Schools' relationships with the outside world are often distant—sometimes even adversarial. For a long time, educators and parents have shared a mutual expectation—that parents' role is simply to bring their children to school and ensure that those children know how to behave. Expectations for local businesses and community organizations have also been low—they often make general demands of schools in terms of academic performance or the delivery of 21st century skills and then sit back to wait for outcomes. As a result, educators feel isolated and unsupported as they tackle tough education challenges and strive to improve instruction and learning.
One solution to this problem is to make schools the hub of their community—institutions through which all parties can connect to learn, grow, share information, and create new opportunities for one another. School district leaders, starting with superintendents, can take charge of building this network of connections. A superintendent who understands the strengths and weaknesses of the school system as well as those of the surrounding community can market the schools' value to the community, creating partnerships that address the weaknesses and build on the strengths of both (Crew, 2007). Empowering parents is a good place to start.
Creating More Demand Parents
Parents and caregivers fall into two general categories when it comes to the role they expect to play in their children's schools. Supply parents consider their role to be limited to handing their children over—in effect, "supplying" them—to the school. I don't mean to imply that these parents are lazy or apathetic. Often, because of poverty, lack of English language skills, limited education background, or other obstacles, they do not know how to support their children's learning at home or how to use the school system to get the most for their children (Crew, 2007). Therefore, they generally accept whatever the school does.
In contrast, demand parents actively participate in their children's education, provide ideas and feedback, and lobby to be included in decision making. These parents are often well-educated and middle- or upper-class. They reinforce the school's and individual teachers' missions at home, they know what honors or enrichment programs are available, they have ideas about what actions or resources the school needs for success, and they offer their opinions about their child's progress and the school's overall performance.
It can be difficult for supply parents to become accustomed to making demands of educators who may be better educated and higher on the socioeconomic ladder than they are. Yet research has found that schools and families must work in partnership to effectively educate and socialize students (Epstein, 2001). The question is, How can we transform more parents from supply parents into demand parents?
The Parent Academy
We can start the process of turning supply parents into demand parents by recognizing that, to some extent, every parent already is a demand parent. Each one makes certain demands of his or her child—washing hands, obeying curfews, exhibiting good manners, and so on. We need to let caregivers know that they can ratchet up their demands, directing them not only to their children but also to their children's schools.
In addition, we can show parents why and how to make demands of themselves. If parents want their children to go to college, for example, they need to provide support for homework, SAT preparation, college applications and financial aid, and anything else that the children may need.
Many schools engage parents in learning about such issues through parent workshops or in-school parent centers (Epstein, 2001). In 2005, when I was superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, we took this approach a step further by creating The Parent Academy.
The Miami-Dade County Parent Academy offers a wide range of workshops and courses. Some courses are designed to give parents information about helping their children succeed in school: for example, supporting good homework habits, preparing the child to enter school, and communicating with teachers and school administrators. Others focus on adult growth and development: For example, the academy offers classes on employ-ability skills, anger management, and public speaking as well as opportunities to earn paraprofessional certification or a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. Still other courses teach parents about important but complicated tasks like completing college applications.
Depending on the topic under discussion, The Parent Academy brings in teachers, counselors, bankers, and social workers to inform parents. Questions range from simple academic issues, such as, "How do I check on homework?" to nonacademic issues like, "How do I talk to my child about bullying, drugs, and alcohol?" to general household issues such as, "What are the rules of getting a home loan so I can create more bedroom space for my kids?" All the answers are already right there in the community; The Parent Academy simply creates the framework for providing the information to parents who need it.
The Parent Academy courses and workshops are delivered in three languages: English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole. All sessions are free, and they are held in places that are natural venues for the parents to convene, including schools, business offices, libraries, parks, and community centers throughout the county.
Miami-Dade County schools have partnered with local businesses, community groups, and government agencies to support The Parent Academy. Partners sponsor events and courses, provide facilities where courses can meet, and donate funds. Many professionals within the community share their expertise by leading or presenting at academy events. They are happy to do so, particularly because some of their organizations or associations mandate that members perform some volunteer activities.
From the beginning, the school district dedicated an office to distributing information about The Parent Academy and promoting hot topics that parents wanted to hear more about. The district took the concept of parents as a market seriously and campaigned as though to a consumer base through advertising and direct communications.
Consequently, parents quickly came to know that The Parent Academy was their own K–12 resource for knowledge. In its first year, nearly 20,000 people attended Parent Academy events, roughly twice the projected number; more than 600 events were held, nearly five times the expected number (Mapp & Brookover, 2010). In fact, The Parent Academy transformed local parents from individuals who would accept whatever the schools offered to a united community of parents equipped to demand the best and most cutting-edge education opportunities for their children.
Teachers: The Crucial Link
An essential part of this type of outreach is encouraging and training teachers to develop personal relationships with both students and parents. In fact, such relationships are the strongest units of change. When parents have a strong personal relationship with teachers and administrators, parents see their experiences with the school as positive. They consider the school a source of timely, useful information to help them raise their children successfully. When parents have that perception and they feel that they can trust the school, they are 100 percent behind that school.
Personal relationships foster good parent-teacher conversations, which are the best means of communication between families and school. But even if direct conversations are not an option for whatever reason, educators should keep information available by sending it to parents' cell phones or posting it online. In this digital age, we will see more of this. Technological advances enable teachers to quickly notify parents about events of interest and their children's special accomplishments or problems. In addition, new technology systems facilitate the creation of detailed progress reports and the addition of extensive comments to report cards (Fuller & Olsen, 1998).
Each community has varying strengths and needs, so partnerships among schools, parents, businesses, government agencies, and other organizations will take on different forms in specific locales. What really matters is that educators begin to rethink school structures and contexts to create a cooperative venture in which a school system can respond to a community's most important needs and desires, including the needs of its children. The goal is to build a community that truly supports its schools, while holding them accountable.
Crew, R., with Dyja, T. (2007). Only connect: The way to save our schools. New York: Sarah Crichton Books.
Epstein, J. (2001). School, family, and community partnerships: Preparing educators and improving school. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Fuller, M. L., & Olsen, G. (1998). Home-school relations: Working successfully with parents and families. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Mapp, K., & Brookover, E. (2010). The parent academy: Family engagement in Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Cambridge, MA: Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard University.
Rudy Crew is a professor of clinical education at the Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California; 213-740-2833. During his long career in education, he has served as chancellor of the New York City Board of Education (1995–1999) and as superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools (2004–2008), where he was named 2008 Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators.
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