The following column originally was published by number of APG of Eastern Mn newspapers during August, 2018
Positive parent involvement
Minnesota PTA President Heather Starks has positive and sometimes provocative suggestions based on her perspectives as both as a public school teacher and a parent. As we move toward a new school year, I think more students would succeed if families and educators listened to her advice.
First, she urges educators: “Don’t treat parents and a PTA as an ATM. That turns people off if they think all the school wants from parents is to raise money.” While agreeing families can help support schools financially, Starks says there’s much more to family involvement.
She cites extensive research that when families are involved in various ways with their children’s schools, students have better attitudes toward learning, teachers and schools, and students are more likely to succeed.
Starks agrees that educators have professional expertise that many families don’t have. But she believes families also often have valuable insights. She thinks families should have opportunities to help make decisions about what’s happening in their children’s schools.
She offered an example of a school’s policy on snacks: “Sometimes schools send out a questionnaire asking parents for their views. A better approach is to have educators and parents discuss possibilities and then send out a questionnaire.”
Starks has a message for educators and school boards: “Nothing drives parents more nuts than going to a decision-making meeting when the decision has already been made.” I agree.
For example, I recall going to a meeting with educators at one of our children’s schools where the official agenda was to discuss how the school would spend about $150,000 that it had received from the state Legislature (and taxpayers). The money was provided because the school enrolled a high percentage of low-income students and a significant number of students who did not speak English at home.
About a third of the school’s students were Hmong, and a group of about 25 Hmong parents came to the meeting. They suggested using about 20 percent of the money to add a staff member in the office who could speak Hmong because no adult in the school could speak the language and families wanted someone they could communicate with directly. They also asked for about 5 percent of the money to be used for after-school classes so their students and some parents could learn to speak English.
Unfortunately, the principal announced that he and the faculty already had decided how to spend all the money. They rejected the parents’ suggestions. Within a year, many of these parents and some educators started a chartered public school.
Families don’t always react so strongly when their advice is ignored. But Starks is right: It’s not productive to invite parents to help make decisions when they’ve already been made.
Starks believes that family involvement needs to go beyond families coming to an event at school, such as a play or concert. Students appreciate the support that families provide when they attend such events, she said, but she wants to promote conversations between educators and parents.
The Minnesota PTA has received a small grant to identify examples of “transformative family involvement”: interaction that involves two-way conversations between educators and families about how to help students. She recognizes that some parents are “pushy” and frustrating to educators and themselves, especially as they become upset with a student’s lack of progress.
These insights come from Starks having been a middle school teacher and now a substitute teacher in Bloomington’s Public Schools Early Childhood Center as well as parent of three children. Two of them attend Bloomington Public Schools and one is enrolled at a charter public school in St. Paul. “I’ve tried to find schools that meet my children’s needs,” she explained.
If families and educators listen to Starks, we won’t just have more family involvement — we’ll have more successful students.
Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org or @JoeNathan9249.