Parents' Place at School

By Del Stover

Everyone talks about involving parents more in the education of their children. But what exactly does that mean? Is the goal to encourage parents to take a greater interest in their student’s homework? Should school personnel recruit more parent volunteers for the classroom? Is putting parents on a school advisory committee part of the answer?

And how does a school board pull together such disparate efforts into an effective, systemwide initiative that has a meaningful impact on student achievement?

School leaders nationwide are asking these and other questions -- and with good reason. For all the talk about the importance of parent involvement in schools, the reality is “this is one of those areas where the rhetoric exceeds the execution,” says Arnold Fege, director of public engagement and advocacy for the Public Education Network, a national association seeking to advance school reform.

It’s not that school leaders aren’t trying. Many fine programs are being used in the nation’s schools. But it should come as no surprise that numerous school districts are still looking for ways to do a better job. There is, after all, no simple formula for engaging parents -- no step-by-step program that guarantees a healthy two-way relationship between school and family. Parent needs vary widely. What schools need from parents varies. And those strategies that foster parent involvement at an urban school with a large immigrant population can be very different from those in a suburban school serving an affluent community.

Yet, if this makes parent involvement efforts more complex, say experts in the field, it thankfully doesn’t prevent a school board from being successful. What’s needed, however, is a serious commitment by the superintendent and board to set goals and priorities, as well as to articulate exactly what successful parent involvement entails.

“If a district doesn’t establish parental involvement as a priority, if it doesn’t define what it means and how it will assess what the needs are, then it won’t work,” Fege says.

So, where to start? One source of inspiration is the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins University. Its director, Joyce Epstein, is a leader in the field of school-parent partnerships and has summarized decades of research, identified best practices, and put together useful advice on programming. Technical assistance and training also are available through her network.

Epstein has classified parent involvement into six types, ranging from helping parents with child-rearing skills to soliciting their advice in policy decisions. It’s a useful listing for school officials looking to determine if their parent-involvement strategies are as broad and encompassing as they would hope them to be.

Subscribers please click here to continue reading. If you are not a subscriber, please click here to purchase this article or to obtain a subscription to ASBJ.