All parents want to see their children succeed. Low parental involvement is generally not an indicator of low interest, but rather of community barriers that prevent schools from effectively engaging parents. As a young leader and an educational researcher who has served in several high-poverty environments, I have found that it is possible to remove many of these barriers and engage families in meaningful ways.

  1. Make Allies and Ask Questions

To begin building a positive rapport with your families, identify parents who have relationships across the community. Express how valuable their input is to your school’s success and ask them to participate in a focus group. It is often hard for parents to explain why other parents are not involved, but asking specific questions can help identify barriers to engagement:

What are the challenges you face daily? (Our parents have expressed concerns about finding jobs, feeding their families, and even washing laundry.)

What is the most common complaint you hear from other parents about the community or its schools?

Are you active in any community events or organizations? If so, what are they and why are you involved?

Is the school or district a welcoming place?

What are the top three neighborhood issues that parents face in the district?

Where do you get information about the neighborhood?

What businesses do most families in the community frequent?

Gathering feedback and discussing solutions with these parents has helped our district generate further questions, conversations, and surveys to extend to all of our families. The more information our schools have, the more strategic we can be in providing families direct assistance through resources, education, and employment.

  1. Creatively Publicize Information

If your families do not often read the newspaper, have access to the Internet, or read materials that come home, consider advertising school events in other venues. In addition to using traditional methods of communication, our district places flyers at the local chop suey restaurant and in our community grocery stores. We also notify families of upcoming events through text messages, automated phone calls, and public service announcements on local radio stations.

  1. Become a Vehicle for the Community

When concerns about crime in our community were increasing, our district decided to sponsor a town hall meeting. We leveraged the opportunity to not only address the issue of crime, but to also engage families in sessions on achievement, community services, and school volunteerism. There are many ways to foster parental engagement, but we have been especially successful through events like these and by providing our families with basic resources.

To make your schools a true vehicle for the community, consider offering the following services:

Host job fairs and workshops for parents on topics such as computer literacy, job placement, healthy cooking and eating. These workshops, led by volunteer staff and community members, can be offered at PTA meetings or during school hours (which has the added bonus of increasing family visibility within the school). Schools can waive admission fees for workshops in exchange for school volunteer hours.

Provide bus passes for students and parents to ride to school together, or provide bus passes or cabs for parents to attend school events.

Allow parents to wash clothing with supplies provided by the school in exchange for volunteering (one load of laundry equals one hour of volunteering in the school).

Offer employment when possible to families within the community.

Collaborate with community agencies such as the YMCA, neighborhood watch, local library, and recreation center—and offer to host events sponsored by these groups.

Partner with a local thrift store or food pantry—or open one in your school—to supply families with clothing and regular access to groceries. Our district operates a school-based pantry that is run by students and staff members and stocked by the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

In addition to providing a full meal at parent activities (workshops, parent-teacher conferences, book clubs, etc.), provide a bag of groceries to parents in attendance. We offer groceries to the first 30 families who show up at an event, and we always have more parents in attendance than groceries. Most of our elementary schools receive more than 100 families at these activities.

Help build home libraries by providing a book to families at every parent function or every time a parent volunteers at the school. We prioritize funding for this initiative in our school operating budget, and also through donations and grants.

Partner with social services to provide resources to families within the school such as family counseling services, mental health supports, and welfare services.

Adeyinka Meduoye

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