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Voices: Parent engagement in schools

Writer and mom Jennifer Kelly talks about the need for schools to boost parent engagement by supporting parents so they have the tools to hold up their end of the bargain.
I read Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed and was struck by the final three pages under “The Politics of Disadvantage.” Upon reading those pages, I realized why I have struggled to write about parent engagement in education.



“Talking about the influence of family on the success or failure of poor children can be an uncomfortable proposition,” Tough writes, adding that the biggest obstacles for children living in poverty are “a home and community that create high levels of stress, and the absence of a secure relationship with a caregiver that would allow a child to manage that stress.”

These obstacles are not faced by all families living in poverty, and I understand the anger of a mother, who has sacrificed her dreams in the struggle to feed her kids, when society says she is failing her children. When the school demands “parent engagement,” her reaction might reasonably be: “I’m not engaged?”

I imagine different school auditoriums filled with parents and someone saying, “Raise your hand if…”

  • You grew up in the U.S.
  • You graduated from high school.
  • You live in a two-parent household.
  • You work full-time.
  • You are home when your kids get home from school.
  • Someone in your household lives with a disability.
  • You dream in English.
  • You believe your child will graduate from high school.
  • You expect her to graduate from college.

You will count a different number of hands in each auditorium. The answers will impact how each family approaches parent engagement and possibly how uncomfortable it makes them.

In some schools, parents fundraise, read in the library, email teachers and cheer on the soccer team. Their children likely have an adult at home asking about their day, helping with homework, and ensuring they have the tools to succeed.

For other families, parent engagement in school is more challenging. Working moms might not be home to supervise homework. Parents might be dealing with an ailing parent. They might dream in Spanish or Korean, and be unable to help study for a test. They may have grown up in a culture where it is disrespectful to demand more from a teacher. They may have no experience applying to college.

While schools for the most part understand this, many have given up expecting parent involvement or stopped pursuing innovative ways to support it.  This is a costly mistake. Schools struggling to keep students engaged must solicit parental help using a frequent and powerful message – we need you.

No matter where you come from, what language you speak, how educated you are, how busy you are, we need you. And we can help you engage in a way that will help your child thrive. Without you, we will continue to fail your children.

Schools need a comprehensive strategy for engaging parents that begins with a family mission statement. Just as each auditorium will have a unique mix of parents, the demands a school makes will be necessarily different. But in its most basic form, a mission statement for parent engagement might include:

  • I will know what my child’s homework is and ensure adult supervision until complete.
  • I will know what my child is learning because I ask my child, read school communications, and/or talk with teachers.
  • I will encourage my child’s interests and extracurricular activities.
  • I will know my child’s teacher and friends.
  • I will talk about the importance of good grades and the value of a good education.
  • I will advocate for my child, when needed.
  • I will stress the importance of discipline, will power and self-respect.
  • I will learn the college application process and make it part of our family conversation.

To a parent struggling to feed a family, these demands may seem idealistic. A parent might say you are trying to shift the blame from teachers and politicians to me – and I am barely surviving.

But when you look at all that’s been tried in schools with minimal results, you have to admit that the problem of educating children is too complex to be solved at school alone.

We are failing our kids by failing to engage their parents.

Each school’s strategy should combine consistent communications with tools that empower its unique parent population to engage. This strategy may include a weekly letter about how parents can help their kids succeed, plus reaching out to local churches to solicit free babysitting when the school hosts conferences or events. It might mean working with families to enable their child’s involvement in the newspaper or choir. It might require family tutoring in the college application process.

Talking about parent engagement is complicated. Empowering parents to engage is even more so. However, if we want children to thrive in school and beyond, their parents must be more involved in the solution.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.