The importance of building strong relationships with parents and community members cannot be underestimated; these stakeholders must be an integral aspect of a school's culture. School leaders must also recognize that bi-annual conferences, monthly newsletters, and occasional calls to a media outlet are not enough. Educators must be strategic and thorough in their efforts to establish and nurture relationships with parents and the community.
For William Thomas Middle School (WTMS) in American Falls, Idaho, the effort to make parents and community members feel welcome and valued begins with a robust teacher advisory, or homeroom, program. This program is the foundation of our communication plan; the homeroom teacher acts as the primary liaison for parents. Teachers contact parents before school begins to ascertain their preferred method of communication including email, phone, text, or even social media. From there, the teacher stays in regular contact with their homeroom parents.
Our homeroom program ensures that every student has an adult advocate who knows the student and their family. It is also the tipping point of a concerted effort to maintain positive, consistent contact with parents.
We are happy to have informed parents, but we also want them to be engaged with our school, so we provide many opportunities for parents to interact with students and staff. These include:
Parent–Teacher Conferences. Because parent–teacher conferences are the only time many parents can come to school, we strive to make it a positive experience. We focus on the achievements of the student, create a plan for areas that need improvement, and ensure that parents are greeted with a smile and a treat (provided by a local business). It's also an opportunity for teachers to let parents know how much we appreciate their support.
Manners Luncheon. One of our sixth grade advisory units teaches students about manners and appropriate behavior at a formal event. The culminating activity is a formal lunch. Students come dressed in their best attire and the school cooks prepare a special meal. Parents decorate the cafeteria, set the tables, serve the food, and sometimes provide live music.
Science Fair & Talent Show. We needed some impartial judges for these events; parents and community members seemed like an obvious choice. These events are also a great opportunity for our students to demonstrate their skills and talents to an external audience.
Father's Day at School. When we need a significant number of substitutes so teachers may attend a workshop, we ask fathers to teach for a day. When possible, we match careers with curriculum areas (who better to teach students about the need for algebra than an engineer?). Fathers collaborate with teachers to develop meaningful and engaging lessons. Fathers, sometimes overlooked by parent involvement efforts, enjoy their time with kids, students love to have them, and teachers welcome the support. By the end of the day, fathers have a greater appreciation for the work teachers do, and the home-school relationship grows even stronger.
A quick logistical note: finding volunteer fathers isn't as difficult as it may seem. Last year, it took only 24 phone calls to find 22 volunteers to cover our teachers' classes so they could attend a state conference. Many employers are happy to give the fathers time off to volunteer at school.
Guest Speakers. During our 25-minute advisory period or our Flex program electives, we invite parents and community member to meet with students to talk about their careers. Speakers discuss job duties, required education, the benefits and potential pitfalls of their profession, salary ranges, and trends for the future. We also try to bring in representatives of the diverse cultures of our school to talk to students. Just this year, parents or community professionals taught our students about horses, dancing, nuclear energy, and international cooking.
PTO/Parent Advisory Committee. Most schools have some version of these organizations, and ours is no better than any other. We do try to include them in a wide variety of meaningful initiatives. Our advisory group recently helped us rewrite our mission, vision, and value statements. Parents plan and throw our eighth grade party every year. They help us review our data. Finally, parents serve on every one of our hiring committees.
Skill Exploration. On the four Fridays in January, our students have the opportunity to learn a new skill, such as skiing, snowboarding, scuba diving, rock climbing, swimming, tumbling, sculpting, or CPR. This program has been a part of life at WTMS for 30 years, so students are aware of and excited for it before they even arrive at middle school. In fact, at high school graduation, students often list it as their favorite school experience. Parents serve as instructors, supervisors, and equipment drivers, or they learn the new skill with their child. Because the kids are excited and love Skill Exploration, parents are excited and love it. An added bonus: we average nearly 100% student attendance in January!
Bring Them In, Take Them Out
The more often parents and community members use the school, the more likely they are to become school supporters. One Saturday I walked around our school and noted several outside groups taking advantage of our facility:
- A community recreation group was using the gym.
- Members of the local quilting club were working in the home economics room.
- A local business was using a computer lab for training.
- A technology literacy class for Spanish speakers was being held in a second computer lab.
- An aerobics class targeting women at risk for diabetes was exercising in the fitness room.
We also take our students out into the community. Twice a year our advisory and leadership classes plan community service activities. Students clean elderly neighbors' yards, plant trees, make quilts for the hospital, paint buildings, and clean trails. Some of our students who struggle in the classroom prove to be the best community service workers.
Keep these things in mind as you develop strategies to engage parents and community members in your school:
- Everyone in the school communicates with the public. Ensure their messages are positive by creating a positive school climate.
- Think about your community demographics and your communication mediums: who are you reaching with the school Facebook page? Who is more likely to be on Instagram or Twitter? Who reads the local paper?
- Most public relations strategies are free.
- Manage your time. Two easy tips: learn to send a post to your social media accounts with one click. Create an email group for local print and news sources. If necessary, consider having a designated staff member in charge of parent and community outreach.
- Finally, don't forget that public relations is about people, not paper (or posts). Have a varied plan that harnesses the power of social media, but don't underestimate the value of face-to-face, personal chats in front of the office or at the local grocery store.
We all know the importance of building strong relationships with our students and building a cohesive and collegial staff, but don't forget that time spent building rapport with parents, spreading the word about student achievement, or inviting community members into your school is also time well spent.
Randy Jensen was a teacher and principal at William Thomas Middle School for 32 years. He currently is superintendent of the American Falls School District. Randy was the 2016 AMLE Distinguished Educator and the 2005 NASSP National Principal of the Year.
Tyler Shafer has been the principal at William Thomas Middle School for 2 years after spending 11 years as an English teacher and coach.
Published January 2020.