How can parental involvement in schools improve?
**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**
A guest post by Michael J. Ryan
During this season of public school awards and recognition ceremonies, I am reminded of a middle school principal who at one awards ceremony finger-wagged at families. She first thanked everyone for attending. Then, with obvious disappointment, she highlighted that she had not seen most of the adults at all during the school year.
The conversation involving charter schools often includes debatable issues regarding the quality and/or treatment of the teachers, the dedication to sustainable continuity of teaching staff and whether or not charter schools live by the same rules as traditional public schools. However, one aspect that is never debated is many charter schools, which are public schools, demand parents sign a “contract” to volunteer.
Some doubt that these contracts or covenants are fully enforced and others point to imaginative methods to allow “volunteer” hours for parents who live some distance away. However, the act of signing a contract obviously means something.
As a former PTA president, I understand the significant challenges in getting families to successfully cross the threshold of a school. We know, however, once families volunteer or engage, they quickly learn that family engagement in the school environment generates positive benefits for their own children and for the school environment at large.
You don’t have to be an accomplished educator or a Nobel-prize winning economist to understand the benefits of familial engagement in education. Imagine the dollars saved if more families volunteered for projects involving our schools, the benefits of having more people to read, tutor and mentor and the positive long-term economic boost from smarter, more successful students which, in turn, would strengthen public education.
However, sadly, familial engagement in our public schools is not always what it should or could be. When did it become acceptable for parents and guardians to never engage in their child’s school?
Fully-funded, free and equal public education is a constitutional right that must be protected and can never be denied. Schools recognize some households are struggling, working multiple jobs with challenging hours or raising children alone. Others may have difficulty volunteering often or feel they have little to offer. Language differences can work to undermine confidence in the benefits of engaging in a school.
We know, as a result, we cannot generate a mandatory volunteer policy in public education that is fully enforceable against those who refuse to engage. At the same time, we can’t rely on more community meetings to solve this familial engagement crisis.
For municipalities who do not control education, the lack of familial engagement is not something to ignore. We know that strong schools support vibrant neighborhoods, which translates into safer and more economically stable communities. While implementing municipal-based solutions when schools are governed by a separately elected board of education is challenging, the impact of failing to try directly and negatively impacts municipal governments.
So what to do?
We must begin by altering the expectations for a parent or guardian and families in a quality public education system. Public education is a collective commitment intended to build future success for our children and our society involving the entire community, including, not excluding, families.
Schools need to develop a true, sustained and supported customer service model, like we see in businesses who must compete, to overcome fears and preconceived notions, as well as blunt negative past experiences. Schools must embrace the notion that some families may be intimidated or may have had experiences in the past where the school was not as welcoming as it could have been. Directly communicating a customer-friendly atmosphere can be a challenge since not every “customer” comes to the school, but it is not impossible. It starts, perhaps, in the car loop and the front desk, and progresses outward to those who do not come to the school.
Next, schools must understand that not all families will have someone who will be able volunteer inside the school or as part of the curriculum. So, developing a menu of opportunities to engage must include at home projects and potential in-kind efforts.
Additionally, if engagement is the goal, let’s re-think what engagement in education means. Since we recognize that not all families can volunteer or will have the confidence that they have something to offer, changing the definition of engagement offers opportunities to achieve compliance with overall educational goals. Maybe re-define engagement to include meeting with the teacher or administrator to learn about how the student is doing in school, reading to the student at night, going over the homework assignments or attending a school wide event or meeting.
Start with that level of engagement, track it, praise it and encourage different types of engagement. Set a baseline expectation of 1 hour per week, which is roughly 40 hours per school year. Then, watch the hours grow through a visible tracking system communicated to the community.
While we recognize benefits to the students should be enough incentive, developing other incentives for parents or rewards to students for engagement can help as well. Of course, we must be mindful the system of incentives does not operate to punish students who cannot find a family member to engage.
Municipalities which do not control education have an important role to play in addressing the crisis of familial engagement. Prioritizing engagement in schools as a theme in meetings with community, inter-faith, and business leaders sets the tone. Establishing the benefits to the community at large helps to generate a gravitational pull towards the school if for no other reason than self-interest in an economically stable community.
In the end, it is time to have all families sign a covenant, or contract, to engage in their respective schools. The act of signing a “contract” or covenant means something. Even the lack of enforcement options generates only marginal incremental increases in engagement, in whatever form defined, we can no longer ignore the current familial engagement crisis. We owe it to ourselves and our young minds to try something.
Michael J. Ryan is a partner with the Fort Lauderdale law firm Krupnick Campbell Malone Buser Slama Hancock & Liberman, a former president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Sawgrass Elementary School and former chair of the City of Sunrise Education Advisory Board. Mr. Ryan also currently serves as Mayor of the City of Sunrise, Fla.