Now is the time to seize the parent engagement moment

February 26, 2014
Colleen-You-180x214

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.

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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.

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