Parent Involvement...begins with "Hello"

So here I was thinking that today might be an education free day. That because I was home with number #1 son who is suffering from a severe allergy attack (eyes swollen shut, miserable, and sighing loudly because he is so "bored") I would just be focused on him, being "super mom"...but best laid plans...

Because I saw this: Graphic: Teachers+Parents=Better Students about how the role of the parent is overlooked in the equation for student success. And I appreciate that someone finally has taken notice of something I advocated for as a District PTA leader for the last two years...and write about pretty much every day either in this blog, or on facebook, or on twitter...and that I know current District PTA leadership has been advocating for as well. But I want to make it clear. No matter how many articles written in our district newsletter (that went to school and district leadership), no matter how many emails sent, or workshops offered, or phone calls made, or meetings held...the problems with connecting with parents and families continue in our school district because the definitions we have about what the word engagement means are different. We aren't speaking the same language. In fact, in today's Huffington Post, Sean Slade of ASCD writes that Relationships Matter

That "All in all -- relationships matter. So the next time school improvement, turn-around, or reform efforts are discussed, ask whomever is talking how their plan develops what we know is key and cannot be overlooked -- relationships."

What I find eerily missing from this graphic is the parent's voice. Glad to see it the accompanying article (which I mention later in this post), but what is painfully obvious if you look at the data, is that parents and families are missing all-together from the school community. Somehow an incredible disconnect has occurred. Far too often when I was in a role of leadership I would hear from teachers "parents just don't care" and from parents "teachers just don't care." From Principal's I would hear "I wish all my parents were like you" and from parents "I wish my Principal would see I have something to offer." But instead of having a crucial conversation about what engagement should be, could be, and quite honestly is, people were talking behind closed doors about who wasn't in the room, instead of actively trying to get people into the room. 

Here are the numbers:

  • Doss High School: Staff 72, Enrollment 913, PTSA membership* : 64. 
  • Shawnee: Staff 52, Enrollment 580, PTSA membership 129. 
  • Fairdale HS: Staff 78, Enrollment 998, PTSA membership 383.
  • Southern HS: Staff 89, Enrollment 1,227, PTSA membership 54. FIFTY-FOUR MEMBERS. 
  • Fern Creek HS: Staff 92, Enrollment 1431, PTSA membership 219.
  • Stuart Middle School: Staff 75, Enrollment 1,017, PTSA membership 100.
  • Frost Middle School: Staff 43, Enrollment 432, PTSA membership 370. That is a turnaround and success story that needs to be told...but sadly hasn't been.
  • Thomas Jefferson MS: Staff 70, Enrollment 970, PTSA membership 201.
  • Iroquois HS: Staff 93, Enrollment 1,168, PTSA membership 170.
  • Valley HS: Staff 73, Enrollment 975, PTSA membership 131.
  • Knight MS: Staff 36, Enrollment 457, PTSA membership 67.
  • Waggener HS: Staff 67, Enrollment 792, PTSA membership 151.
  • Myers MS: Staff 55, Enrollment 782, PTSA membership 201.
  • Western MS: Staff 42, Enrollment 292, PTSA membership 59.
  • Olmsted North MS: Staff 81, Enrollment 769, PTSA membership 300.
  • Western HS: Staff 65, Enrollment 759, PTSA membership 201.
  • Seneca HS: Staff 100, Enrollment 1,381, PTSA membership 194.
  • Westport MS: Staff 105, Enrollment 880, PTSA membership 100.

* 2010-11 school year. 

Okay. So those are the numbers. But when you look at the survey that the teachers participated in, overwhelmingly they all believed that their school did a great job encouraging parental engagement. Doss HS 94% said thumbs up to parent engagement. REALLY? I'd have to say overwhelmingly thumbs down. If they were encouraging parent engagement shouldn't PTSA numbers be higher? 64 members? That's less than the total number of staff! 

So the CJ also has an accompanying article about Harnessing the power of parents: Struggling schools push for involvement at home and interviewed Angela Wilder (PTSA president at TT Knight MS and I must disclose a good friend of mine) but not current or past District PTA leadership. So while the article spoke in length about PTA, it failed to connect with PTA and what efforts, past, present, and future are on their part when it comes to helping our schools and students achieve more.  And while yes, there are other groups in Kentucky working hard to engage parents and encourage them to participate in their child's education and school and I am glad that they are helping, let me point out that the PTA is very active doing the exact same thing and for free, and are here. And have been here for over 40 years. But underutilized and far too often dismissed by the very community they advocate for and support. 

So here I am. Perhaps because I am no longer involved in the PTA as a local president, or on the District or State board, but just as a card carrying member at my children's schools, I feel a bit, freer, perhaps to comment on what I see as the roadblocks in this district when it comes to parent engagement. And certainly I may ruffle a few feathers, but as an advocate shouldn't that be my job? To say what needs to be said, respectfully mind you, but to say it loudly and often?

This is what I know. We have the tools. The resources. The volunteers. We have it on websites, we have it on facebook. We have it in the newsletters we write which go to school Principals, local PTA/PTSA leaders, community members, district leadership, BOE members...and is being tossed aside. WHY? Why is the advice, the concern, the care, that is being offered for free so readily dismissed? Why does this district consistently look to outside sources or "experts" to provide tools, resources, volunteers...etc? For nine years I have advocated for positive parent engagement in our schools, and oddly enough outside of my own community I have had more impact in my efforts. So externally I'm an asset, but internally? I'm not sure what I am seen as (probably at this moment someone who has sour grapes. But that's not it.  I know how hard I worked each and every day as District president to make a difference in our schools for our students, families, teachers, staff. I don't need to defend my actions).  What I'm really trying to point out is that we have known all along that parent engagement and support matters.

We don't need another article in the newspaper, or more data, or another study. We know that a parent who reads to their child makes a difference. That a parent who volunteers makes a difference. That a parent who speaks at a BOE meeting makes a difference. That PTA membership makes a difference. That booster club support makes a difference. That SBDM participation makes a difference. We've known this for the last nine years that I have been a parent volunteer and advocate in this school district. I've certainly written about it in numerous district newsletters, blogs, facebook posts...and continue to see it written about and discussed. 

So if we know it, why hasn't anything changed? Why are parents still being talked about but not talked with? Why when a workshop is offered, that offer is ignored? If we want all our students in this district to succeed we must invest time, effort, and energy into supporting their families who in turn will support our schools. We must speak the same language about what engagement means, what it looks like, what it sounds like. We have to agree on a definition, on shared goals, on a vision. We have to sit at the table together and talk about what has failed, not to focus on blame, but in order to acknowledge it so we can avoid those same mistakes. We have to be willing to say honestly that we have leaders in our school community that feel uncomfortable with parents being actively engaged in our schools and work on a way to address their concerns and create an education environment that includes all members of a school community. We need to be honest, direct, open, but compassionate, considerate and caring. We need to make sure our children know that we are all dedicated to their educational success, and willing to do whatever it takes to get them college and career ready. 

It's about community. It's about respect. It's about relationships. 

And it isn't difficult. It starts with "Hello. Welcome to your school. My name is Principal Smith. I am your partner in education and together we will make a difference. Please have a seat. Let's talk. "

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