‘True Grit’ in LA: Five ways teachers, parents, schools come together

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When it comes to meeting our students’ needs, it’s no secret among teachers that partnerships with parents are crucial. We may get to know students well during a seven-hour school day, but as teachers, we can never hope to know as much about our students as parents know about their children.

Angie Trae-Greenbarg

While parent engagement may seem like a no-brainer, getting it right takes dedicated and continued effort. Parents, teachers, and students alike are frequently frustrated by a number of roadblocks, such as scheduling conflicts, language barriers, lack of technology, and a by-the-numbers approach that doesn’t account for individual circumstances.

But when partnerships are done right, everyone thrives. By working to close the communication gap, Valor Academy, the school where I teach,  has created a collaborative culture and a support system for all of us. Now, with a feedback loop between students, parents, and teachers, we have a  robust picture of how students are doing – not just for the hours the child is in school, but all the hours at home that impact growth and development.

I recently participated in a series of focus groups with over 400 classroom teachers and administrators from some of Los Angeles’s most-improved schools. The work of these focus groups culminated in the report: “True Grit: The Game-Changing Factors and People Lifting School Performance in LAUSD.”

No school, including mine, said parent engagement was easy. But by evaluating a number of best practices, the survey identified actionable steps every school can take. Here are five simple, concrete strategies that any school can use to improve parent engagement:

Harness parent expertise about the community

In my school, we see our parents as resources to figure out how to serve our community in an authentic way. In addition to proactively asking parents for their connections, we literally open the doors by hosting a breakfast three times a year. We ask students and teachers alike to invite community members, and most importantly, we build a database of parents and community partners who are willing and eager to engage.

Provide flexible ways for families to engage

Scheduling represents a significant hurdle to increasing engagement between the school and the community, and my school has worked to create a range of opportunities for parents to volunteer. We have parents who help with morning arrivals, after-school fundraisers, and back-to-school nights, and we are currently exploring ways to meaningfully engage parents in classrooms during the day, including by chaperoning field trips and volunteering in classrooms.

Train parents on technology tools that already exist

We’ve begun a concerted effort to utilize all available technologies to increase communication and engagement. All too often, school websites sit inactive and outdated, so we host an annual orientation to walk parents through the website, including a program to check their child’s homework online. In addition, our robocall system notifies parents of important events and confirms their child’s after-school activities. And finally, we use a program called Remind 101 to send free text message updates to parents and students.

Empower parents with meaningful leadership

At every grade, we empower parents to assume leadership positions and are training them to lead parent-breakout sessions during our monthly meetings. By giving parent-representatives a voice, we give them an opportunity to innovate and use their ideas to involve the community. What’s more, moving toward an elected-leadership model encourages newer or less-active members to participate in a formal process.

Make parental involvement fun

By motivating parents and students to attend activities together, we build lasting, meaningful, and holistic relationships between teachers and families, and we make a point of organizing events that encourage participation and engage all parties simultaneously in one room. We host Academic Nights – Math Night, Literacy Night – where parents get to see how their child is growing academically, and plan family-friendly fundraisers like ice skating, laser tag, and pizza nights that both parents and students want to attend.

Ultimately, both parents and teachers are invested in a child’s life and success. In order to invest wisely, we have to be on the same page – emphasizing shared ownership and collaboration instead of blame, and working toward the same goal both in school and out of school.

Angie Trae-Greenbarg is a fifth-grade science teacher at Valor Academy and a member of Educators 4 Excellence.

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