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Is This What It Takes To Get Parents Involved?

September 21, 2010

Last Wednesday night was “Back to School Night,” that American education classic, and my classroom was packed with parents and others. All the seats were full, which relegated the few stragglers who had lost their way in the maze of unfamiliar floors and corridors to the SRO area along the back wall.

It was a true family affair. Parents, students, and siblings were there to take in an all too brief ten-minute synopsis of the United States History curriculum. The toddler members of the crowd fiddled with the papers and pencils on the tables, but I sensed a real connection with the parents, even though many of them were getting a translated version of my remarks from their son or daughter. Almost all were taking notes (or at least writing down my contact information) from my bi-lingual Power Point presentation.

When the bell rang to end the session, a line of parents surged toward me to shake my hand, give me a hug, or bow. They introduced themselves and asked with some hesitancy how their child was doing in class. The triage we render at such events is familiar to teachers – a quick recognition of the student, a brief comment about his or her progress, a sincere thanks for taking the time to attend, and an invitation to contact me whenever they have questions or concerns. I will follow-up with each and every parent several times throughout the year, knowing a bit more about them because I had met them face to face. But for now, I need to point them in the direction of their next classroom and welcome my next group of parents.

My other sessions that night were variations on the same theme, but they did not have the same attendance or the same energy.

I had tried something new with that United States History class. Growing weary of the sparse attendance in my high school classes at past Back to School Nights, yet knowing the importance of parental involvement in education, I chose to mix things up with a little experiment.

Most parents appreciate the value of a good education, want their child to be successful in school, and are willing to help in that endeavor. However, it is difficult to get many parents involved. And their reasons (or excuses) for not attending a school event, volunteering on campus, or playing some other positive role in their child’s education are often valid and understandable. They may work two jobs to pay the bills, care for younger children or an elder parent at home, or lack adequate transportation. They may also view school as unfamiliar or even unwelcoming. Many of my students’ parents had negative experiences in their own school systems as children and are not anxious to enter that world again. So, it is often difficult to build partnerships with engaged parents and bring them into classrooms where they know their participation is valued.

In my experiment, I stuck with the standard protocol for five of my six classes. I emphasized to my students the importance of their parents attending Back to School Night and distributed several informational newsletters and bus schedules for their parents. However, in that sixth class, I made parental attendance an assignment with a point value. Students whose parents attended or sent a note signed by the parent explaining why he or she was not able to attend received full credit. Students whose parents did not attend or failed to submit a note would receive no credit. I introduced the assignment the first week of school to give students plenty of time to talk with their parents and also with me if there were extenuating circumstances.

To tell you the truth, I felt a little nervous. In my classroom, the focus is typically not on the points a student earns. Instead, we focus on the journey to acquire knowledge. When students ask “What grade do you think I’ll get on this project?”, I redirect the conversation to ask, “Tell me what you learned? What issues were raised as you worked on this assignment?” The conversation and my focus are on teaching and learning, not the grade value assigned to that endeavor.

To make an assignment with the primary focus on the point value was definitely out of my comfort zone. However, I thought it was worth a little discomfort because, even in high school, I strongly believe that students benefit when their parents are involved in events like Back to School Night where they can learn first-hand the scope of learning and expectations taking place in their child’s classroom.

And so, despite my hesitancy, I went ahead with the experiment. The results were dramatic. While the average attendance in my five other classes hovered around ten families out of thirty-five, all but two families attended the “for credit” class. For the two families who did not attend, I received notes beforehand explaining why they could not be there. For many of these parents, it was their first Back to School Night on our campus and the feedback was remarkable. Parents were thankful for the information, appreciative of advice about their role in the education process, and grateful for the warm welcome to our campus and classrooms.

Reflecting back on this night, I’m not sure what the lasting implications are. Is the extrinsic motivator of earning “points” a valid tool to use to encourage parents to be involved? Or, is this “pay to play” program just a scheme that may fill seats but will not produce substantive parental involvement. Perhaps this sixth class was just an anomaly that would not have worked with any of the other five classes.

The night and the experiment have left me with more questions than answers. However, on this one Wednesday night in San Diego, I had a room full of engaged parents and what felt like the beginning of a powerful partnership to help our students succeed.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010 7:49 am

    Thanks for a very provocative and well-written post, Kelly.

    My first thought is that it’s a shame that we have to incentivize what should be a great gift– the opportunity to meet your child’s teacher and hear about the year to come.

    But–as I was reading I kept thinking about all the charter schools that demand high levels of parent involvement, and are willing to call parents out for not showing up or providing the support they pledged. Even to the point of booting the kids if parents don’t abide by policies.

    Maybe making the parent meeting part of the student requirements elevated its status… made back to school night feel more real and essential.

    I always worry about what happens to kids whose parents simply won’t come, won’t write a note–is it unfair to them if other kids earn even more extra credit for being blessed? The fact that your high school students responded to this incentive by urging their parents to engage makes it a whole different argument. Very interesting–thanks.

  2. Mike Geisen permalink
    September 21, 2010 8:25 am

    “…the experiment left me with more questions than answers.” Spoken like a true scientist and educator, Kelly. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  3. September 21, 2010 6:25 pm

    Thanks Kelly for thinking out of the box and encouraging families to join you at the Back to School Night. I know that the “points system” may be seen as an incentive program to get parents out but I would like to suggest something else happened. You made it relevant to your students in a way that they understood. There is value in having your parents come to school. You raised an awareness in the parent community that it wasn’t just an ordinary night at school. What a great start to your school year.

  4. September 29, 2010 9:32 am

    I still trudge my way through Back to School Nights, but I got to say, for the most part, I don’t get a lot of value out of them as a parent, especially in the secondary schools. At my older daughter’s middle school, we are given our child’s schedule, we have 10 minutes in a classroom, 3 minutes to get to the next class, and there is no time for questions, for true discussions. As one of my parent friends told me, she felt like it was a waste of her time because all that most of her child’s teachers did was give out the website where we can check grades, an email address, and lecture.
    So the question to me is about value. You put that value in a form that the parents could understand and appreciate. There are probably other ways to do that as well.

  5. October 4, 2010 10:57 am

    I’m a teacher and teacher educator. I don’t attend back to school night if I can help it. I don’t like mob scenes, so there are few places I enjoy less than a crowded parent night at middle school. First, there’s no parking. Somehow whoever designed the schools forgot that Americans in the 21st century drive cars. Especially in the suburbs. (And it’s not like the schools are build on side streets where parking is possible). Second, I don’t particularly enjoy standing in line for an hour waiting to pick up 40 lbs worth of textbooks (that I going to have to schlep across a muddy, burr-filled field to whatever distant parking spot I was able to find) or listening to teachers say very little about what they will be doing in class. It’s not the teachers’ fault. The format is not inviting and does not lend itself to being informative. The teachers don’t really have any time to address in-depth or individual concerns. Nor will they give a frank answer regarding curriculum, etc. It’s like attending a political rally. Stick to the party line. I’ve been to school board meetings, too. Those were made as unfriendly as possible and the decisions were clearly already made. My input meant nothing.

    Frankly, I’m ready go give up on parent-teacher conferences, too. Last year, my suggestion that it was counterproductive to take away recess from a highly active child who has some trouble focusing and completing work in the classroom fell on incredulous ears. It was like speaking to a very smooth, very slick, wall of ice. (Folks, all studies point to the BENEFITS physical activity, especially for kids with attention challenges).

    The “This is how the institution works, get with the program” attitude doesn’t endear public school personnel to the public.

    Oh, and grades, as summative assessment, should reflect students’ mastery of the material. I probably would have sent back a not-very-nice letter to you and the principal.

    • Kelly Kovacic permalink
      October 5, 2010 3:57 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to respond. Your comments reflect the concerns of a few teachers and parents I meet. However, my personal experience has been the opposite. I find Back to School Night, at least in my classroom, an imperfect yet meaningful way to meet parents and start a dialogue that will hopefully continue throughout the year. At our school at least, your input and the input of other parents and guardians would mean something.

  6. October 12, 2010 2:05 am

    Kelly,

    Your article hits on a a very basic educational truth … Like donkeys, we all need a carrot to lead us on, and like dogs we appreciate a pat on the head. If this can be done with a points system, so be it.

    Congratulations on having the courage to use such a simple system to get parents and children working together.

Trackbacks

  1. Help your daughter keep feeling good about herself | Parenting Help in Arizona
  2. “Is This What It Takes To Get Parents Involved?” | Engaging Parents In School...

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