(n). A process that can be so rewarding when done successfully. A process that can also go horribly wrong if done incorrectly.
To avoid the most common pitfalls, here are three tips, based on Collaborative’s extensive work with parents, to get you off to a strong start in engaging parents in your community.
Engage Parents as Partners
The goal of authentic parental engagement is to make partners out of parents and to use their input to inform school and community decision-making. Far too often, schools and community organizations engage parents simply to “check the box” on consulting the public and soliciting feedback.
Unfortunately, nothing can be more devastating to parents than to be engaged in a feedback or input process, only to learn that a school, elected official or administration was dead set on taking a specific course or action, regardless of parental input.
Before engaging parents, ask yourself three key questions:
- Will feedback from parents shape or alter an important decision we have to make?
- Does your organization (or do you yourself) have the capacity or desire to implement any ideas or solutions offered by parents?
- Will parents be able to bring new resources, insights, skills or knowledge to the table not previously considered?
If the answer to all three of these questions is no, then think deeply about why you want to engage parents in the first place. If engagement won’t add value to the process, just don’t do it. Inform parents, but don’t present a facade as if their input will change a course of action. Be transparent about the goals you seek to accomplish.
Create Safe Spaces for Parents
In the documentary American Promise, director Joe Brewster and his wife Michele routinely struggled with the administration at Dalton, a prestigious New York City Prep School where their son Idris and his best friend Seun attended school. As Idris and Seun entered middle school, Joe and Michelle became very frustrated with the school’s attempt to address diversity and race issues.
“They were trying to have these very tough conversations about race in these 50- person forums and the conversations always became very circular,” remarked Joe.
What the school failed to realize was that it can sometimes be nearly impossible to have authentic conversations about race and other tough issues in 50-100 person forums. Small groups allow parents to express their real opinions, while allowing community groups, schools and their partners to tackle the concerns and apprehensions around extremely tough issues.
Parental Engagement = Relationship Building
One of the biggest faux pas schools and community organizations often make is treating parental engagement as a transactional feature of program administration. For example, a school needs parents to chaperone a field trip or volunteer in an afterschool tutoring program. Another organization needs parents to mentor students or help with their annual bazar. While these one-time asks provide meaningful opportunities for parents to connect with schools and support organizations, these asks should be connected to a wider continuum of parental engagement that engender trust and solidify long-term commitment to student needs.
The question we should be asking is not, “how many parents can I get to come to my PTA or Parent Advisory Meeting?,” but, “How can I build a long-lasting, trusting relationship that allows me to leverage the skills, talents, resources and knowledge of parents to support students?”
Parents want to use their skills and knowledge to help their children succeed. Developing relationships, partnering with parents and creating safe spaces for parental input are just the first step.