiding burnout is very important and ease of communication and organization gives so much and has cost us so little. Sounds pedestrian I know, but has had huge return for us. We already had the commitment, ParentSquare was a huge leap for us in concentrated direction and clean communication.


    • el on Mar 4, 2014 at 8:02 am03/4/2014 8:02 am

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      My jaw is still dropping that you are able to raise nearly $1,000 per student out of your community. You are in a fortunate position indeed.

      (For perspective, at our elementary school, we would congratulate ourselves for raising $2,000 total for the whole school.)

  6. Wendy on Feb 28, 2014 at 4:17 pm02/28/2014 4:17 pm

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    I think parent engagement at school is one of the most important factors for students success. At the school I am PTA president at we use a school communication systems called ParentSquare. We have been using it for two years and I can’t imagine going back to the way we used to do things. ParentSquare lets teachers, staff, principal and the parents all communicate on one platform. The best part is how much more parents are involved in the process now. Parents can post messages, post pictures, organize groups, comment on teacher and school posts and so much more. Teachers and school admin can also post messages, ask for volunteers or request items they need in class. To support LCAP, ParentSquare has the ability to poll to check in with parents on any topic.

    Parent engagement is key and getting families to participate on campus can be challenging. I encourage anyone trying to get parents involved or feedback for LCAP to take a look at ParentSquare.


    • el on Mar 3, 2014 at 11:07 pm03/3/2014 11:07 pm

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      Tools like this would seem to be tremendously helpful, and it’s great to hear about one that is working particularly well.

      Of course, they presuppose that your community has broadband and that the parents have the tools and time (and skills) to access it. Unfortunately, not all communities have this badly needed infrastructure. I am so frustrated by our lack of a national policy for universal broadband access.

    • Paul Muench on Mar 4, 2014 at 12:36 am03/4/2014 12:36 am

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      Maybe it was coincidental but our PTA membership dropped substantially after we started usng Facebook and started having a school website.

  7. el on Feb 28, 2014 at 10:44 am02/28/2014 10:44 am

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    One of the issues for fostering parent engagement is that it takes real time from school and district staff to do this. Organizations smaller than your neighborhood elementary school have one or more full time positions dedicated full time to interacting with the community they serve, via press releases, marketing, customer support, etc.

    Even the most patient and genuine administrator really doesn’t have time set aside in the job description for effective and widespread community interaction, and I don’t see us stepping up to fund that position any time soon.


    • Floyd Thursby on Mar 14, 2014 at 2:58 am03/14/2014 2:58 am

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      El, it is a huge myth that San Francisco is the most progressive City in America. In many ways, it is more conservative than Texas or Mississippi where a higher percentage of whites go to schools where they are under 70% of the population or a minority. Whites move and those who stay go private at about a 50% rate. Before you say some people are Catholic or they have alternative philosophies, trust me, anyone can see through that, most at Catholic Schools aren’t Catholic, and the upper middle class whites in San Francisco are demographically and politically virtually no different than the upper middle class whites of LaMOrinda, Los Gatos, Burlingame, Palo Alto, Walnut Creek, San Carlos and Marin and other white suburbs. However, because their kids would go to school with black and Latino kids and, in many cases Asians (yes, an article in the Wall Street Journal recently showed white flight away from high-performing Asian dominated schools such as Cupertino in complaint of use of learning centers, the same who fled San Jose due to the Latino/black influx of the 1970s claiming they didn’t study enough are leaving because the Asians study too much and their kids can’t compete and keep up).

      There is a public school right in Pacific Heights, nominally one of the most liberal neighborhoods in America, and not a white will go, if they did it would be 50/50 but it’s under 5% white (Cobb).

      Nothing is more hard core extreme conservative than the idea that children of means should spend their childhood avoiding children of lower income, and usually of lower income, completely separated by income and usually race. We have extremely segregated schools. Then we have a lottery designed to fight it, but most who take advantage are white and Asian and use it as a trick to avoid going to heavily Latino and black schools close to home, such as Pacific Heights families avoiding Cobb, Mission and Bernal families avoiding schools there, etc.

      Don is right many people are on auto-pilot and don’t know what’s going on. When you see our school board elections, candidates stay to the degree we usually only get one change every 2 years, and the candidates don’t talk about what they believe in very much. You read the half page they get in the voter pamphlett, and most say the same thing, very generalized and non-controversial. We had a neighborhood schools measure lose in 2011 50.04% to 49.96, and in 2012 no candidates said in their arguments whether they were for or against it. They all agree and just try to get the union endorsement, where the dues and union members taking their days off go door to door by the hundreds and fill every mailbox with a nice piece saying United Educators reccomends, and lists 3-4 candidates. This controls everything, the union pretty much controls all the members and prevents any change to the status quo. But it isn’t based on liberalism, it’s based on LIFO and teacher adult interests.

      They do transfer a lot of money to the poor schools but it is not spent on tutoring and not effectively and San Francisco has a worse achievement gap than just about any other City in the State.

      San Francisco has a facade that it’s liberal but it’s a very conservative City deep down committed to privelege, the status quo, keeping rich kids away from poor kids, and preventing any significant class mobility. If you really analyze it, San Francisco is one of the most conservative Cities in the U.S. They just know how to hide it behind specious logic and a friendly smile.

      • Lawrence Sanderson on Mar 17, 2014 at 12:06 am03/17/2014 12:06 am

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        So you’re saying San Francisco pretends to be a liberal City but is secretly a conservative City? Didn’t Romney get 13% of the vote or thereabouts. How do you figure?

  8. Don on Feb 28, 2014 at 7:08 am02/28/2014 7:08 am

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    SF has the lowest number of families per capita of an major city in America. It is also the most left wing city in America, with a strong pro-union political base that supports the districtwide election of pro-union board members, leaving us with no effective debate on the issues. As a result, parents have little say over their school boards as the majority of voters don’t have children and the candidates vote unanimously as a block. Certainly the community at-large has a substantive interest in education, family or no family. But lack of participation in schools and the stranglehold of union money in board elections leaves the general population subject to impractical electoral decision-making – exactly the opposite o f people voting their pocketbook. Hence, we have large homogeneous numbers of died-in -the-wool progressives supporting a suspension ban when they have no real understanding of the damage a policy of that nature can do to instruction, especially with no kids come home and report on its effects. I do, everyday. This is an example of the one-sided political dynamic that rules the roost in this city.

    You raise an interesting point about the preeminence of board member elections because, indeed, that is likely the single most important action a parent can have on school policy. But the LCAP asks for evidence of parent engagement and I don’t think citing a high voter turnout is what the legislature intended to meet the requirement.


    • Paul Muench on Feb 28, 2014 at 3:15 pm02/28/2014 3:15 pm

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      The California legislature has already seen fit to provide parents with a “trigger”. So if your schools are performing poorly then you can organize to avail yourself of the parent’s trigger. If your schools are not performing that poorly then the question becomes what is really wrong? That’s a rhetorical question as I understand you may not want to share your thoughts publicly.

      My general understanding is that San Francisco is considered by many to be family unfriendly. Hence people leave the city or send their children to private school. Although I think that trend has reversed some in the last few years. And yes I do appreciate the irony that such a group of progressives who value nurturing are chasing away family’s with children. But that is one of the primary struggles of politics, to get people to understand and engage in what is really happening.

      I think the best use of the LCAP will be political. If a district makes light of it, then use it against them in a political campaign.

  9. Paul Muench on Feb 28, 2014 at 6:10 am02/28/2014 6:10 am

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    When it comes to setting district policy parents should see participating in school board elections as the primary form of school engagement. LCFF makes school board participation much more important.

  10. navigio on Feb 28, 2014 at 5:19 am02/28/2014 5:19 am

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    Engagement is hard. It usurps the authority of the people ‘in charge’. It takes time and it takes money. And when participation is lacking, staff tends to dismiss any feedback they do get as unrepresentative and irrelevant. So below a certain threshold schools and districts will actively discourage it as a matter of culture. At some level, it is more important to simply participate than to be able to construct detailed arguments about specific issues. In fact, decision makers don’t even need to be told what to do, they need to understand people’s priorities. You don’t need to understand much to be able to communicate those. Lastly, participation has value if for no other reason than to influence the dynamic that binds community leaders and their constituencies. Frederick Douglass perhaps said it best:

    Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.


    • Manuel on Mar 3, 2014 at 10:40 pm03/3/2014 10:40 pm

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      navigio, you and Freddy are subversives.

      And you know what happens with subversives.

  11. Don on Feb 27, 2014 at 10:46 pm02/27/2014 10:46 pm

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    Colleen, I couldn’t agree with you more about the value of parent engagement. But the LCAP isn’t the answer. As written it troubles me because of a lack of any specific requirements. That’s likely to mean that compliance is almost an impossibility to prove or disprove. With a site council one could use the uniform complaint process if laws were violated. But with LCAP the laws are so vague who’s to say they were broken? If a District does not engage what then? We need an LCAP with strict requirements to push districts in the right direction. Cynical as it may sound, I don’t believe true parent engagement was ever taken seriously when this was dreamed up in Sac.

  12. tressy capps on Feb 27, 2014 at 11:32 am02/27/2014 11:32 am

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    My son’s district needs to read your article. Here is their idea of an LCFF survey It locks parents out who want to participate by requiring a unique code and sending the code home in the child’s backback. Almost every parent I have asked either did not know about survey or once informed, did not have a code. District’s need to embrace change, not resist it. I approached the superintendent. They seem content with a 10 percent participation rate. We live in an affluent area. 1 out of 10 participating is pathetic. What is the consequence? Parents are left out of the decision making loop. SAD

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