A school engaging with parents
Library, Tips for School & District Administrators

6 Ways to Engage Parents This Fall

By Jennifer Gunn

A new school year is an opportune time to launch a new parent and family outreach campaign. Here are six things to keep in mind to make long-lasting connections that will last all year.

Get everyone on the same page

As the new year begins, formalize your staff’s outlook and plan for family engagement. “To improve family engagement, ask your teachers on a scale of 1-10 how well the school engages families,” says Dr. Travis Burns, a Virginia-based principal. “Ask what makes a 10. Identify top ideas/priorities with teacher input and make them a part of your school’s family engagement plan.”

Address attitudes and power dynamics

One key factor toward building family engagement is to “address the innate power dynamics,” according a report from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — Cultivating a Community of Champions for Children. “Parents want to stand on equal footing with school officials and not appear as lesser supplicants asking for ‘permission’ to make changes.”  They also argue that it’s vital for schools to “value parents as the true experts when it comes to their children: Along with parental expertise, schools should value families’ intangible assets, such as cultural wisdom and knowledge of the community. Absent that, schools can seem aloof and detached from their students’ everyday existence.”

Say yes to home visits

“Going out to the homes of students is a school’s underutilized superpower! #Homevisits build trusting relationships and strong communities!” according to Ekuwah Moses of the Las Vegas-based organization Faces that supports children’s academic, social, and emotional growth through family-school partnerships. 

Respect cultural beliefs

Don’t assume your school’s focus and methods for education align with parents and families in your school’s community. “The most important thing to remember is that families have their own unique way to raise and educate their children and it must be honored,” says Emily Francis, a North Carolina-based ESL teacher. “Have a strong belief that they are partners in the education process. Family engagement matters.”

Change the tone and build relationships

Create a truly welcoming environment for families so that they feel like partners, instead of visitors. “Change the ‘Visitors must report to the main office sign’ with ‘Welcome to our school. We appreciate you signing in at the main office. Thank you,’” says Dr. Steve Constantino, an organizational engagement expert. He also suggests that schools pledge to “dump back-to-school night next year. Instead, have a celebration [before] school starts. No academic conversations. No ‘school’ information. Just get to know people. Say hello. Ask them about their children or their culture. Build a relationship first. School stuff later.”

Make small gestures with big impact

There are tons of options for communication with families, but sometimes a handwritten note makes a huge impact. “With all the tech and fancy stuff at our fingertips, nothing beats a genuine handwritten note and an authentic connection,” says California educator John Stevens

Tools and apps you can use right now

Jennifer L. M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education, where she has been for nearly a decade. She is a curriculum designer and public high school educator in New York City. Jennifer is the creator of Right to Read, a literacy acceleration program for urban adolescent youth that’s steeped in social justice. She is an education writer and is co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference, which won the New York City Department of Education Excellence in School Technology Award this year. Jennifer regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation. Follow Jennifer online at www.jenniferlmgunn.com or on Twitter.

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