My school is now doing its "Open House" night before the start of the school year. We started this last year and there seem to be several advantages to this format. New students have a chance to follow their schedule before the first day of school. Teachers get to talk with parents about classroom expectations.
The parents who attend, that is.
We usually get about 15 - 20% of our target population. This seems rather paltry when you consider that we have 1200 families who are part of our school. I know that evenings can be a struggle for a family's schedule. Parents can be tired after a day of work. Perhaps there are little ones still at home. There may be other commitments already on the calendar. But does that account for 80 - 85% "no shows"?
We are not the only school struggling with ways to get more parents involved with our school. (This would include more than just Open House.) According to a recent article in the Orlando Sentinel, "Increasingly, public schools are turning to the wacky and whimsical -- and anything else they can dream up -- to push parents into getting more involved in schools and their kids' lives. The reason: Children whose parents do everything from simply talking to their kids to showing up for school meetings have better grades, improved attendance and less chance of dropping out, among other things."
Why are so few parents participating in the school at a time when the stakes have never been higher? I have a hard time believing that it is because they don't care about their children. So, what are the barriers---and what can we do about them?
I believe that mistrust on both sides is part of the problem. "Eighty-two percent of teachers surveyed in 2004 by Public Agenda, a nonprofit group that conducts public-policy research, said parents' failure to teach their children discipline is a major problem and more than half said teachers often go easy on students because they don't feel supported by parents." Meanwhile, "Parents are strapped for time, and they often feel unwelcome or intimidated by their own lack of education..." So, they're worried that we're going to make them feel stupid...and we're worried that they won't take our role in their childrens' lives seriously. If we took the time to really talk about this, we'd likely find that we've all had a bad experience: either as a student or as a teacher calling a parent for support. But somehow, many of us have extended that experience to our further interactions. It's stifling our ability to reach out to one another.
I also think that too often we expect parents to come to the schoolhouse door---and yet we don't make an effort to come to them. Maybe we should think about holding meetings in apartment complexes or subdivisions once in awhile. I have also heard of districts which make a second bus run on certain days of the year in order to pick up parents and bring them to school...supposedly with grand results.
The article in the Sentinel has an interesting tidbit: a school which used "door prizes and pizza" to lure parents in for a meeting had a turnout rate of 75% of the families. If 75% can show up for meetings, pizza, and door prizes (even those who have been at work all day, have young children, etc.)...why can only 15% show up if there's no extra incentives? Why isn't helping your child in their education enough of a motivation?
The bottom line is simply that we need parents as an integral part of our schools. NCLB may have laid student achievement at the footsteps of educators, but we can't do it alone. Every year, my principal shakes his head and asks for ideas to help increase parental involvement with our school. We provide various ideas (like moving Open House to an earlier date) and see if it works. But it's not enough. We need to rebuild our connections with families and reach out in various ways. I really hope that we find a way for them to reach back to us.