In Florida, private schools double down on parental engagement

Ron Matus

One school made a calendar for parents, with a note like this one below every month’s Bible verse: Research says … the greater the parents’ involvement, the greater the academic achievement for the student.

Another organized a “scavenger hunt” for families, built around tips to help their kids succeed in school. The school usually considered an event a success if 10 parents showed up. The scavenger hunt drew more than 50.

These projects are small examples from a big effort – one fairly unique to both public and private schools, and which highlights an overlooked piece of the ed reform puzzle. For more than a year, Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that oversees Florida’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students (and co-hosts the redefinED blog), has been quietly working with some of its partner schools to help them build better, deeper relationships with parents.

We’re not talking about once-in-a-blue-moon spaghetti dinners. This effort is systematic and long term, led by each school and organically tailored to what it determines are its needs. The plan is for each school to constantly improve its ties with parents – and eventually, its student achievement – based on data the schools themselves will collect.

“Getting parents to be true partners is going to make the work (of teaching and learning) a whole lot easier,” said Carol Thomas, Step Up’s vice president of student learning. Schools in general have “put all of our eggs in one basket, trying to improve teachers and students. And we rarely looked at how we can improve partnerships with parents.”

There’s a contrast here with the pitched battle over teacher quality in public schools. To maximize gains from teachers, the biggest in-school factor in student success, ed reformers are going at teachers unions over everything from pay and tenure to evaluations and seniority rights. The recent strike in Chicago, which paralyzed the nation’s third-largest school district for a week, was in large part over these issues. Meanwhile, the potential good that comes from energizing and engaging parents goes untapped.

The Step Up project began last year with 10 schools in Tampa. It’s expanding this year to include 16 more from Venice to Dunedin. Eventually, it will include Step Up partner schools anywhere in the state (more than 1,300 private schools accept tax credit scholarships) that are interested.

This week, the project took another step forward, with Step Up’s Office of Student Learning holding a two-day training session with about 40 representatives from two dozen schools.

Teachers and administrators were offered tools they can use to begin cultivating stronger connections with parents. They brainstormed possible projects. And they heard from the 10 pilot schools about what lies ahead.

At Tampa Adventist Academy – the school that made the calendars – teachers worried about the extra time and effort, said Merili Wyatte, a kindergarten teacher at the school. “But when they started to see what it really was, they started to think, ‘This could really be empowering’, “ she said.

Among other initiatives, the staff decided it could better reach the school’s Spanish-speaking families if they broadcast Powerpoints at parent meetings in both English and Spanish. They tried it for the first time at a recent “parent kickoff” meeting.

“It did take a little longer, but I’ll tell you, the result was amazing,” teacher and vice principal Helen Mateo told the participants. “All the parents came up to us and they were so thankful. (One said) I’ve been here nine years and this is the first time somebody has translated a whole meeting for me so I could understand the whole thing.”

Now Tampa Adventist is considering a newsletter it hopes can be “two way” – meaning it will include questions and comments from parents instead of just transmitting information from administration. To increase parent interest, students may be tapped to publish it.

The pilot schools’ initial projects were as diverse as the schools themselves. Mount Calvary Seventh Day School converted a storage room into a parent center, with coffee and juice and a bulletin board to list upcoming events. Gateway Christian Academy put together videos, a la Khan Academy, to help parents of high school students better understand SAT scores.

At St. Peter Claver Catholic School, the scavenger hunt became a vehicle for building bonds.

“We weren’t telling them what they’re not doing, or here’s what you need to do,” said Sister Maria Babatunde, the principal. “It was just, ‘Enjoy yourself.’ “

This fall, the 10 pilot schools will roll out the parental engagement plans they spent last year crafting. The 16 additional schools will start the process.

In a few months, another key piece will emerge. The plan is for each student, parent and teacher cluster to sign an agreement – a learning compact – that spells out the responsibility for each party. Thomas said it will keep the partnerships working as they should.

(Photo, above left, shows Rich Grandy from Academy Prep Tampa participating in activities during the training session. Photo, above right, shows Renee Stoeckle from Lady of Our Lourdes school in Dunedin. Photos by Lisa Davis, Public Relations Manager and Chief Storyteller, Step Up For Students.)

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