It’s always wise to look for new opportunities to engage students’ families and the community.
It was eye-opening to be president of my children’s elementary school PTA. It was also exciting. As a professional educator, I had worked in schools with strong PTAs, evaluated others that had good community engagement and, in contrast, had seen schools where the community connection was only having a classroom parent and the central office sending someone to attend a Rotary meeting. However, in my children’s school we knew we needed parent engagement to be successful, and I was now president of a very committed and busy set of parents. We also had (and in fact the school still has) an instructional staff that was well known for being effective.
Our annual calendar was full of fundraisers, supplemental classes, enrichment activities for our kids, and a Teacher Appreciation Week full of baked goods and metaphoric high fives. We really thought we had it all covered and couldn’t do much more.
In reflection, we had a good program that was stuck in its own success. Our PTA didn’t really work enough with teachers to ask them what they wanted from us, nor did we do enough to help parents understand how they fit into the school. In this void, teachers would ask us for $25 grants to purchase a few books, and they would tell us what they had learned about cognitive development at their last professional development program. We never talked about the tough stuff. It was as if we were stuck in a very passive role of parents who weren’t taking up the community leadership needed for their school to be even better. Today, we see greater encouragement for parents to become leaders in their communities, through programs such as MomsRising.
One of the six pillars in the Learning First Alliance’s Elements of Success compendium is Family and Community Engagement. It goes beyond simply having a program to developing an ongoing process of change that will bring parents and the community into schools as leaders who can make a difference. To get this ball rolling, teachers can engage with parents to explore not only what they want but also specific ways in which they can help make a difference.
A clear approach is to start by determining the barriers to family engagement at your school. Some of these obstacles can be overcome by using technology. Meetings can be held online, with questions being open for comment. Additionally, we have found that some of these barriers are simple things, like resetting the time of meetings between parents and teachers. Some parents work nontraditional hours where they may need meetings during the daytime or weekend calls. One set of ideas can be found at the National PTA’s National Standards for Family-School Partnerships. All of these ideas require that teachers and principals have flexibility to think about what changes they want for the family engagement program as well as enough time to plan and implement those changes. Find more resources for parents from the National PTA on Share My Lesson.
A second process is to engage with your business community. Just as your school and classroom are unique, so are the businesses in your community. Many businesses are hungry for schools to provide them with graduates who not only have the basic academic skills but also the “soft skills” of working on teams and problem-solving, and many businesses understand that this is not simply a senior-year high school problem.
The Learning First Alliance, with AFT participation, recently issued a report, Community in Education: Bringing Businesses and Schools Together, based on meetings with the business community. We discussed ways that schools could tap businesses to help bridge the academic curricula with real-life work examples and experiences for students and any teachers who may be interested.
Schools can also foster community engagement by:
- Extending learning beyond school walls, such as through workplace learning opportunities, field trips building on classroom lessons, or after-school activities;
- Asking employers to help provide digital capacity to either a school or community location for students who do not have access to the internet or electronic devices;
- Partnering with businesses to provide services and supports for students and their families, such as health clinics or English language instruction, or connecting families to housing or food assistance; and/or
- Asking supportive businesses to advocate for public education in bond elections and legislative debates.
We agreed that inviting businesses to see firsthand the inner workings of their local schools would help shore up support for teachers and public education in general.
These school-level recommendations include:
- Schools should facilitate student exposure to careers and career environments by allowing business representatives to bring their knowledge into schools through educational activities and programs such as mentorships, and conversely to take students to workplaces to get a feel for their work environment and how their classroom lessons translate to real-life skills;
- In addition to having business representatives volunteer to talk to students about their jobs, counselors and school leaders should group students who are interested in a particular field or line of work, then seek representatives from those industries to meet with these students;
- Employers in high-need fields could meet with students and parents to talk about the types of jobs they are trying to fill and the skills required for those jobs; for instance, a representative from Newport News Shipbuilding who participated in the LFA business meeting told us she often speaks to students about careers they may not even know about, such as pipefitter or welder.
- Also, Share My Lesson has two webinars related to these topics, both available on demand: Engaging Students Through Career Education and Apprenticeship Opportunities and Preparing Students for Life After High School.
When I was PTA president, I thought we were doing pretty well with our calendar of activities, and in that regard, we were doing well. Unfortunately, I didn’t even know what opportunities I was missing. In retrospect, I wish we all talked about family and community engagement as an ongoing opportunity—not simply a set of calendar events. The results would have been parents who were more strongly engaged in working with teachers to reach our common goals of continual growth and change.
What else do you recommend for developing parent leadership? Or, if you’ve been on the PTA, what tips would you want others to know? Share below.
Richard M. Long
Richard M. Long is Executive Director of the Learning First Alliance, a coalition of 12 national education organizations including AFT. Dr. Long is a nationally known advocate, writer and commentator on pre-K-12 issues and federal policy. Prior to joining LFA, he spent the past four decades working in education policy, including 37 years as the Government Relations Director for the International Reading Association. He also concurrently served as Executive Director/Government Relations Director for the National Title I Association from 1995 to 2014. He earned bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees from George Washington University.