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The ‘Partner Parent’

Meet Kim Wilson. The Virginia resident is a regular in the classrooms of her second-grader son and preschooler daughter. She can be counted on to chaperone field trips or bake cupcakes, and she rarely misses a PTA meeting.

Kim Wilson volunteers every week at her kids' schools, stuffing envelopes to send home to other parents or reading to the class at story hour. But she'd like to find more ways to be involved in their education.

Maybe you already know Kim. She’s the coveted “partner parent”—the one teachers everywhere hope will walk into their classrooms on back to school night. She’s college-educated, lives in a safe, leafy, middle-class neighborhood, and drives a minivan. She cares deeply about her children’s education, helps them with homework, encourages extracurricular activities, and is assured they will both go to college.

Here’s something you might not know—she’s feeling a little frustrated.

Wilson may look like the cookie-cutter volunteer parent who has graced American classrooms since the 1950s, but she’s no June Cleaver. She’s a modern mom balancing a 30-hour-a-week management position at a local animal shelter with raising two children in a media-saturated, technology-driven world. She’s willing to pour punch at the occasional class party, and she’ll continue going to PTA meetings, but she’d like to be engaged in more meaningful ways.

 “It’s awkward because you don’t want to overstep your bounds,” says Wilson. “I really want to know more about how my children are doing, and you can only learn so much from an annual teacher conference and a progress report. I’d like to know what subjects they enjoy, if they struggle with things, and what can I help them with.”

The authors of Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships explain how old-fashioned modes of parent involvement must be traded for a new model in which families and school staff together decide meaningful ways for more parents to be engaged in their children’s learning. The best way to accomplish this, says co-author Anne Henderson, is to be clear from the outset about how parents can participate and be willing to teach them how.

“So many parents say ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, I don’t know how to help, I’m not sure how, or if, I should check homework,’” Henderson says. “Be clear with parents about what they can do, and then lead the way. Hold a series of workshops for helping children with math. Hold a math night, a science project night, or a night devoted to taming the homework monster. Research shows that parents will use that information and kids will do better as a result.”