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One district’s innovative ideas to engage parents

Free tutors, workshops, and cold hard cash gets more parents involved in Guilford County

parent-engagementAs research suggests, students do better in school when their families are more actively involved in their education. Students with engaged parents traditionally have better attendance, a more positive attitude, and higher rates of graduation than peers with less support.

In an effort to encourage this involvement, North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools has taken several innovative steps—such as offering free online tutoring to every family, as well as online videos and face-to-face training in the workplace to show parents how they can support their children’s success. The district also allows certain parent volunteers to earn a cash incentive for participating.

“We’re doing whatever we can to get parents engaged and involved,” said Chief of Staff Nora Carr.

A few years ago, Guilford County formed a task force to come up with ideas for boosting parent engagement. The district also surveyed parents to find out what their biggest needs were. These efforts led to the formation of the Guilford Parent Academy (GPA) in 2011, a multifaceted parent engagement initiative that is partly supported by federal Race to the Top money.

Free online tutoring

GPA Director Lindsay Whitley said many parents want to support their children’s learning at home, but often they don’t have the resources they need to do so. To fill this need, the district is paying to make a live online tutoring service from Brainfuse available to parents at no cost.

“We thought: What better way to support parents … than giving them 24-7 access to a live online tutor to help their kids at home?” Whitley said. “Now, parents know that if their child is having trouble with algebra homework at 9 o’clock at night, and they don’t know how to help, they can get an instant response. That’s pretty powerful.”

The tutoring, which is available for a wide range of subject areas, occurs through a live online chat session with a subject matter expert, and the platform includes a virtual whiteboard tool in which the tutor and student can work out a problem together. “The tutors don’t give students the answers; they help students work through problems on their own,” Whitley said.

Felicia Andrews is the parent of a sixth-grader at Eastern Guilford Middle School. “I attended school many years ago, so when my daughter needed help on topics like finding the least common multiple in math, that was something that escaped me,” she said. “It’s priceless to be able to have a tutor whenever you need one—and what’s even greater is that we don’t have to pay for it.”

On the go

Online tutoring isn’t the only educational service that Guilford County makes available to families free of charge. The district also provides access to a large library of e-books for students and their families. “We’re trying to address the opportunity gap,” Carr said.

What’s more, Guilford County has partnered with Connect with Kids to provide video content that helps parents support their children’s learning. The videos cover topics such as how to make sure you’re not overscheduling your child, or how to recognize when your child is being bullied—and Guilford County shows these videos on its local cable TV station and makes them available to parents on the GPA website.

The GPA program also offers face-to-face workshops for parents to address similar topics, such as how to talk to your children about risky behaviors, or how to plan for and apply to college.

“Many parents want to attend these sessions, but they have to work,” Whitley said. “We thought: How can we make this content available to parents who can’t attend an in-person session?”

To solve this problem, Guilford County launched the “GPA on the Go” program, in which it delivers face-to-face sessions for parents at their workplace. The district has partnered with about two dozen companies that employ large numbers of parents, including Polo-Ralph Lauren, to offer the workshops on site during employees’ lunch breaks.

“It’s our way of reaching parents where they are,” Whitley said.

Michelle Gill-Moffat is the youth development director for the City of Greensboro Parks and Recreation Department. She works with the district to plan and deliver GPA on the Go sessions to city employees.

“I hear great feedback from the parents who attend,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘This is perfect, because I don’t have time [to attend a class] when I get home.’ There’s soccer practice, or Brownies, or what not—and they don’t have time to go back out to yet another [event] at night. By attending during their lunch break, they’re still able to get that information.”

Parent liaisons

With a staff of only four employees serving 72,000 students and their families, the Guilford Parent Academy relies on a team of “parent liaisons” to help spread the word about its various programs. These parent volunteers “are an extension of our office,” Whitley said. “They know how to reach out to other parents in ways we don’t think of.”

Last year, Andrews served as a parent liaison at her daughter’s elementary school. “I did outreach within the parent community to make sure they were getting information they needed,” she said. She made a bulletin board that parents could see as they entered the school, set up tables at afterschool events, and spread news to other parents via social media.

Andrews said she spent up to 20 hours per month in this volunteer role. That’s a lot of hours, and school systems often struggle to find volunteers who can take that much time from their hectic schedules. To help solve this challenge, Guilford County allows its parent liaisons to earn a small cash incentive of up to $150 per month in exchange for their time and the completion of certain tasks.

“This helps reduce the barriers to participating,” Carr said.

The program began with a grassroots parent coordinator at each middle school. It proved so successful that the district expanded it to every Title I school with the help of Title I money.

Volunteering as a parent liaison is something that Andrews would have done regardless of the cash incentive—but the money was “highly appreciated,” she said. It also reimbursed her for what she spent out of her own pocket in service to the district.

An independent evaluation of the GPA program released this year concluded that it has heightened parent engagement significantly. “Participation in programs and activities has increased each year since its inception,” the report noted. “Since January 2011, there has been a 212 percent increase in GPA participation.”

“We’ve continued to build on the idea of a department created by parents, for parents,” Whitley said. Citing a direct correlation between parent engagement and student achievement, he concluded: “That is why we do what we do.”

The former Editor in Chief of eSchool News, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance writer covering education and technology. Reach him at

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