In front of my church there is a sign that reads “Visitors Expected.” There is no sign that reads “Having Visitors would be Nice,” or “Come Visit us if You Want.” The expectation has been set. We expect you to visit us. Although we do not have a sign in front of our school that reads, “Parents Expected,” the nonverbal message is clear. We want and need parents to be a part of our community school if we expect student achievement to increase. (Although a sign outside our door would not be a bad idea, either.)
Typically, schools with high poverty struggle with parent involvement. The 1970’s model of parents volunteering in classrooms for Valentine and Halloween parties with room mothers organizing the annual celebrations do not work. Furthermore, these kinds of involvement activities have very effect on student achievement.
Our school staff has worked very hard to send the message to our parents that they are expected to be a part of their child’s educational experience. We do not let the fact that our school’s poverty index is slightly above 90% or that more than half of our parent’s first language is one other than English to alter our message: Parents Expected. Two simple words. One powerful message.
How are parents involved at our school and how do we keep them involved? I believe the second part of the question is more important than the first. We can structure the best parent activities, but if they do not feel comfortable, then they will not return. First, since more of our parents speak Spanish, newsletters and most all notices that are sent home are in English and Spanish. We recognize that some of our parents may not read the notices; we also send an automatic phone message in English and Spanish. Building relationships with our parents is also important. The office staff has been trained in customer service. Since the office is the hub and frontline for any school, this is where first impressions occur. If parents immediately sense they feel welcomed, then they will leave believing that parents are expected.
We provide many opportunities for parent involvement. Below is a description of most of them.
* Monthly Meetings. Every month, I lead a meeting of parents to discuss any concerns or questions they may have. Parents plan some of our school-wide events at their meetings as well. Our instructional coach presents easy ways for parents can help their child improve their math and reading abilities by recommending some hands-on learning activities. The parents are engaged in the activities and can take home materials to practice with their child. Refreshments are always served and children from a guest classroom always present what they are learning.
* Books on the Beach. During the cold months of winter, we bring the sunny days of summer into our school by hosting Books on the Beach. During lunch, parents are encouraged to come and have lunch with their child…on the beach absent the sand. We have beach towels and beach music softly playing and books to give away as parents eat lunch with their child.
* Writer’s Celebration. Several times during the year, we have students submit their writing to be recognized at Writer’s Celebration. Parents are invited to join us listen to our young authors from all grades read their latest manuscript from the stage.
* Family Book Club. Parents are invited to bring their child for Book Club. Parents and children are separated into different rooms. Parents receive a short presentation on a reading strategy that will help their child become a better reader which includes a video of a teacher and child practicing the strategy. In the meantime, the children are receiving free books to read to their parents. When we bring the parents and children together, magic happens. Children read to parents and parents practice the targeted strategy together. Then we share in a meal.
* Family Math Night. Parents and children come to school to learn how to play math games together that will help in their math development. We set up 3 centers in the school using different materials. When the families leave for the evening, they walk away with a bag of materials so they can play the same games at home.
* Family BINGO Night. Our parents make the dinner of tamales and nachos from donations. Our community partners and staff volunteers set up, are callers, and clean up crew. The prizes are donated themed baskets of goods that anyone would love to win. We all come together as a team to provide our families with a fun-filled evening of Bingo. This is also a fund-raiser for our school and usually brings in around 400 family members.
* Carnival of Cultures. Every spring, we celebrate our diverse community with a carnival. Parents, staff, and community members plan and organize a culminating event for the year which includes ethnic foods, games, live music, dancers, and a good time.
This list is not complete by any means. We have parents involved as volunteers in the classroom, parents that help deliver food to our students on Fridays from the local foodbank as many of our children do not have healthy foods during the weekend. In addition, we have parents that volunteer for our kindergarten registration.
Parents are expected and welcomed at our school. Our school belongs to parents, students and the community; by working together as partners parents will feel confident knowing their child will receive the best education because they are an essential component of their child’s education.