School Communication

Parent Engagement Without Activism

Parent involvement vs. parent engagement in schools is a constant struggle. What can schools do to engage their families? What motivates families to engage and stay engaged?

Once upon a time, there was a town with two rival high schools, North High School and South High School, on opposite sides of town. Even though it was mutually agreed between these high schools that they would never have their spring musical at the same time, one year it happened. The musicals usually ran for two weeks, and this time was no different. On opening weekend, the town newspaper printed a large layout with several full-color photos  of South High School’s musical. On the inside page of the Entertainment Section was a small blurb with just the dates and times of North High School’s musical. 

The House Manager, a student at North High School, was enraged and wrote a letter containing a scripted message, including the  phone number and email address of the Editor for the town newspaper. The House Manager then sent the letter home with all 150 company members of the North High musical. The next day, the principal of North High School had a long conversation with the Editor of the town newspaper, apologizing for the House Manager’s actions. The newspaper Editor had come to work with a full inbox, and many many emails from angry parents. Needless to say, the cover story of the entertainment section was all photos of North High School’s musical the following weekend, and moving forward, both high schools were equally represented in the town paper. The student House Manager was never asked to be a House Manager again, but the North High School auditorium had a full house for the second weekend’s performances!

When looking for an example of parent involvement vs. parent engagement, this story is a great example of the latter, with immediate results that benefited the students, and ultimately the school, with a packed auditorium. How do we engage parents today without having to turn them into activists who aggravate their local press? 

Let’s start by asking, what went right in this story? It was easy for parents to act because they had clear information.  A script was written out for them, they had the email and phone number in their hands. They just had to take two minutes to either call or send an email with the words written on the paper. 


What does parent engagement mean?

Karen Mapp, an expert on family engagement from Harvard University, describes family engagement as, “real, respectful partnerships between families and school staff — they are beginning to see this as an absolutely essential ingredient to not only student improvement, but also school improvement.1 She is acknowledging that there needs to be a relationship between home and school and that parents do take part.

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What can schools do to facilitate this relationship?

Something that worked well in the story above was parent-school communication. The communication may have bordered on inappropriate, but it was simple, clear, and direct. Families knew exactly what was expected of them and what they needed to do. Providing very direct communication to parents from the school helps build this relationship. 

There may be a fear that parents won’t want to be engaged, or they won’t do certain things. 

However, if parents today are meeting in fields to scream, they probably would be open to subscribing to a teacher page, filling out an online form or survey, and partaking in discussions about what’s being taught in the classroom. The school’s job is to make the information available, easy to find, and consistent.


What’s something families can do (besides screaming)?

Parents are up for anything, and after these past two years, open to trying new things. Empower families to go beyond the typical question, “How was school today?” and really engage with their children. Because they will have clear communication from the school about what is happening in the classroom, families can now ask, “Did you choose if human beings were good or evil?” (from an English class assignment), or “How are things going with the Quadratic Formula?” (from Math). They can see assignments from Google Classroom, or upcoming test dates, because information for families is available all in the same place, and it’s easy to find. Families worry that they need to know all about the topic being discussed in class, but they really just need to ask their child questions. Their child will feel supported, and academic outcomes will increase. Now the bridge between school and families is complete. 

Families feel they can’t contribute to what’s going on with their child’s education. It’s important for the school to facilitate that relationship with clear communication, easy to find information about their child’s teacher, or class, and provide opportunities for families to ask their child questions to bridge the family-school relationship. 

Remember, not all parent engagement has to end in activism—but every once in a while, it doesn’t hurt. 




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