NEWSLETTER SIGNUP

By signing up to our newsletter, you agree to our terms.

Do Something

Get involved in your local school

Whether or not you’re a parent, there are lots of great ways to help our schools. Check out our Do Something guide below to learn how!

Connect WITH OUR SOCIAL ACTION TEAM



The Wrath of Parents

A public school principal says it takes parents and schools to educate a child

A public school principal says it takes parents and schools to educate a child

On my first day at Carnell Elementary School five years ago, two parents were eagerly waiting to meet with me, to bend my ear about the school’s parent involvement policy. They said that the school had purposely denied them access, had not engaged with them or allowed them to actively participate in the school. While these two parents voiced their own concerns on that day, they were speaking for many parents, who, I eventually learned, felt the same way. They were asking for help. Their stories of being closed out of the school gave me a glimpse into what I was about to face: the wrath of parents.

This would turn out to be one of my most formidable challenges.

Carnell is a neighborhood school. We enroll everyone who lives in the neighborhood. This routine practice is so common that it’s not looked at as a parent engagement opportunity. But it might be one of the most underrated, yet consequential, first steps toward engaging parents in their children’s learning. For example, in addition to registering their children, parents could be given a tour of the school. Students could welcome parents, and highlight the school’s achievements and points of pride from their perspective. Teachers could speak to parents about our instructional program. I could be more accessible to share our vision and accomplishments. Active parents could recruit for the parent organization. By taking any of these steps, our school community would be taking progressive first steps to forging a strong relationship with parents.

Given the ebb and flow of any given school day, I only wish I was doing half of what I just described. Engaging parents is hard work, and a great responsibility. As more and more parents enroll their children in Carnell because of the boundary line instead of the academic and educational missions of the school, the focus on teaching and learning is often lost. I have encountered parents over the years that allow a few negative experiences they had with the school to color their perceptions of Carnell. They don’t always take the time to learn about how they can help the school reach, teach, and engage all of its children.

According to Joyce Epstein of the Johns Hopkins University Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships, one of the nation’s leading experts on parent involvement, there are different types of involvement, ranging from encouraging volunteering and fundraising to providing parents with home-based learning activities. National survey data show that attending school meetings or events is the leading form of parent participation in schools, followed by school fundraising activities.

In a 2012 online survey of parents published in the report “What Parents Want,” officials from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that parents’ priorities for school ranged from a strong emphasis on reading and math curriculum to offering specialized programs to close proximity to their homes. My experience and conversations with parents back this up. They are also trying to make sense of how the school fits into their different needs and expectations, and they want schools to help raise their children, solve their children’s behavioral problems, prepare their children for college and careers, and invite them to participate in meaningful school initiatives.

There is very little data on the level and type of parental engagement in schools across the school district. But the school district recently distributed a district-wide survey to measure five key topics related to school success, using research on effective schools and school reform. The percentage of parents at our school who took the survey in 2015 and 2016 was too low to meet the reporting threshold. As a result, despite our school’s best efforts, we are viewed as a school that doesn’t engage parents.

At Carnell Elementary School, we host learning walks, in which parents visit classrooms so they can see firsthand what their children are learning, and post data walls, so students understand learning goals and can talk about them to their parents. We throw frequent celebrations, and hold workshops several times a year.

That may have been true once. But as a part of becoming a district-redesigned school last year, we have prioritized parent engagement. We have launched initiatives school wide that developed our parents’ capacity to productively engage with us and support their children’s learning. For example, we host learning walks, in which parents visit classrooms so they can see firsthand what their children are learning, and post data walls, so students understand learning goals and can talk about them to their parents. We throw frequent celebrations, and hold workshops several times a year. We have built up our community partnerships, and created a valuable Family Resource Center.

Parents are embracing our new approach. Last fall, we issued our own survey, developed by parents for parents, that we handed out during report card conferences to measure parent engagement and their perceptions of Carnell. The most notable feedback showed that 62 percent of respondents strongly agree they are partners with the school in the decisions made about their child. This is a strong performance measure demonstrating that effective parent engagement is happening at Carnell.

One parent, Jennifer Leaman, has turned from a Carnell skeptic to a booster. She has cited a letter I sent out to parents introducing myself and my transition team as an important step. “I’d never experienced that before,” she says. “This was a welcome change! This was a change in philosophy of how parents would be engaged.”

And that has had a trickle-down effect on her children. “I believe that my children have benefited immensely from my engagement as a parent, but not primarily from my involvement in the classroom,” she says. “I think they understand that we have an expectation that they will respect their teachers, pay attention in school, complete their assignments and do their best. My being physically present in the school has allowed me to see firsthand how they are carrying these characteristics out in the classroom, what friends they are choosing, how they are being influenced.”

And the school, in turn, has benefited from the involvement of parents like Mrs. Leaman. Collaborating with them is shaping and reinforcing our school’s vision, mission, and values. It creates buy-in, gets them to trust us, and encourages them to serve as ambassadors for changing false perceptions of what happens in our school.

“Parents are, many times, in awe of the hard work being done by teachers and staff and they are some of the biggest cheerleaders of the school because they’ve seen the worst and the best of what happens there,” said Mrs. Leaman,“and they’re becoming part of the solution.”

Hilderbrand Pelzer III is the principal of Laura H. Carnell School in Oxford Circle. He won the 2014 Lindback Award for Distinguished Principal Leadership, and is the author of Unlocking Potential: Organizing a School Inside a Prison. Pelzer will be contributing regular columns from the school front lines this year.

Header photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

Recent Tweets
@THEPHILACITIZEN

@thephilacitizen @@thephilacitizen
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
“If I can just make a difference in one woman’s life like that, then I’ve done my job.” Disruptor: @AnaOnoIntimates https://t.co/07M4NXhZPo 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
THURS @TempleUniv's Nora Wilson will host an event on how to administer NARCAN in the face of Philly's drug crises. https://t.co/GjuB3aa2PY 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
"The Sky is the Limit" 17 hosted by @ATTRACTPhilly this Saturday, 1PM at Penrose Rec. This event is free. https://t.co/2vYJqONEdq 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Tomorrow @PhilaSoup comes to @magicgardens for their annual Kick Off! Join them and help Philly students. 6-9PM $15 https://t.co/Blie1YPEgk 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
After decades of disinvestment and disruption, Philadelphia's 60th Street business corridor plots its comeback.… https://t.co/MdgChe1RKX 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Scratched #SolarEclipse2017 shades cannot be reused in 2024 according to @NASA but they can be recycled. https://t.co/24QGcTcvkQ 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
"The solution to those problems may lie in the small city of Macon, Georgia." #Philadelphia #bikegrids #macongeorgia https://t.co/CSpD5vD2tH 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
“Our disease is not being treated equal,” Meet Monday's Disruptor: Dana Donofree with @AnaOnoIntimates. https://t.co/07M4NXhZPo 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Did you miss last week's Reality Check? @ellisonreport with the story on Rizzo and his statue. #OnWurd https://t.co/sKdIlcfQAc 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Our own @quinnocallaghan sat in with @onwurd a few weeks back to discuss race. Read the thoughtful companion piece. https://t.co/QennLkHPwa 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Join @officialsouthst from 6-8PM & speak w/ city officials, police & community mbrs on homelessness & solutions. https://t.co/NRNq9P3lP9 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Could a measure similar to Macon Ga's temporary bike grid change things for bicyclists here in Philadelphia?… https://t.co/3Y5cjLZCjL 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Watch the solar eclipse, party with @PhilaSoup and more this week with our Do Something guide to civic engagement. https://t.co/dqQwodYgHB 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
“I feel more fulfilled and happier in my life than I ever have,” Dana Donofree with @AnaOnoIntimates https://t.co/07M4NX0oqO 

LOAD MORE

Be a Citizen Editor

Suggest a Story