The current toolbox for growing the school/family partnership is broken. It is a system built on old communication methods, inequitable access, and ineffective gatherings. This leaves the support and synergy between home and school less than optimal in most situations. The old open house, parent conference, and PTO model leaves all parties disappointed around an essential partnership needed to support students through the growing complexities of school and life. Instead of doing the same things marginally better, schools and districts should look to these seven ways to restructure their commitment to robust partnerships with families.
1. Acknowledge that old mental models exist
Schools need to acknowledge that there are a variety of old mental models of learning and traditional schooling that parents bring to the table. Some parents remember their success, but others remember the negative adults and failure from their school career. Both of these mental models can make it difficult for parents to understand the modern classroom and the complexity of today’s schools. As leaders, it is important to explicitly talk about the lenses that parents bring with them in support of their child. Doing so allows for a sense of connection and understanding from the beginning.
2. Unearth a dynamic set of barriers impacting deeper partnership
All schools struggle to deepen their partnerships with families. These barriers can include time, language, and modes of communication. Schools looking to rewrite their partnership playbook need to examine every possible barrier and consider which families are impacted by the barrier and what solutions exists for each. Growing in this area also requires meaningful conversations with a full range of parents to unearth barriers that are hard to recognize.
3. Be intentional about giving families access to all support services
As schools develop more robust systems to care for students’ mental health and emotional needs, the availability of the programs can get lost in correspondence. Counselors, social workers, support groups, and outside partnerships have an opportunity to impact the entire school culture. It is important that leaders are marketing, branding, and building a communications plan to continually amplify the availability of these support services.
4. Help parents care about the important things
Parents want excellent schools. They want to see their children succeed and enjoy learning. All of these things can be accelerated by excellent family partnerships. Many parents and families get stuck on an issue or idea that is important but isn’t core to the school’s mission. It could be a desire to have French for all students, proficiency in keyboarding for all elementary students, or wanting all students to do yoga each day. None of these are inherently the wrong thing, but schools have limited resources and chasing all of the great ideas can lead to doing nothing with excellence. Leaders must make sure all families understand the core mission and the programs that are central to the mission. This also means supporting families away from the churn of social media about the school as it can be alarmist and filled with half-truths that distract from true success.
5. Build a shared understanding on issues of learning
School isn’t simple, and leaders shouldn’t allow families to believe that learning is a set of clichés or soundbites. This means working with families and the community to build an understanding of how learning happens for children. Families should receive mini doses of educational philosophy, psychology, and modern pedagogical strategy. This slow, right-sized, constant communication will build a proficiency in parents and families that can lead to a deep partnership of excellence.
6. Find new roles for parent involvement
Consider defining at least 10 new roles for parents and families. Old, traditional roles allow for about 15 percent of families to support the school in a meaningful way. How does your school allow dads that travel, parents that work two jobs, and parents with health issues to play a meaningful role? Be creative. Can they be brand ambassadors? Can they help with a one-time project? Can they make phone calls to other parents? New roles allow for new pathways of cooperation to grow in the community.
7. Communicate with the tools parents use
What media do your parents consume? Are there assumptions about how families communicate with school that aren’t accurate? It is important for leaders to use data to make informed decisions about how to reach families. Flyers in backpack, email newsletters, social media, and video should all be a part of dialogue portfolio.
Tackling this problem of meaningful family partnerships is a huge undertaking but doing so gives leaders an opportunity to reinfuse their schools and districts with fresh energy, support, and resources. Most schools are ready to jettison the old framework. The key is movement. Don’t let inertia, momentum, and tradition stall the work of making the changes, both big and small, to form new, robust, powerful parent partnerships.