Engaging Every Parent

What aspects of parent engagement can be shared across these diverse learning contexts?

Research has consistently shown the positive impact of parent engagement in learning. Parents should be partners in their children’s education, but that’s not always the case. Few parents have the time to spare to participate deeply in their child’s learning. On top of that, schools can find it challenging to involve parents in meaningful ways. And as learning evolves to keep pace with a rapidly changing world, parents often lack the guideposts to help them navigate the options their children have.

Ask ten different parents what parent engagement means to them and their child’s education, and you’re likely to hear ten different responses. We spoke with a few parents from urban and rural school districts to see what we could learn through their experience engaging with their children’s school districts.

Differing Cultural Views of Education

Pittsburgh Arsenal, an elementary and middle school in the Pittsburgh Public School District, represents families from 20 nations whose children speak over 14 different languages. Dave Breingan, executive director of Lawrenceville United and leader of parent engagement for that community organization, says this diversity brings with it different expectations of the role of a teacher in a child’s life as well as different experiences of how families operate within that system.

“In some cultures, it’s unheard of to question a teacher,” Breingan says, noting this type of cultural awareness is essential for schools so families are not dismissed as not valuing education. To the contrary, families likely value education very highly. Breingan also points out challenges in getting parents to the physical space of a school for engagement, noting that single parents often work multiple jobs or non-standard hours. Further, many kids lose papers in the abyss of their backpack, so families might not be aware of engagement opportunities until it’s too late.

Breingan’s work with Lawrenceville United has meant finding ways to meet families where they are, whether that means bringing teachers to neighborhood football games to cheer and engage with siblings or helping roll out technological solutions like the Class Dojo app for teachers to share photographs, grades, and messages that are easily translated into many languages.

Jess Pederson, whose sons were born in Ethiopia, sought a school with these sorts of various cultural backgrounds represented. She wanted a school that is “racially diverse, with teachers of color who serve as role models and mirrors.” Pederson grew up in Westmoreland County, where “the schools were not racially diverse.” She notes that homogeneous communities and homogeneous schools don’t pave the way for diverse childhood friendships. “I believe that this leads to a dehumanization of people who are different from ourselves and, thus, racism,” Pederson says.

Like many parents, Pederson sees the Parent Teacher Organization as an effective way to increase her involvement with her children’s education and connect with the school’s administration. At PPS Fulton, where her sons attend, the PTO is “very invested in the success of the school. We focus our attention on a few key areas where we believe we can make a difference, including promoting the school via social media, and writing grants to attain supplies and support for the school.”

Expanding Engagement

But the PTO and all it can accomplish is a lot of work, especially for families stretched thin. “Not everyone has time to rock the PTO,” Breingan says. “I think it’s important for schools to understand that and find different ways to engage parents.” Breingan remembers his own parents cleared space on the table for him to do his homework and check it over—something Camara Watkins, coordinator for Family, Youth, and Community Engagement with PPS, emphasizes is absolutely a form of parent engagement. The definition of engagement takes many forms, including discussing the school day with children and even getting them dressed and on the bus each morning.

Watkins says, “Students are people raised within the context of a family, community, and school. People see schools as isolated places, but that’s not true.” PPS wants to honor and recognize all parents’ efforts to engage with their children’s education. Watkins observes, “Just because someone isn’t coming to conferences doesn’t mean they don’t want that information.”

Often, parents want to be involved, but aren’t sure how to tap in to the school network. Amie Matson, director of Family and Youth Engagement with A+ Schools, says she’s seen that often, there are opportunities in the community that parents don’t realize. “As soon as the door opens for engagement,” she says, “families are plugged into so many supports and find out so much!” Matson says even a light touch lets families know what’s going on in the school building, even if they can’t make it in to chaperone a field trip.

Tara Fay has a 7 year old enrolled at PPS Woolslair elementary school. Like many parents, Fay is excited that her daughter has access to STEAM programming and is learning coding. She knows her daughter’s teachers do a lot, but Fay also wanted more. She wanted clear and timely communication from her child’s school. “I work full time on top of being an artist and a curator,” says Fay, but “I try to stay as involved in my daughter’s education as our busy schedules will allow.”

Fay joined the PTO at Woolslair, which has a track record of getting things done. The PTO helped save the school from closure in 2013. “It makes my daughter happy to know that I’m making an effort to be involved,” Fay says. She feels like she has to press for clear communication, and it’s a tough challenge. Fay hopes to draw a core group of parents to the PTO who can work together and make change. “We really want to focus on STEAM, as well as collaborations with partner institutions,” Fay says, noting that better community ties build funding and programming opportunities for students and their families.

Understanding Options

Amy Farr, who has two children in Armstrong school district, feels motivated to engage with her school to learn more about things that are different from her own experience. Like many parents, Farr wants to understand what her children are learning.

“My kids read earlier, learned multiplication earlier, and there’s a huge focus on standardized testing that we didn’t experience,” she says. Farr also has another motivation for involvement at school. Her ten-year-old son has an Autism spectrum diagnosis, and Farr says, “his current building has been pretty great, but our experiences in the primary building left a lot to be desired.” Farr has had to engage with staff about their choices to use “strictness” as a strategy with her son, “as if his ASD could be cured by a teacher being harder on him.” As Farr deepend her involvement with her son’s IEP, she advocated for him to transition to an emotional support classroom where “he has a smaller classroom with fewer students and more one on one instruction.”

Farr learned that the more she understood about the school, the better she understood what each of her children was experiencing each day. That was true whether Farr was helping her middle schooler prepare for an exam, or making sure her son was learning in an appropriate setting. Parents may collectively groan when they don’t understand how to help their children with “new math,” but it would seem their lack of understanding is less important than just knowing their child has homework to complete.

In many ways, technology can help to bridge divides when it’s hard for parents to physically come to school to meet with teachers like Farr has done. Those Class Dojo notifications parents are getting with updates aren’t just great for families who speak languages other than English. Edutopia points to research showing that digital communication tools like Dojo can help improve attendance and reduce course failures. At the preschool level, weekly literacy tips sent via mobile phone increased parents’ communications with teachers and helped improved literacy scores. At the end of the day, those are results worth texting home about.

Published October 01, 2018

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