The New Community Engagement

By Lawrence Hardy

Andrea Lawful-Trainer calls it simply “The Code,” and while that might sound like a great name for an action-espionage thriller, she’s talking about something more routine: the way school districts and the people who work in them conduct their business.

There’s nothing wrong with The Code, by the way. In fact, you could say it’s indispensible. Businesses, the military, government agencies -- they all have systems for dealing with the increasingly complex arenas in which they operate. And the same goes for school districts. Just don’t expect parents to be experts at cracking your code -- at least, not without a lot of help.

“Most parents don’t know how to navigate a school,” says Lawful-Trainer, a member of Pennsylvania’s Abington School Board and an ex officio minority delegate to NSBA’s Board of Directors.

Breaking down The Code involves more than simply translating educational jargon into words parents can understand (though that’s a good place to start). It means changing the way school districts respond to parents and make them a part of what should be a community enterprise, the work of educating the next generation.

“Families are welcome in many, many school districts,” Lawful-Trainer says. “They don’t believe that they are. They don’t feel that they are.” What’s sometimes missing, she says, is not an attempt at outreach (all of those picnics and parent nights), but a plan for fostering long-term relationships.

How important is it for parents to feel welcome in your schools? Just ask Anne W. Foster, executive director of Parents for Public Schools (PPS), a nonprofit group that began in Jackson, Miss., more than 20 years ago and has branched out to 15 chapters in 11 states.

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