Schools shouldn’t just involve parents; they should engage them

Carol Thomas

If schools want parents and caregivers to chaperone field trips and cook hot dogs at the fall carnival, then a parental involvement plan should be their course of action. However, if schools want those same parents and caregivers to actively participate in decisions regarding their child’s success in school, then their best bet is a parental engagement plan.

Involvement vs. engagement. I have often been asked, “What’s the difference? Aren’t these two terms interchangeable?”  To draw a comparison that resonates with many of my colleagues, I point to the time in our lives where a personal relationship moved from “being involved with a significant other” to becoming engaged. Being involved in a relationship usually meant we did things together, but steered away from “counting on each other” or the promise to share the ups and downs of life. With engagement came the commitment to making the relationship a success, with listening to each other critical and compromise inevitable.

So it is with parents in our schools. Schools with parent involvement plans direct their parents; they tell them what to do. Schools engaging their parents, on the other hand, establish two-way communication and believe compromise is essential.

At Step Up For Students, we’re focusing on engagement.

Over the last year, we’ve worked with 10 partner private schools, providing tools and strategies to help them better understand their responsibility for creating a culture that establishes and sustains parent-school partnerships. We know engaging families in all aspects of their children’s education yields positive results. So the staffs at these schools are actively engaged in learning with and from each other, sharing and reflecting as they identify and establish processes, conditions and structures needed to meet their goals.

Now in the second year of our work, we are supporting teachers and administrators as they learn how to engage in intentional study of their relationships. Educators identify significant elements of the partnership with parents, frame questions they want to study, consult relevant research, implement changes, collect and analyze both quantitate and qualitative data – and then codify their study to share with other educators. We’ve also expanded the effort this year and now have 28 schools on board.

The difference between “involvement” and “engagement” isn’t hair splitting. Quite simply, involvement is more of a “doing to” the parent while engagement is a “doing with.” Engagement establishes the need to listen first, asking thoughtful questions to better understand the assets and strengths of the family.

Authentic, viable partnerships result when schools elicit suggestions from parents about what works best for their children. These partnerships are more likely to be successful because the school understands and respects that the parent is ultimately responsible for the education of the child. It is the family who reaps the rewards of a successful education – or is left to pick up the pieces if it fails.

Engaging parents requires two-way communication. That includes making home visits and meeting families in neutral locations. It entails phone calls that focus on the positives, like student’s growth, improvement or accomplishments. Schools where engagement is a priority don’t just call home when there is a problem with a children’s behavior or performance. On the flip side, schools that focus on parental involvement rely on one-way communication. They send home information sheets and forms that need signing. They want parents to review codes of conduct (which often don’t make it home or if they do, are in a language parents cannot understand). They make automated phone calls.

With involvement, parents and school staffs focus on learning that occurs within the school. With engagement, the focus shifts from just “during the school day” to learning that occurs in the community, after school, over weekends and throughout the summers.

Another contrast is how schools identify and provide classes and trainings for parents. When “learning outcomes” are predetermined for parents by school staff, with no input from families, and taught exclusively by school staff, the school is seeking parent involvement. In contrast, when schools reach out to families to learn about their unique needs and assets, and then encourage those parents to participate in the development and deployment of the trainings (some of which may have not have a direct connection to school work), they have engaged families to own their trainings. The trainings become personalized to better meet the needs of the school community.

We’re seeing this engagement at the schools we’re working with.

• At Gateway Christian Academy, the staff organized a “Khan Academy Parent Night.” It provided parents the opportunity to work side-by-side with their child and teacher as everyone learned how to best use more than 3,400 online Khan Academy videos on everything from arithmetic and physics to finance and history.

• At St. Peter Claver Catholic School, the school embedded lessons for parental engagement in a scavenger hunt. While parents were having a good time with their kids, they were also getting tips on how to help their kids make education a priority. This school has a plan has to host series of parent parties to listen to the needs and concerns of the families.

• At Tampa Adventist Academy, the staff kicked off its parent partnership meeting by providing interpreters for their Hispanic families.  It concluded the meeting by having all members of the school community sign a behemoth scroll pledging to work together throughout the school year to ensure the learning success of every student.

The schools we’re working with are listening to the concerns and dreams of parents, then drawing up engagement plans based on what they hear. The result will be stronger relationships between parents and educators – and children who are more successful in school.

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