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Parent Partnership Solutions

Member-tested ideas for solving the parent puzzle

by Cindy Long

Photo by Danny Peck
 Although research has definitively proven that parents’ involvement in their childen’s schools raises student achievement, most educators would agree that the process of getting parents fully engaged in school is no walk in the park. Unless they teach at Captain James E. Daly Elementary School in Germantown, Maryland, that is.

Twice a year, Daly’s teachers, staff, and administrators hold a “Walk in the Park” at nearby Middlebrook Mobile Home Park, where more than 60 percent of the school’s Hispanic students live. It’s a way to say hello to familiar faces, and to break the ice with new families and those who’ve been reluctant to visit the school, which is about a mile away.

“We’ve found that if you want parents to come to you, first, you have to come to them,” says Georgina Fountain, a music teacher at Daly and the school’s Maryland State Education Association representative, who joined her colleagues at the most recent “Walk in the Park.”

It’s a common sense approach to one of the most vexing problems in education today—how to build and maintain strong parent-teacher partnerships that allow students to achieve their full academic potential.

So what’s an educator fed up with no-shows on back-to-school-night to do? Read on!

In a recent Parenting magazine and National Education Association (NEA) survey of public school parents and educators, both groups categorized their relationship with the other as “open,” but they also reported significant obstacles to forming true partnerships. But for each partnership challenge revealed by the Parenting/NEA survey, there is an innovative NEA affiliate- or member-led solution.

We’ve outlined six of the most common communication challenges reported by respondents, along with field-tested solutions to solving the challenges. For the full parent-teacher survey results, visit

Challenge 1: More than a quarter of parents feel their biggest challenge is teachers’ lack of understanding of their concerns.

Solution: Listen up!

When parents report that teachers don’t understand their concerns, what they’re usually saying is that they don’t feel they’re being heard. Often parents are contacted only when their child is having a problem with academics or behavior. But parents have a whole calendar year full of questions and concerns about their child, and it’s part of the educator’s job to listen to those worries and help alleviate anxiety for students and their parents.

That was the idea behind Upper Merion Area Middle School’s “Successful Transitions” program in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The program was launched after parents expressed concern about their kids moving from the smaller, safer elementary school to the much larger middle school.

The staff listened.

“It’s easy to forget how daunting moving from elementary to middle school can be for families,” says Jerry Oleksiak, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

To allay the fears of both students and parents, Successful Transitions’ year-long program gives rising middle-schoolers and their families the opportunity to get familiar with their new school through meetings, visits, tours, correspondence with pen pals (current students), and peer mentoring. Students and parents get to know the middle school campus, the school day routines and schedules, and the teachers and older students.

The program was developed by Action Team for Partnerships (ATP), a group of parents, teachers, students, and community partners who regularly meet to identify ways to build bridges between families and schools.


Successful parent engagement programs place equal responsibility on parents and teachers as co-educators.
Photo by Rudy Meyers

Challenge 2: One in three teachers say their biggest concern is parental misunderstanding of their children’s challenges.

Solution: Parents, Use Your Data

For most parents, monitoring their child’s grades, homework completion, and attendance is often the best way to gauge and guide progress and challenges. But if parents can’t access the data, they can be largely left in the dark.

When Washoe County School District in Reno, Nevada, began posting attendance and achievement data online in 2008, it was popular with a lot of parents. But many families with limited English and without home Internet access couldn’t get online to chart their student’s progress. In fact, the district found that 72 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch did not have an active parent account for the online information. Among English language learners, 74 percent did not have an account.

So, with the support of the Washoe Education Association, the district’s family engagement staff developed the Infinite Campus Parent Portal program to train more parents on how to access and interpret their children’s data.

 The program is managed by school staff, the  district’s Family School Partnership Office, and the state’s Parent Information and Resource Center. Using the district’s “Risk Index” for students, ninth graders deemed at risk were identified, and parent involvement volunteers reached out to their parents and guardians to provide support and training in using the portal. Now there’s also a training toolkit, support videos, and kiosk materials available in Spanish and English.

Workshops for parents explain what information is available on the portal, such as absences or tardies, grades for tests and quizzes, and upcoming assignments. Workshops are kept small so parents can work with the facilitators one on one to develop action plans using the portal.

During the 2010 – 2011 school year, the first the district could correlate parent portal use and student data, 582 parents of the 1,322 ninth graders “at risk” activated their account, and 397 have logged on more than once. By the middle of the year, 601 students on the Risk Index had earned three or more credits for graduation.

Ana Barajas’s son is a ninth grader in the district. “The parent portal helped me check his grades and open the communication between his teachers and me. It really helped me be a part of his education. I’m trying to show him that I care about his education.”

Challenge 3: A quarter of parents say they feel shut out of the collaborative process and are not given opportunities to offer input.

Solution: Hold Community Conversations Concerned about a widening achievement gap in Putnam City schools, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), with the support of the NEA, hosted a series of community conversations with parents and community members to determine people’s perspectives on the achievement gap.

They discovered that many parents, mostly from the Latino community, weren’t involved because they said they didn’t feel welcome at the school. There were language and culture barriers, and they simply weren’t aware that the school even wanted them there.

As a result of these conversations, Putnam City West High School created “Compadres in Education,” a program of outreach to Hispanic families. The program provides information sheets about the high school in Spanish and English, and has added bilingual staff members, bringing the number up to 25 percent of the staff, including a receptionist, an ELL graduation coach, and instructional assistants in ELL, algebra, and English.

“Compadres in Education” also holds quarterly Noche de Padres Hispanos (Hispanic Family Nights), where different topics are covered, such as the economic value of higher education, the challenges of raising teens, and the legal rights of immigrants.

“To ensure that all families feel welcome at school, we’re expanding this program into the African-American and Native-American communities as well,” says Linda Hampton, president of the OEA. “Our goal is to provide the support to ensure every child can realize his or her potential.”

Challenge 4: Only 54 percent of teachers feel that parents do their part at home to ensure that kids get the most out of classroom learning.

Solution: Go Team!

To get parents and teachers on the same page (sometimes literally), the Creighton Elementary School District in Phoenix, Arizona, came up with the idea of Academic Parent-Teacher Teams (APTT). The teams provide a structure for parents to meet with teachers, talk to other parents, and learn ways to support their child’s academic learning.

Rather than the traditional parent-teacher conferences, APTT holds three classroom team meetings with teachers and all the parents together, and one 30-minute individual parent-teacher conference (or more if needed). At the team meetings, the teacher models activities the parents can do at home with their children, and then the parents practice those activities with each other in small groups. Parents also share tips and tricks to overcome homework or subject challenges with their kids.

“Many parents wonder what the parents of kids at the top of the class are doing at home to make that happen,” says Maria Paredes, who started the APTT as the district director of community education. “Parents give other parents ideas of successful practices at home. It forms community.”

When the program began in 2009 – 2010, there were 12 teacher participants. A year later, there were 97. Now more than 90 percent of teachers are part of APTT, including Joshua Briese, a fourth-grade teacher at Excelencia Elementary School. “If I can get students doing anything at home related to what we do at school, it will have an impact,” he says.

Impact, indeed. Test data show remarkable gains—oral reading fluency, for example, rose nearly 25 points in APTT classrooms in 2009, while they rose by only 10 points in non-APTT classrooms. During the 2011 – 2012 school year, reading scores rose by 11 percent more in APTT classrooms than in non-APTT classes, and grew by 17 percent in math.

The participation rate of fathers is also higher in the team setting than it was in traditional parent conferences. And at APTT meetings, there is a 92 percent attendance rate, while traditional conference attendance rates hovered around 50 percent.

Challenge 5: Only 17 percent of teachers feel their opinions are taken seriously by parents.

Solution: The Common Core

Don’t worry, we don’t mean the Common Core standards. What we’re talking about here is parents and teachers agreeing on core values to best support student achievement.

When Sacramento ACT, a community organizing group, began asking families what would make the community a better place to raise their children, they discovered that parents had a deep mistrust of the schools.

Thus, a partnership was formed between the school district, the Sacramento Teachers Association, and Sacramento ACT to create the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project (PTHVP). (For more on PTHVP home visits, see page 54). The program was designed to address the cycle of blame between parents and educators at several Sacramento schools with a history of low student achievement, high levels of poverty, and a high percentage of English language learners.

Here’s how the PTHVP works: Educators are trained (and compensated) to make home visits in teams of two. They meet with the families and students together, with the focus of the conversation not on interventions but on anything that comes up—an upcoming algebra test, or their favorite soccer team. It’s simply a way to open the lines of communication.

For the project to be successful, it was agreed that some core values had to be established from the outset.

The first core value is that families and teachers are equally important co-educators; the family is the expert on the child, the teacher on the curriculum. Second, before teachers can effectively share information about academic status, teachers and parents must establish positive communication and address any communication barriers. And third, teachers must visit all students and families because only targeting challenging students will perpetuate the cycle of mistrust.

“In the home visit project training, we often rely on the quote that ‘people do not care about what you know until they know that you care,’ ” says PTHVP Executive Director Carrie Rose. “In communities where there may be cycles of blame between home and school, our home visit model provides a concrete, meaningful, and respectful opportunity to show that you care. Then families will start to care a whole lot more about what you know.”  

Challenge 6: Less than half of parents feel teachers hold enough conferences or meetings with them.

Solution: Reach Out Often a school will schedule a set amount of conferences during the course of the year, figuring that parents will ask for more if needed. The problem arises when parents don’t know that they can ask for more meetings.

Many of the parents living in the Middlebrook Mobile Home Park in Germantown, Maryland, for example, weren’t aware that they could go to the school as often as they’d like. And even when they were told they could, they still weren’t sure they’d be welcome.

It’s not the culture for families to be welcomed into the school system in many Latin American countries where they come from. And, many parents had bad experiences at their schools when they were growing up.

The staff and administrators realized that even if they let parents know they were willing to hold more meetings, the parents would need a little more coaxing to come to school.

To create trust with the parents at Middlebrook, educators learned that they needed to start by making warm, personal connections in a more casual environment, which is more in line with Latin American culture. 

At the most recent Walk in the Park, teachers and staff from Daly Elementary and nearby Neelsville Middle School brought boxes of  books, which they arranged on card tables set  up on the grass. Within minutes, the tables were surrounded, with little hands reaching in to grab everything from Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Harry Potter to Crispin and The Tale of Despereaux.

Soon, trailer doors opened and more parents walked over to the book fair, curious about all the activity.

That’s when the relationships began to build. Bilingual instructors introduced parents to other staff and administrators, answered questions, and passed out homework information packets in Spanish. The parents learned that the Hispanic Parents Council meet each week in Daly’s media room. They learned about weekly study circles where parents can learn English or other topics of interest. And they learned that the school was working with the community to find safe places for the park children to play.

“It’s essential to reach out, on a bilingual level,” says Emilia Roberts, a bilingual special education teacher. “Parents are reluctant to come into the school setting, or they don’t know how. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just not their culture. So they rely on us reaching out to them.”

Active parent Alma reads a book with daughter Emily.
Photo by Danny Peck
Alma has lived in Middlebrook Park for three years. Her daughter Emily, a kindergartener at Daly, has special medical needs that must be attended to throughout the day. The staff reached out to Alma to let her know they wanted to help.

“When I found out about the Hispanic Parents Council, I started coming to every single meeting,” Alma said, and through the meetings she was able to communicate Emily’s health needs through an interpreter.

She added:  “We all need to learn how to help our kids in school and to build better relationships with their teachers. I want to tell all the parents at Middlebrook, don’t be afraid, the meetings are wonderful. The school has concern for us and our children. They’re here to help.”




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