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Engaging Parents In Schools Involves More Than Contracts

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Getting parents actively involved in their child’s schooling is both an art and a science. Busy work schedules and a lack of knowledge about how to help their kids are a few reasons why many parents aren’t present in schools, and these challenges are often magnified in urban districts. Sometimes schools make a special effort to get parents connected. Ideastream’s Michelle Kanu has this story of one.

Monday, April 30, 2012 at 5:10 pm

At Warner Girls Leadership Academy in southeast Cleveland, this squirrely group of fourth graders always gets excited when a dad walks into the classroom.

Crosby: “Hey, how you all doin’? See, a lot of them know me. Well I’m here this morning to read to you guys."

Dan Crosby, a father of two girls, is here as part of the Real Men Read program. It’s just one of several activities this urban school has for parents to get involved in their kids’ education. Crosby comes to this event a couple times a year.

Crosby: “alright ladies, the name of this book is ‘Let Freedom Sing'….”

Like many parents, Crosby works full time and has to rearrange his schedule in order to drop in to his daughter’s class at 10 a.m.

Crosby: “You know what, it is kind of difficult, I must admit. But, my daughters and my family is the most important thing, so I make time. The job that I work I can work different shifts, we pick every six months, so I try to pick my job around my family.”

That’s music to the ears of school principal Audrey Station…though the school does try to be flexible in its efforts to connect parents with students in the classroom…or “wild flowers” as the girls are affectionately called.

Staton: “Every size does not fit all. So every event cannot support the need of every family. So, my family may not have a dad in place, or a mom in place. I may have a single father that’s raising a wild flower, so I have to have something offered for him.”

The variety of parental activities sets this school apart as does the contract that parents sign at the beginning of the year.

Kids have to apply to attend Warner Girls Leadership Academy, one of Cleveland’s specialty public schools. Just as the school tries to pick kids who are “the right fit,” it screens the parents too and requires them to sign a contract promising to be involved with homework, teacher conferences and at least one school event.

Staton: “It helps to make it clear what our message is as a collaborative piece. The parents, the administration, the teachers, as well as the community.”

Chaney: “So you have four dollars and thirteen cents. And you’re giving me a five, so tell me how much change you should get back?”

On a Friday afternoon, Lekisha Robinson-Chaney came to math night to help her third grade daughter practice her subtraction skills. Chaney agrees the contract is important for parents.

Chaney: “I think it made a big difference, because you had to make a commitment. And, a lot of times, just being honest, if you don’t have to, a lot of parents won’t. And because you have to, more parents do it.”

Nikita Greer has two girls at Warner and teaches at another Cleveland public school. Greer says the contract helps, but schools have to give parents specific strategies on how to engage in their child’s education.

Greer: “We need to educate parents. The same way we educate our kids in school, we need to educate parents on what parent involvement is, what it does, and actually show them.”

Research shows having involved parents translates into real academic gains for kids—like better attendance and graduation rates. But Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education in Virginia, says a contract alone doesn’t automatically guarantee parents will be involved in their child’s school.

Patte Barth: “As in any human enterprise, it’s probably better to build trust through relationships, rather than through mandate.”

Fourth grade teacher Megan Scully can attest to that. She says Warner staff build trust with parents during their first interaction and communicate with them frequently over the year. Scully says it’s that combination of setting clear expectations with parents and connecting with them personally that works.

Scully: “We really try to focus on the positive. So by starting the year with welcoming the parents and focusing on their child, their daughter—the positive, and not just calling them in when there is a problem. So kind of preventing problems by building the relationship with the parents on a positive note, I think that’s probably the biggest part that gets the parents involved.”

Warner Girls Leadership Academy is currently rated in continuous improvement—a “C” in the state’s grade book. Principal Audrey Staton says she’s made it clear to parents they need to do their part at home to help their daughters improve their test scores in order for the school’s rating to jump up to excellent.

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