by Becky Sipos
Early in my teaching career, I called a parent concerned about her daughter. I’ll never forget her response: “I don’t call you for help with my job, so why are you calling me for help with yours?” I still vividly recall my shock as I had assumed helping her daughter develop into a responsible adult was a shared commitment.
As I gained experience, I realized that for many parents a call from school always meant bad news and was to be avoided. So I shifted my approach and began sending home positive post cards for every student and calling home with something positive about each child in my classes. At Back to School night I asked both moms and dads in attendance to fill out a card telling me something about their child that I probably didn’t know and to share how I might teach them more effectively. Of course, I occasionally still called home to discuss a problem, but the positive approach worked wonders.
I am recalling these memories because Character.org is focusing this month on Principle 10: engaging families and community members as partners. The start of school is always a good time to connect with parents, but it’s not always easy. Some challenges schools face:
- Parents/guardians working multiple jobs with no time or energy to attend school functions
- Parents/guardians from other cultures where parental involvement in school is not expected
- Parents/guardians who had poor experiences in schools themselves
- Language barriers, transportation barriers, and more
We published a list of great resources for connecting with parents in our September Resource Roundup blog, so I will just share here some creative ways that I’ve discovered recently.
One of the most creative ideas I heard recently was from Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent of Jennings (MO) School District, one of the highest-poverty, highest-minority schools in the state. She puts a high priority for her teachers to do home visits with families identified as being in poverty. When they discovered that many of the parents were too stressed with multiple jobs, housework and more to come to school events, she had washers and dryers installed in the schools. “You visit your child’s class, you get one load free,” Andersen said. (See more of her remarks and others at ASCD Symposium on Poverty and Education.)
Other schools have tried moving their events to other locations to attract more parents. Bayless High School, a 2015 National School of Character, held a parent-teacher night at a local YMCA and got triple the usual attendance.
Lisa Dierking, Family School Advocate, for the Southwest Early Childhood Center, another 2015 National School of Character, connected with parents in a different way. Rather than just bringing parents into learn about the school, she gave parents and community members an 11 Principles checklist and asked them to report to the school on how they thought the school was doing.
She was surprised to learn that her parents actually wanted parenting tips from the school. So they began offering additional resources. Community members saw areas where they wanted to help, and from their visits a community garden was begun that now supplies the school with fresh produces.
Several schools I have visited have offered parent resources. I met a parent in the Parent Resource Center at Newport Mill (MD) Middle School, a former National School of Character. She got tears in her eyes as she said, “When my son started middle school, we began fighting all the time. But this school helps me to be a better parent.”
Lyles Crouch Traditional Academy (VA), a 2012 National School of Character, discovered that for many of their students, grandparents were the primary caregivers. So they created a Grandparents Club to provide support and to keep the grandparents engaged in what was happening at the school.
A school’s outreach should not just be to parents, but the wider engagement of the community can also increase the effectiveness of the school’s character education initiatives.
At Coldwater Elementary School (MO), a 2015 National School of Character, churches and other community organizations provide much needed support for the school that has 55% on free and reduced lunch. They help with schools supplies, mentors and more. The district superintendent has also engaged community support. He has created a grandparents club and has town hall meetings to help parents, including one to help parents frustrated with the Common Core. He started a program called Hazelwood Heroes to engage more churches and community leaders to help the schools and community. Coldwater ES has had three Hazelwood Hero award recipients.
We often use the expression, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Well, the fact is that parents feel the same way. And when school partnerships become a community-wide effort, schools find that rather than adding more work to an already full plate, they lighten the load and enhance the effectiveness of their character education initiatives.
Want more guidance on developing strong relationships with parents? Be sure to check out "Engaging Families & Community Members: A Guide to Principle 10 of the Eleven Principles"