Like many schools in the Northeast, my suburban middle school in New Jersey has become a community that has changed from a traditionally homogeneous community to a diverse one. I see this as an advantage, a reflection of the world we live in today, giving us a global perspective in a nation known for its diversity. But when communities change, challenges come with it. One of those challenges for us was low attendance at parent-teacher conferences for students most in need.
Parents of at-risk students often either don’t consider scheduling a conference a priority, or they may have English-language challenges. These parents may harbor negative feelings about their own experiences, which also keep them away. For them, visiting the school may cause them to relive a traumatic experience.
This population of parents has steadily increased as our school’s demographics have shifted. For example, a decade ago about 5 percent of our population was what I will refer to as “at-risk,” and that number has increased to about 15 percent in just 10 years. In a school of 1,300 students, that equates to a jump from 65 students to nearly 200. This population cannot go unnoticed, or worse, ignored. So, how do you begin to engage a population that is either resistant to or unaware of the urgency to bring them on board to help their child achieve? We found a solution that can be replicated.
Confronting the Challenge
Develop a systemized plan to ensure success with encouraging parents of at-risk students to attend parent-teacher conferences.
1. Determine students who are struggling academically, and compile data. You can run a report using your student software to identify students struggling academically (those with D’s or F’s). This can be done in most commercial school software, and it works well for spring conferences. However, if it’s early in the school year, you would be wise to do what we did—ask the teachers to submit names via a form.
Once you have a list of names, organize form submissions into a Google sheet. Go to the “Responses” tab of your editable form, and select the green sheets icon on the right. Once you select this green sheets icon, you’ll see a prompt to “CREATE A NEW SPREADSHEET.” Click “CREATE,” and it will open your sheet with all the student data you requested populated, so you’re ready with all the data you might need.
2. Use a schoolwide communication blast to alert the identified group about the need to support their child with a conference scheduled in advance (before you schedule the full school population). This is necessary because parents scheduling conferences proactively often have less need of a conference, but they do schedule them and fill blocks quickly. This creates the problematic cycle of unsuccessful students being at a disadvantage due to lack of school/parent interaction on how to help the child achieve.
When we took time to call and give identified families scheduling access in advance of the rest of the school population, typically about one-third of parents responded to this proactive call—a big improvement over the less than 20 percent response rate we traditionally received. But we were not satisfied with this number. The next year we decided to pursue the calls with follow-up calls made a day or two later by secretarial staff members—just a friendly reminder inviting them in advance of regular conference calls. Immediately, we saw this number double. Two-thirds of identified families were now scheduled for conferences!
You might think we were happy with those numbers, but we were not. I began looking at patterns of those still not scheduling conferences.
3. Bring their language to them. A clear pattern emerged: The majority of remaining families did not speak English in the home. Schools that succeed in engaging families from very diverse backgrounds focus on building trusting, collaborative relationships among teachers, families, and community members; recognizing, respecting, and addressing families’ needs; as well as acknowledging class and cultural differences. They embrace a partnership philosophy in which power and responsibility are shared. This seemed obvious, but in our busy day-to-day work, it went unnoticed. Language was a barrier, and trust is instilled in common understanding.
I identified individuals on my staff who were fluent in Spanish and Arabic. This mattered because these were the two most represented languages in the school after English. Equipped with individuals able to communicate in either language, our parents of at-risk students willing to attend conferences jumped from 66 to 80 percent.
4. At the next conference scheduling cycle, engage staff to help make the calls in various languages. Provide staff with a specific script, and explain the value of building trust, even in the first couple of moments of a phone interaction. First impressions are made literally within the first few seconds, in well under a minute. We role-played the scenarios—thinking about approach, effect, and tone, regardless of the language—and discussed this approach with native-born speakers on our staff. We were ready to tackle the final hurdle.
Recognizing the Results
This past spring, we broke a barrier—90 percent of our at-risk-identified students were scheduled for parent-teacher conferences! That figure was staggering, a more than fourfold increase, when you consider that just a few years prior we were not even appealing to that population and were lucky to break 20 percent attendance for this population at conferences. Even when we did request they call, the number hit only 33 percent.
Once scheduled, you may wonder: Do these parents actually come to the scheduled conferences? The fact is that we have seen between 80 and 85 percent of parents of at-risk students show up to their scheduled conferences. I see that as a positive. This is a huge increase from the 20 percent we used to see. Parents who wouldn’t have otherwise considered it are coming to the school and into classrooms, where they can see firsthand how supportive and caring their child’s teachers are. Progress is made at this pivotal realization point.
Collaboration is the only way to move students’ achievement levels in the right direction. This is a systematized process, like an algebraic equation with multiple parts in which all must be orchestrated properly to get the desired outcome. These are manageable steps, replicable anywhere. If you want to get students the help they need, start at the foundation. Embrace your parent community, and then watch the collaboration take place. I have seen it with my own faculty. Parents start to believe they have a support system in place, and that changes their relationship with school.
Michael Gaskell is the principal of Hammarskjold Middle School in East Brunswick, NJ.
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