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Blog: Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

The Many Faces of Parent Engagement

By Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools

I have been thinking about our parent engagement (one of our district goals), and how important it is to the work we do, particularly in the face of our revised curriculum. If you are a parent yourself, you will naturally understand the importance of having trust in a school system enough to give them your children for a significant portion of each day. Parent and public confidence in our school system is essential. Each of our school communities is quite different, so the way we engage parents ought to look different in each of these neighbourhoods. I think it is incumbent upon us to creatively utilize the approaches that are most likely to work. No one size will fit every school or family.

Stay the Course

One of the tried and tested strategies we have used over the years is “Meet the Teacher” night early in every school year (…maybe we should call it “Meet the Parent Night”?). These events by and large are well attended in our district, particularly at the elementary level. In some districts they have discontinued the practice, in part because of parent no-shows. But research suggests that it would be a mistake to interpret parent absences as signals of their unwillingness to support schools. I know that some of our schools’ events this past September were not well attended. Frustrating, for sure. However, it is important that we ask why this is the case. Some parents have non-traditional work schedules, others have difficult childcare situations, a number have transportation challenges, and some have to work through more challenging. Consider a parent who himself had a less than positive school experience as a child. It is very likely that he will have an aversion to hanging out with the staff and having a hot dog. How do we overcome these barriers?

Use the Technology

Some schools have realized positive success using technology to engage parents. Tools like FreshGrade, Remind, Check My Progress, Facebook, Twitter, and the school website have become powerful tools to let parents know what is going on in our schools. The beauty of technology is that it can reach multiple audiences simultaneously. I visited a classroom recently where the teacher shared feedback about a student project provided by a grandparent who lived in Ontario. We would not have been able to accomplish this a decade ago. At the district level we have used the ThoughtExchange platform to get over 3000 parents to share their thoughts about celebrating and improving our schools. In truth, we have many community members who do not have kids in schools but want to know that our schools are doing good work. Our district website, social media feeds, along with traditional media are important ways to build confidence that we are doing a great job with our future citizens.

Look Me in The Eye

Having said all that, I think it is critically important that we continue to bring adults into our schools to experience the work first hand. Without making too much of a social commentary, I think we lose something when we do not make eye to eye contact with people to tell them about our schools (or anything else, for that matter). True, the busy parent may not have time to make it in, but we know that personal and thoughtful discourse strengthens our mutual understanding. Sometimes 140 characters will just not do. I saw evidence of this during our January demonstrations of learning in some of our high schools. Our police chief was one of the adjudicators, and was given an opportunity to have in depth conversations with students about their work. Four months later he is still talking about it. If you have witnessed the magic of student led conferences you would realize that that there is no substitute for face to face conversation. I visited ASIA Sumas Mountain last week and witnessed firsthand the work underway to create space for the students to share their work and engage parents and the broader community about their learning. Their annual exhibition of learning --Artchella --promises to be an exciting model for the district. The power will rest in personally engaging the students about their thinking, and affirming their good work.

ELLs and their Parents

Research suggests that ELL (English Language Learners) families have different perceptions of what constitutes good parental involvement. It suggests that these families perceive that communication with schools is often impersonal and infrequent, and that parents typically hear from staff only when there is an academic or discipline problem. I am not suggesting that this is the case for our schools, but can you imagine how difficult it would be for you to engage with school personnel who did not understand your language and culture? If you only spoke only English but emigrated to Russia, for instance, would you jump at an invitation to attend a “Meet the Teacher” night where conversation would only be in the local language? Would you log onto the school website where the all the text was Russian?

Thankfully, we have made some inroads in this area. Cultural celebrations, where food is shared is always a winner, and has the effect of putting parents at ease. Initiatives, such as our SWIS Program, have been tremendously successful in providing ELL parents with information in their native language, and educating them about our school system. Parent education programs are a powerful response. It brings the parents into the schools and provides them with low threat opportunities to build their skills so that can participate comfortably. A great example is our West Side Worker Program. Weekly “Chai & Chat” sessions provide an opportunity for South Asian parents and grandparents to ask questions in a non-threatening environment. They also have access to workshops on a variety of issues (e.g. how to help my child with homework). We must remember that immigrant parents have often untold aspirations for their children, and that we need to create a vehicle for them to express them in our schools.

Now is the Time

Studies have shown that parent involvement is a significant predictor of academic development, and that the bonds that parents form with other parents at school will enhance general school engagement. The curriculum re-design marks a critical junction in our education system, one where we are reshaping the skills students need to be successful in the coming decades. We are literally changing the language of learning in our schools, so if we want parents to embrace it then we must use our collective genius to make schools meaningful and joyous places for parents and community members to come and engage with us. If you have a great parent engagement idea, please share it. We will all benefit.

By Kevin Godden
Kevin Godden
Kevin Godden

By Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools

Kevin has been the Superintendent of Schools for the Abbotsford School District since July 2011, overseeing some 19,000 students and 2,500 employees. Kevin is committed to student success in all forms and envisions a school district that can nimbly respond to the ever changing needs and interests of its students.