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Schools generally fail at outreach to parents

The other day I asked a friend how the first few weeks of first grade were going for her son. She paused, frowned and allowed as how she really had no idea.

Her boy has declared school “fine” and sees no reason to elaborate. My friend has a job, which makes it tough to pop in during the school day. The message on the teacher’s voicemail flat-out declares that she doesn’t check it and gets to emails when she can, which is sporadically.

You’re horrified and you want to know what schools? All three are highly regarded Minneapolis programs, as it happens, but it doesn’t matter. Urban, suburban, I’m here to tell you this is more the rule than the exception.

And it’s worse when the school is likely to perceive a particular family as disengaged. Not long ago, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson told me she was horrified at how she was treated when she showed up in a school in sweatpants and was mistaken for an unkempt parent.

Myself, I was promised a return call by one of my kids’ principals four weeks ago. But somehow I hit the jackpot with my other boy, whose teacher is one of those people who cheerfully returns emails right away.

I could indulge myself for hundreds more words, but the point is this: For all their talk about family engagement and about the important role parents play in setting the stage for academic achievement, schools generally do a lackluster job at outreach.

What a good thing it is, then, that Twin Cities educators and parents are about to get a visit from Joyce Epstein, a sociology professor and Director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University. Her current research focuses on how district and school leadership affects the quality of schools’ programs of family and community involvement and results for students. 

Epstein’s visit is being organized by Joe Nathan of the Center for School Change at Macalester College, in conjunction with Minneapolis Public Schools, Growth and Justice, MinnCAN and the University of Minnesota Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development. Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius will introduce Epstein.

The utter disinterest many schools display regarding families’ thoughts on their kids’ educations has long been a concern of Nathan’s, and he will wax passionately about how simple it is to fix.

Epstein’s will speak Nov. 10 at Minneapolis’ North High School, 1500 James Ave. N. Light refreshments will be served at 5:30; the program will run from 6:00 to 8:00. More information can be found on the website of Parents United, which should be a go-to site for anyone interested in this type of thing.

The program is free and open to the public, but those interested in attending need to RSVP to csc@macalester.eduby the end of the day Nov. 8 so organizers know how much food to have available.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/28/2011 - 11:51 am.

    Not to crow…well, OK, it’s crowing but when my kids were in high school, I received daily e-mail reports from my youngest son’s Chemistry teacher when he was strugging as a freshman, and got the same attention for the oldest from all of his teachers when it was apparent that with just a little more work he would be in the running for a National Merit Scholarship.

    ONE of the reasons my wife and I pulled our kids from the public system in grade school was the blatently irritated response we received almost every time we sought to communicate with their teachers (to be fair there was a wonderful teacher at Groveland Elementary).

    Parental indifference is a fact of life for many kids struggling in public schools. Everyone *says* that parents are a key factor to a successful education, but in my experience that doesn’t mean many teachers want us to ever contact them.

    BTW, the possibility that I might encounter ANY staff member in *sweatpants* at the private school my kids attended never, ever occurred to me.

    The thought that that experience could ever include a *top administrator* is BEYOND COMPREHENSION.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/28/2011 - 02:13 pm.

    I’m inclined to agree, Beth. Schools generally do a lousy job when it comes to outreach, if by “outreach” what is meant is that someone from the school (typically it’s assumed to be a teacher, though I find that assumption curious) initiates regular and/or frequent contact with parents about their children. My guess – and it’s no more than a reflection of my own experience as a teacher in another state – is that teachers probably feel their days are already long enough without initiating phone calls or other modes of communication to the parent(s) of each child with whom they interact, especially when the gist of the conversation might boil down to “Johnny is doing fine.”

    At my high school, we had semester grades, quarterly grades, “progress reports” in between quarterly grades, and an evening or two set aside for parent conferences well before the end of each semester – usually before we’d reached the end of the first / third quarter, so there was ample time for Johnny or Jane to get their respective academic acts together before their semester grade was crippled. In an 18-week semester, there were at least 4 occasions on the calendar, before we ever got to semester grades, during which parents were informed about how their children were doing academically, and feedback from parents was encouraged. Double that for the school year.

    Because progress reports always indicated when a student was doing poorly in a course, and included a request to “Please call me to discuss your child’s academic performance,” the general thinking on the faculty was that little or nothing more needed to be done in terms of contacting parents, since the invitation to parents to contact staff members was an open one, and I and most of my colleagues were always willing to meet someone at school in person, as well as the more common exchange of phone calls.

    One personal wrinkle in that approach was that it took only a few calls from mischievous students at 1 AM, or anxious parents at 9 PM during my first year of teaching, for me to make my home phone number unlisted. I kept it that way throughout the remaining decades of my teaching career. Keep in mind that this was years ago, before “caller ID” was a common feature, and before cell phones were ubiquitous. Also before email was a generally-accepted means of communication. Few of my students came from households that even had computers. If I were teaching now, I’d need a separate cell account for teaching-related business in order to retain some shred of private life, and I assume, without checking, that many, if not most, school districts have IT systems that support email for each staff member. My former school district now has such a system, but it wasn’t in place while I was there.

    I was happy to talk to parents during the day, or at an extracurricular activity when I encountered a parent (with or without their student), but I was already spending most of my evenings and weekends on lesson plans, or grading papers, or supervising one extracurricular activity or another, and I had the subversive idea that even teachers were entitled to at least some minimal approximation of a life, including time with their own families, undisturbed by the anxieties, genuine though they might be, of the families of their students. I never failed to respond to a parent’s phone call, usually the same day if I got the message before I’d gone home, and I contacted parents during my lunch break, my prep period, and before or after school. On the rare occasions when it was necessary, I even called parents in the early evening, at their request, but I still did not give out my home phone number.

    I should add that, while I don’t think it “beyond comprehension,” I share Mr. Swift’s appalled reaction to a high muckety-muck from a school district appearing at a school function in sweat pants. Unless there’s some peculiar and specific reason for it, that Ms. Johnson was “mistaken for an unkempt parent” says more about her than she probably intends to, and what it says is not complimentary. I’m left wondering what it was about how she was treated that “horrified” her. If it’s merely that she wasn’t shown the deference to which a superintendent has become accustomed, she needs to get over herself.

    My own experience supported the notion that, if I wanted to be taken seriously, and at least semi-professionally, I had to dress the part. I generally eschewed a suit, and still do, but I wore a dress shirt and tie to class, and “business attire” was my usual on those occasions when I knew I’d be encountering parents, with athletic contests an exception when I was coaching the team on the field.

  3. Submitted by Jerry Von Korff on 10/29/2011 - 09:56 am.

    We are dealing with several parental contact problems here. One is parental communications with teachers about individual educational progress of the student. The second is contact with the principal (or counselor) about the individual student. The third is parental involvement in the affairs of the school and in volunteer work to make the school better.

    Communication with parents on individual student progress entails an expenditure of time from a higher cost professional. Lawyers, doctors, hospitals, accountants, dentists, all handle this problem by placing responsibility for assuring quality communication with their customers in the hands of paraprofessionals of some kind. Typically, the person is gifted in communication, understands the business and is subject to training and supervision. Also, there are technological solutions which automate some of the contact responsibilities, and some which post information about student progress automatically on a parent accessible password protected web location.

    In education, we don’t push work down to the lowest paid person who can do the job effectively. Partly, it is because the public would pillory us if we hire more people who are not teachers — even if the position actually allows teachers to do their job more effectively. Partly, it is because at the bargaining table, teachers want us to cut these positions so that we can improve their pay. Partly, it is because we don’t recognize that effective communication is critical to the survival of our business model.

    If we think that parental communication is important, then we need a strategic plan designed to develop the most cost effective, reliable, and proactive communication program that can work for teachers parents and school. One way to accomplish this would be to create a communication support position for a person who would work full time to assure adequate communication and outreach. Yes, it would add another non-teaching position, which the public despises, but if teacher time is truly precious, and if teachers are truly not spending enough time to communicate, providing them with lower cost assistance might well work.

  4. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 10/29/2011 - 10:52 am.

    A few brief reactions to comments above re the free workshop we are helping organize for Nov 10
    1. Beth, thanks for writing about it. Yes, I think it is fixable but it does require making communicating with families a priority (one that I think has many rewards). For example, schools could (and some do) start out with a family student conference before the school year starts. This makes the first contact between home and school a positive one. Educators could devote 10-15 minutes a night, 2-3 nights a week to contacting families. This often becomes one of the favorite activities of teachers when they say something positive to families about their youngsters.
    We’ve also worked with St. Paul Public Schools on meetings with families that do not speak English. (ie spanish speaking, Hmong, Somali, etc These have gone well, are very much appreciated.

    2. Mr. Von Korff, hope St. Cloud Public Schools will send some people to the free presentation on Nov 10. Dr. Epstein agrees with you about the need to have a plan how to do this.

    3. Epstein and her colleagues have created wonderful free or low cost materials that educators can use. See http://www.csos.jhu.edu/p2000/index.htm

    Thanks again for sharing info about the Nov 10, free workshop

  5. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 10/30/2011 - 03:42 pm.

    Golly, all, I feel like I just inadvertantly dissed Superintendent Johnson. To be fair to her, in the story she told me she was popping into a school after hours to drop something off. She does not regularly show up in sweatpants. But I do, and I appreciate the fact that she’s aware of the reception I get when I do.

    Ray, I can tell you you were putting out more communications than my kids’ very skilled, very dedicated teachers–who I would never in a million years think of calling at home at night unless they had specifically opened the door. They have upwards of 32 kids apiece and I am acutely aware of how hard they work and how many of the issues they need to communicate about with families go well beyond progress reports.

    But still, I have found that while the teacher’s workload is a crucial factor for a blogger to keep in mind, it’s not healthy if it’s my prime consideration as a parent.

    So I pose you a question, which is not intended as a point of debate so much as sincere curiosity from someone who wants it both ways: Would it have make any difference if you’d had 16 students to communicate about? 20? Or if, as Joe suggests, you’d given up your scant personal time to say, “Hey, Leticia really applied herself to learning her multiplication tables and it shows,” vs. “We have yet another problem with Arnold”?

    Jerry, I know of several schools where the principal works hard at community and parent relations and it makes a big difference.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/30/2011 - 04:55 pm.

    “If we think that parental communication is important, then we need a strategic plan…”

    I’d expect this crucial piece of the job to be part of the “strategic plan” a Professional educator learned in college.

    But then again, the public schools are dominated by trade labor “it’s not my job” ethics….pity.

    I’d also expect that a Professional Administrator would not find it appropriate to appear at his or her place of business in sweat pants, at *any* time.

    BTW, I’m writing this on at 5:00 Sunday after having just gotten home from work…It’s no big deal. As a Professional, I realize, as do my peers, that sometimes weekends just do not exist until you get the job done.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/30/2011 - 10:32 pm.

    More grist for the mill…

    The high school where I taught was “semi-revolutionary” during my tenure there. Built into our school day and instructional setup was an “advisement” system. Every faculty member, and most of the administrators at the school, had 15 to 20 “advisees,” with whom they met – sometimes individually, sometimes in small groups – specifically so that both student and teacher or administrator would have at least a minimal relationship outside of the formal academic one. As an advisor, it was my responsibility to keep track of Jane’s academic progress, make sure she signed up for the right courses to graduate, mediated between Jane and the teacher with whom she was feuding, as adolescents do so well, and in general to serve as a surrogate counselor about a host of subjects, not all of them related to academia.

    We did this through scheduling trickery that involved the hiring of “permanent substitute” teachers, who rotated through classes. Once a week, I did not meet my ‘x’ hour class (the hour changed according to a rotating schedule), the permanent substitute took the class that hour (with my lesson plan), and I met my advisee(s) in an area of the school set aside specifically for that purpose – it was, in fact, part of the school’s architectural design. The program was expensive due to the cost of the permanent substitutes, but those of us who were original members of the school’s faculty had come to the school specifically because we wanted to do something that was not just different, but that humanized the whole institution to some degree so that our students / advisees would be more successful academically.

    Advisement worked well during the 25 years I spent there, but near the end of my tenure, as more and more “plank owners” retired, it became evident that new hires were not nearly as committed to that personal approach as original faculty members had been. When we tried to export the program to a sister high school in the district, it was paid lip service for about 3 years, and then abandoned, so “scaling up” was a problem. For faculty at my school, advisement represented a considerable extra investment of time and energy, but we’d signed on knowing that in advance, and believing that it was important and worth the extra effort. Teachers at other schools felt they already had enough on their plates.

    A smaller student load might have made a difference in terms of contact. I typically had 110 to 135 students per semester. A 5-minute phone call about each student would take anywhere from 9 to 11 extra hours. Frankly, on a regular basis, I couldn’t do it. Even if I had only 15 students per class (and I never had that light a load in 30 years), it would still take more than 6 hours to make a 5-minute phone call for each kid. That’s more time than I typically had available on an every-week basis. I tried to emphasize on parent nights that parents should call me, rather than the other way around, if they had questions or concerns. I always called back. That was time-consuming, too, but it went with the territory, and at least I wasn’t trying to contact every family every week.

    It’s good to know that, while sometimes annoying, sometimes amusing, Mr. Swift can be depended upon to always be patronizing to those of us who are lesser mortals, so I’ll just toss out a few brief responses.

    Keeping in mind that my college preparation for teaching is/was Paleolithic, none of it – at least none that I remember – involved communicating with parents. Oddly enough, the focus was on communicating with students.

    The real pity is that Mr. Swift’s “…the public schools are dominated by trade labor ‘it’s not my job’ ethics…” is based on ignorance, and far removed from the reality that I experienced.

    I agree with him about administrative sweat pants. That should be strictly “at home, in front of the TV” attire. If she’s going to “drop something off” at a school, Ms. Johnson should change clothes.

    I spent part of every weekend while school was in session – EVERY weekend – doing classroom-related work. Twenty minutes to grade a part-essay test, times 110 students (usually more) meant at least 35 hours of grading (mostly done at home) for each test, in addition to the usual lesson plans and other academic chores. There were 6 part-essay tests per semester per student, plus an essay final exam, and I also assigned at least one outside-of-class essay to each student, each semester. I graded papers from 6 pm to 10 pm most weeknights for years, and Sunday nights were always grading sessions. During the summer, I spent most of my time revising assignments, lesson plans, and evaluations so that the next year’s course of instruction was improved over this year’s.

    Mr. Swift has no clue at all about teaching.

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