Long gone are the days when principals sent a letter home to parents informing them about a major event at school. Now, thanks to the social media revolution, communication comes in a different form, but parental contact is just as important as ever, and probably more so. We convened a roundtable in September to find out how principals are dealing with this issue. The panel included Christine Brandt, principal at Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma, WA; Adam Bunting, principal at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, VT; and Joe Mazza, principal at Seven Bridges Middle School in Chappaqua, NY. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion.
Levin-Epstein: From the principal’s point of view, how has parental engagement changed in the last five to 10 years?
Bunting: The principle thing that has changed is the speed with which contact can happen between schools and between families, and our society’s definition of “normal” for how fast we need to both respond to things and to get the message out there. I realized early as principal about the power of what happens when we take the reins with some of that communication and that engagement, both in terms of encouraging parents to come into the school and in terms of communication.
For our ninth-grade program that we have at our school, we insist that every parent comes in with their child for two days over the summer and meets with the team of teachers. It’s really important for relationship building with both the students and the family, but it also creates a positive culture in our school.
But, we have to be moderately relentless to ensure that we get every single family in. We focus on the 5 percent who are more reluctant. Some parents have negative associations with school from their own educational path, or some people have two jobs and it’s challenging. We have to be flexible and also make sure that we’re contacting people, that we’re calling them, and that we don’t let it slip through the cracks. Because if you do, the people who really need that connection the most don’t come in.
Then there’s the CVU Celebrations. It’s a simple email I send out every Friday, and I try to highlight some of the bright spots from the week. I send a short informal message, but really I’m asking the community to send me pictures, send me little things, examples of where our school is living its mission of “Take care of yourself. Take care of each other. Take care of the place.” I was astounded by how important that communication has become to families, to parents. It’s one thing when principals say, “Hey, when I walk down the hall, 99 percent of the people I see are smiling; it’s a wonderful connection, this is a happy place to be.” Parents hear those words from principals, read those words … but they also know that sometimes administrators will put a spin on things. But when they see pictures, and they see specific moments, and they see their kids highlighted and smiling, that really becomes a powerful tool for engaging the whole community, and with great frequency.
Brandt: Tacoma Public Schools has been using School Messenger—a web-supported platform that allows me to call and email parents—for over 10 years. When a student is enrolled, they are automatically added to our school list to receive phone calls or emails. Parents can opt out, but this rarely happens. We also engage parents in our student-led conferences twice a year, in October and then again in March. We invite all students and parents/guardians to attend. It allows for students to share their academic progress using iReady data, classroom assessment data, and for parents to meet the advisory teacher who stays with students for three years.
We also offer a transition night in April—our Science and Sustainability Fair (S&S Fair) and our AVID Showcase—which allows current and incoming sixth-grade students and parents to come and visit Jason Lee Middle School for a tour, participate in our S&S Fair, and then visit rooms that are led by our AVID-elective students regarding what AVID is and highlighting the strategies students will learn to better their learning process. Jason Lee also has a Twitter account we use to share information with parents. With the increase in quicker communication, I have seen a decline in parent participation at Back to School Nights and Curriculum nights.
Mazza: For most of us, tube TVs, flip phones, and typewriters are a thing of the past. Those things have become obsolete because we’ve found personal technologies that are more efficient with greater functionality. Now change your lens for a moment. Instead of technology, look at your family, school, and community-engagement norms with fresh eyes. Chances are, your practices may not have aged well, but there are so many other ways to get to family, school, and community today.
Research tells us “the responsibility for building partnerships between school and home rests primarily with school staff, especially school leaders.” In other words, if your goal is engagement for student learning and well-being, you must be proactive. Don’t wait for the parents to engage. Host a classroom or grade-level family potluck dinner event. Learn about other cultures. Send out digital surveys on a monthly basis—try a Facebook poll. Find a more efficient way to listen to what is best for your families.
Parent-teacher conferences can and should occur when necessary. A parent or a teacher must be able to call a timeout and discuss progress. Kids need to see that their parents and their teachers are on the same team from the first day to the last day. Include students in the conversation. Set a goal for the student to lead at least one conference per year.
Having conferences in the physical presence of one another is the best-case scenario, but face-to-face conversations can happen via FaceTime or web conference when necessary. For some parents, leaving work to come over to school causes issues, depending on the employer.
Levin-Epstein: How much of your communication with parents is through “traditional” methods as opposed to social media?
Bunting: In terms of traditional—when we think about paper copies, things like that—maybe 5 percent. But if we included email in the traditional category, it’s huge—sometimes to our chagrin—I’d say almost 70 percent. Then you’ve got blogs and tweets. I may be misinformed here, but sometimes I think of blogs as fancy emails, so I almost put it in the same category as email. Most of our traffic is through our website. Meaningful communication? I think about the power of actually listening to someone and pausing, whether it’s on the phone or in person. The more we maximize that, the better. While [talking by phone or in person is] traditional, I think sometimes we can’t just be the creators of content; we’ve got to put ourselves in positions where we can actively listen. Like the old quote: “Listen with the intent to understand, not to reply.” That’s another powerful way to engage people.
Brandt: Ninety percent of my communication with parents is phone calls or email. I do use Twitter to share what is going on at school, but parents do not use this app very much. Our parents run a Facebook page that was in existence before I became the principal, and it works very well for parent communication. If there is misinformation, I can contact our PTA—which oversees the Facebook page—to address anything, but this is rarely needed. I think only once we had to address an issue in the six years I have been at Jason Lee.
Mazza: Consider new events to engage parents: Host a classroom or grade level family potluck dinner. Learn about other cultures. Parents want and need to see their kids engage with other kids.
Livestream the events that happen in your school. There are many parents who travel for business, and there are many grandparents who would LOVE to see their grandchildren in school. Transparency is important for developing trust. If we commit to creating glass walls around our school, we equip our families with ways they can engage deeper with the school and their child.
Or, host a ParentCamp. Since 2012, ParentCamps have grown in popularity in schools across the country. Today, the U.S. Department of Education uses this “unconference” format to personalize the learning for large in-house events and offer a high level of engagement among attendees. Since participants choose their own sessions, they leave with vital resources, but more importantly they exchange contact information (e.g., Twitter handles) to keep the conversation and learning going well after the face-to-face event.
Levin-Epstein: Do you ever send videos to parents of what your students are doing?
Bunting: I do it all the time in my weekly correspondence. I actually tend not to use a blog, because I’ve found that if I send a link that people need to click on, they’re less likely to do it. But when they have an email that pops open and they see an image, they see a video embedded there, you grab their attention right away, particularly when you do it consistently, when they come to expect it. I have parents who often say, “You know what my favorite thing to do is on a Friday night? I like to sit down with a glass of wine and just read what’s happened this week, see what the bright spots were.” That always makes me happy.
So, we’ll do yearly videos. We always send out the “welcome to the school year” letter, but what’s really fun is to get together with some of our media specialists and students to create something that’s sort of fun and goofy. We did that this year; I was pretending to have my welcoming messages around this huge book of rules, and then the kids cut me off and splice it in where they hijack the communication and really gave the important message. Having some fun and being goofy in a video is a great way to do that.
Levin-Epstein: Give me an example of how to try to engage parents in an activity, perhaps in an unusual way.
Bunting: I’m not so sure how unusual it is—project-based learning isn’t all that unusual these days—but with Vermont’s push toward both a proficiency-based graduation and personalized learning, and looking at flexible pathways toward graduation, that’s opened up some really powerful communication with parents.
Our flexible pathway, we call it our “nexus pathway,” is for students who really want to take control of their learning journey, who want to break away from some of the traditional silo-ing of credits. We have all sorts of exhibitions where students really are demonstrating their proficiency, and it’s amazing how excited people are to come in and be a part of that. Having said that, we do two things. We also have what we call “graduation challenge”—and it’s all of our seniors, it’s a capstone project—where they take on new learning of their own pursuit and a research paper and experience all of that. I think lots of schools do that. But this year we’re also launching what we’re calling a “RISE program (Relevant Interest-Based Student Experiences)” and that’s where every single student, for two weeks at the end of the year, is going to be involved in a year-end study.
It’s more of a J-Term model [a period between semesters where students immerse themselves in a single subject], but we really are relying on our community to help create environments where kids can learn, whether it’s from internships at the hospital to apprenticing with a machine shop or working in a lab. Our parents have so many resources, and building those relationships with them has become a real partnership where we’re all thriving. I think the students thrive because the school and the parents are aligned and we’re educating together. It’s how we should raise our kids, but it also helped that engagement in ways that we frankly need. We need them and their expertise, their connections, and their thoughts.
Brandt: We have started using restorative justice practices to address conflict in our school. We have invited parents to participate in these to support their student. Although we are only in our first year of full implementation, we have seen an improvement in how our parents are responding and understanding what we are trying to do with our restorative justice conferences/circles. We are always wanting our parents to engage in volunteering and have many opportunities through field trips and other activities we participate in.
Levin-Epstein: Have you had any kind of a crisis that necessitated your communicating with parents?
Bunting: I’ve had several, sadly. For me, one of my rules of thumb is that I’m going to err on the side of—I don’t want to say over-communication—but empowering our parents with as much information as I can. Typically, in any crisis situation, the challenge is to stay ahead of the game with what information is being communicated, often in ways that are inaccurate, through social media. We had a student a couple of years ago who was very sick. Rumors started spreading that the student had passed away. It created this crisis mode in the school. When I got the information right as the school day was ending, I [was] like, “Oh my gosh, these kids are heading home and they don’t have the accurate information.” We actually had to be really aggressive with a robo-call or with email with as much information as we could possibly respectfully give our community so that parents could deal with their kids.
The second example, and I would not put this in the crisis category, is the challenging topic of sexting. We had a situation where we had ended up—through a harassment investigation—needing to search somebody’s phone, and of course, that led to more phones and more pictures. Any high school administrator will understand how that situation cascades. I wrote, I think, a pretty honest letter about what was happening, not in a judgmental way but just really asking questions about sexting and what’s normal and what’s not. I think I touched a nerve with parents in a positive way just because of the candor and the honesty. Again, not putting a spin on things, just saying, “Hey, I think these are some questions that we’re all wondering. How do we work together to think about it?” I think just that authenticity and honesty help—it feels scary when you’re doing it as a leader, but I think it helps to build the community that we really want.
Brandt: Yes, unfortunately we had a threat at our school that put us in lockdown for a substantial amount of time. What I learned is that parents wanted immediate communication from me. Many parents supported that we were in the middle of the threat, and they were happy my priority was keeping their child safe, but it reminded me that having a quicker way to communicate with parents for situations like this would be nice. We also have had some of what I will call “stranger danger” for students, and when this happens, we always send out the information that was reported to us from the community, as well as some basic safety precautions parents can remind students about.
Mazza: As you build those relationships with families, you are making investments into the parent-teacher partnership. Make positive school-home communications a norm, like the #GoodNewsCallOfTheDay movement led by Mark French [Gatewood Elementary School, Minnetonka, MN]. Make it a point to let parents know that their child is thriving. When a crisis occurs, you can rely on that strong partnership you’ve built to be able to work together with the child at the center of the table.
Levin-Epstein: Can you give me an example of where a parent has reached out to you with a suggestion that you implemented?
Bunting: The first two examples that leap to mind would be starting—and I think it’s a national program—Link Crew. That’s really turning over the orientation of the ninth graders to upperclassmen, where they are with upperclassmen mentors for the full half-day that they come into our school. That came from a parent. They suggested it in the spring; we launched it the next fall. It wasn’t even a year from the mention to us launching it. Boy, was it successful! Our ninth graders are reporting how connected they feel and what it means to have an upperclassman taking responsibility for them. Conversely, the upperclassmen are saying, “Wow, isn’t it amazing to have this leadership position?” That came from a parent’s suggestion and kind of prodding me a little bit beyond just an email.
A second example would be actually a concern that a parent raised. We have our Winter Carnival every year. It’s sort of becomes a competition among the classes, which is fun, and we’re all in the gym. The kids are doing dances for their classes in front of everybody, and there’s a trike race, which is interesting to organize for 1,300 kids. But what was happening was—there would be chanting going around—all of a sudden some of the ninth graders were getting picked on. A parent pointed that out to me. From that communication, it helped me to understand that here we are putting all this emphasis on bullying, harassing, and hazing, and trying to combat it, and we’re almost creating a situation where kids are being hazed. It’s more of a pep rally format, but I think it’s become so normalized to us that we didn’t realize people were feeling that way. We took that on, and Winter Carnival was very different. Our seniors, who were kind of annoyed at how I was saying we needed to change things, said at the end of it, “Wow. That felt a lot better. It feels much more like the CVU that we know and love” as opposed to this weird tradition that we’ve had around for a long time.
And then, a third quick example would be around the importance of various diversity training for the faculty, whether we’re talking about race or issues around gender or taking on some of the transgender things that we need to be taking on as principals and as school communities. Oftentimes, that’s coming from a parent saying, “Hey, are you paying attention to this?” or “I saw this article. What’s happening in the school?”
Brandt: Parents give us all kinds of feedback. We do an annual parent climate survey where we ask parents how we are doing on things such as challenging their student to learn, supporting their student to learn, safety, diversity, and much more. I am so grateful when I get the results because I can see how the parents are viewing our school, as well as receive feedback on how to improve. Our PTA came to us to suggest a fundraiser that included students being active and participating in a walkathon while also raising money for our school. We will be having our walkathon in a few weeks.
Parents also have given us feedback through student-led conferences. Last year we asked students to share data with their parents on math and reading from students’ iReady results for the year. The conversation was to have students share what the scores mean, what it means to the students learning, and then, with parents, set goals for learning and growth in both math and reading. We received feedback from parents, how they appreciated their student being able to share their challenges, how they were going to address them through goal setting, and what they were being successful on. Because of the parent feedback of how informative it was to them, we will be keeping this process as our student-led conference protocol to share students’ learning and growth.
Mazza: You can’t evolve your family, school, and community partnerships in one school year. You’ve got to take a good look in the mirror as a school and lean on your parent leadership to steer you toward where your school needs to focus first. When a school and parent leaders work with each other, kids win. Model the partnership and empower your staff to continue evolving their own practices. Follow the four core beliefs in the book Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships. … One of the best resources is the “Four Versions of Family-School Partnerships.” And, remember, the teachers have not had much, if any, training on how to engage families and the community. Before engaging in any serious changes to your family engagement work, host a self-reflection opportunity for parents and educators. … A cross-lens (parents and educators) book chat using Beyond the Bake Sale will allow your learning community to connect research to practice and understand your vision of growth.