October 2010 • Volume 14 • Number 2 • Pages 12-13
Jump Start Your Parent Connections
One night, while leaving our building after a parent association meeting, I contemplated the fact that once again, the turnout was small—only five or six parents. The guidance I give students to help them think about the cause and effect of their decisions came to mind: "If it isn't working, stop doing it. And after you stop, what's your restart plan?"
Maybe it was time for me to follow my own advice. I knew a stronger connection with parents would promote our school's mission to improve student achievement, so why didn't I stop what wasn't working and start developing new plans to promote parent engagement?
Park Middle School is an inner-city school located in a low socioeconomic area of Lincoln, Nebraska. The school is rich in diversity with one of the highest student transient rates in the district. A few years ago, a district reorganization assigned approximately 200 new students from a neighboring community to our building, increasing Park's enrollment to 870 students.
The majority of these new students lived in an area with a higher socioeconomic status and much less diversity than the students in our school's neighborhood. As a staff, we would need to help the new students and parents become comfortable with the change to an inner-city school while also making a smooth transition to middle school.
We capitalized on the experience of our current students' parents to welcome the new parents and, at the same time, promote parental involvement across the board.
Parents Front and Center
We decided to organize orientation sessions for the new families. Our building leadership team planned one session hosted by teachers and another hosted by a group of our current parents.
We asked 16 current parents to present at the parent-led meeting; all responded with enthusiasm. They were honored to be included in the process and anxious to speak on behalf of our school.
The personal invitations to the 16 parents solidified a connectedness between home and school that had been missing. Their unanimous acceptance made it clear they were willing partners. We had a need and the parents were ready to meet that need.
The parent-led meeting was a success. The meeting agenda included sessions on school arrival and dismissal plans, school communication, busing, intramural programs, characteristics of young adolescents, after-school clubs and activities, and school safety. The sessions were well attended and the parents spoke with enthusiasm and pride about "their" school.
The feedback from the new parents was positive. They appreciated the opportunity to make personal connections and to hear from other parents in an informal setting. Parent-led orientation meetings are now an annual event at Park Middle School.
Meeting a Need
After reflecting on the positive outcome of the parent-led orientation meeting, I developed another plan to involve parents in meaningful ways. The foundation of the plan was to organize meetings around a specific need and extend personal invitations to parents to lead and participate.
Because Spanish is the home language of many of our students, district-level Spanish interpreters and I collaborated to arrange a series of monthly meetings organized specifically for Latino families.
We communicated announcements about the meetings in Spanish through our phone messaging mass communication system. The Spanish-speaking interpreters attended each meeting to share the information and ensure parents understood. We also distributed important school information that had been translated into Spanish.
The meetings were organized around current school issues, community agency updates, entertainment, and parent testimonials. The testimonial segment of the meeting was a favorite for the parents. Attendees took turns describing parenting practices that were working for them. As one parent told the group, "It's our job to learn from each other so we can help our kids do their best at school."
Potluck dinners were a part of every other meeting; each family brought their favorite family dish to share.
Generally, between 20 and 25 adults and about the same number of students attended these meetings, making it an opportune time to build a sense of community.
Because Park Middle School is an inner-city school and located in a low-income area, we had a responsibility to dispel the myths associated with our school. Each year during fourth quarter, several staff members and I met with the parents of incoming students from each of our elementary feeder schools. I invited some of our current parents to be part of the presentation panel at these meetings.
The presenting parents were anxious to tell their story. They recounted that their children, who were nervous and apprehensive at the beginning of the school year, had become confident and proud students in their new school. Parents of the incoming students were relieved to hear that others had felt their same concerns but had experienced a positive outcome.
Although school staff could have provided this same information, the presenting parents were able to communicate with the passion of someone who had experienced firsthand all the emotions of changing schools.
Parents and School Accreditation
Renewing accreditation gave us another opportunity to invite parents to help us fulfill a specific school need.
Park Middle School recently completed its five-year North Central re-accreditation cycle. The re-accreditation included an external visit and interviews with student, staff members, and parent groups.
Several parents accepted our open invitation to attend an accreditation information meeting. They were able to speak knowledgeably with other patrons about the accreditation requirements. This informed group of parents helped our school complete the accreditation process.
We continued to hold our regular monthly parent meetings, but the additional offerings energized parent involvement at Park Middle School. Our parents were honored to be invited to lead or participate in school events. Through their participation, the parents became positive advocates for our school.
The spirit of teamwork and camaraderie between school staff and parents grew. The stoic monthly meetings were replaced with meaningful and engaging interactions with parents.
"If it isn't working, stop doing it." So I did: I stopped relying on monthly meetings as a primary means of collaborating with parents. I started issuing personal invitations to parents and provided them with meaningful and varied formats in which to participate. This change gave our school's parent connection the jump start it needed to help build community and play a vital role in increasing student achievement.
Terry Neddenriep retired in 2009 as principal of Park Middle School in Lincoln, Nebraska. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2010 by National Middle School Association