Developing relationships with parents and community members is critical to building support for your school. But mailing home a newsletter and making an occasional call to a media outlet isn't nearly enough. Educators must put some thought and effort into establishing and nurturing relationships with parents and the community.
The first step to building relationships with parents and the community is to provide a school culture in which students feel accepted, supported, and engaged. That's where a strong teacher advisory program and a concerted effort to maintain positive contact with parents come in. If students like school, their parents will be more supportive and more involved.
At William Thomas Middle School in American Falls, Idaho, every student has an adult advocate who knows the student and his or her family. In addition, every teacher makes one positive phone call home every day. Those phone calls have proven to be one of the best ways to gain parent support.
We are happy to have supportive parents, but we also want them to be engaged with our school. So we invite them! We provide many opportunities for parents to come into our school and interact with students and staff.
Fathers Day at School. When we need a significant number of substitutes so teachers may attend a workshop or a retreat, 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 work with teachers to develop the lessons so they are meaningful and fun.
Fathers enjoy this opportunity to get into the classroom, students love to have them at school, and teachers welcome the support. By the end of the day, fathers have a greater appreciation for the work teachers do.
Finding volunteer fathers isn't difficult. Last year it took only 24 phone calls to find 22 volunteers to cover our teachers' classes so they could attend a state conference. Employers typically are happy to give the fathers time off to volunteer at school.
Career Speakers. During our 25-minute advisory period, we invite parents to meet with teams of students to talk about their careers. Speakers discuss job duties, required education, benefits of their job, upsides and downsides 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.
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 Sunday best and the school cooks prepare a special meal. Parents decorate the cafeteria, set the tables, serve the food, and sometimes provide live music.
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. Parents serve as instructors, helpers, and equipment drivers or they learn the new skill with their child. Skill exploration provides an opportunity for every parent to be involved.
We've offered this program for 21 years, and students get excited about it years before they actually come to the middle school. In fact, at high school graduation, students often list it as their favorite school experience. Because the kids are excited and love it, parents are excited and love it. (And, we average almost 100% student attendance in January.)
Parent–Teacher Conferences. The parent–teacher conference is the only time many parents come to school, so it is important that we make it a positive experience. We focus on the positive performance of the student, create a plan for areas that need improvement, and end with a positive comment about the student. It's also an opportunity for teachers to let parents know how much we appreciate their support.
Bring Them In, Take Them Out
The more often parents and other community members use the school, the more supportive they are and the more comfortable they are coming into the school to participate in activities. One Saturday I walked around our school and noted several outside groups taking advantage of our facility.
- The 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. Each fall and spring 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 three 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.
- Public relations is about people, not paper. It's the face-to-face, personal encounters that build support.
- Most public relations strategies are free.
As you build stronger relationships with students, parents, and community members, you will see greater support and increased involvement in your school.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2010
Randy Jensen, an AMLE member, has been principal of William Thomas Middle School in American Falls, Idaho, for 21 years. He was the 2005 National Middle School Principal of the Year. E-mail: email@example.com