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April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

How Schools Can Recruit Hard-to-Reach Parents

Hawaii's success with School/Community-Based Management shows that there are many ways of involving parents from diverse cultural and language backgrounds in the life of the school.

Most educators recognize that involving parents or other caregivers in their children's education is an important way to improve student academic performance. And parents themselves agree. Research shows that, regardless of class, race, or educational background, all parents believe their children will benefit from their involvement with their children's schools (Marttila and Kiley Inc. 1995, Chavkin 1989). Nevertheless, most parents do not regularly participate in school activities, communicate regularly with teachers, or attend parent-teacher conferences.
It's not that educators don't understand the myriad reasons why these parents don't get involved (see for example, Finders and Lewis 1994). They know that there are more single-parent families and that work and family responsibilities leave little extra time. They know, too, that language, cultural, and socioeconomic issues underlie many other barriers to involvement.
A growing number of parents do not speak or read English well enough to communicate with teachers and administrators. Because of cultural differences, many parents are not familiar with the expectations of their children's schools and don't understand how to go about getting involved, even if they want to. Some parents lack the educational background or skills they feel they need to interact with teachers and staff. For others, their own negative experiences as students make them uncomfortable going to the school.
To make matters worse, many schools that claim to welcome parent participation do not provide a hospitable climate for parents. The first time many parents hear from the school is when there is a problem, which lends a negative association to school involvement. Visitors typically encounter notices directing them to report to the main office, a largely symbolic request that can be intimidating to those who are already reluctant to approach the school.
In addition, many parents feel that school staff are cool and indifferent to them. And, in fact, many teachers and other staff members have not learned how to communicate and work effectively with parents and families, particularly those who have different cultural, socioeconomic, or language backgrounds.

The Hawaiian Experience

The Hawaiian experience with School/Community-Based Management offers lessons in how to solve these problems. During the past year, our small research team from Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development (now WestEd), studied the first nine elementary schools to implement Hawaii's version of site-based management. (Eventually, all Hawaiian schools will convert to this approach.) We found that in the five years since School/Community-Based Management was implemented, parent participation in school activities increased by 45 percent, on average.
The nine schools are situated in a variety of settings, including poor inner-city neighborhoods, upper middle-class suburbs, and rural areas populated by poor and middle class families. Each school serves students and families from a unique mix of backgrounds and cultures. At each school, policy and other school-level decisions are made by a council composed of representatives from six role groups—administrators, classified staff, certificated staff, parents, community members, and students.
Although relatively small numbers of parents are actively involved in school governance, we found that they have become increasingly involved in other activities. The most dramatic increase has been in parent communication with teachers, followed by contact with other school staff, volunteering in the school or in their child's classroom, and attendance at PTA or School/Community-Based Management meetings (Izu et al 1995).
We found, too, that the more involved parents were, the greater was their confidence in and satisfaction with the school. And as they became more familiar with curricular and instructional goals and activities, they were more supportive of teachers and administrators.

Surmounting the Barriers

How did the nine Hawaiian elementary schools increase parent involvement, including involvement in the decision-making process? To begin with, as they embarked on School/Community-Based Management, staff members were trained in facilitative leadership, including communication skills and shared decision making. The schools' district offices also offered technical assistance in shared decision making. In addition, many of the schools began providing teachers with more professional development opportunities, including guidance on how to work effectively with parents.
Instead of focusing immediately on bringing parents into the decision-making process, the schools we studied began by simply getting them involved. For example, one school developed a family literacy program, combining early childhood education with adult basic education and training. Once parents get involved in one school activity, they are more likely to participate in other ways, such as assisting teachers on field trips, helping in classrooms, and even taking part in decision making.
One of the major factors in the creation of more hospitable environments was the Parent Community Networking Centers at each school we visited. Although they vary from school to school, their main function is to provide resources and a home base for parents. These centers were instrumental in implementing School/Community-Based Management.
Each networking center is directed by a parent facilitator, who is paid to be a part-time liaison between the school and parents. The facilitators did many things. They contacted parents to encourage them to volunteer in classrooms or attend meetings, conducted educational workshops, facilitated communication between school staff and parents, reviewed and sometimes translated material the school sent to parents, conducted surveys to identify parent needs and concerns, and provided outreach to those parents who had minimal contact with the school.
In addition, most of the facilitators were involved in the School/Community-Based Management meetings, making sure parents were aware of the meetings, contributed to the agendas, and felt welcome. In many cases, facilitators would ensure that meeting minutes and other communications were promptly sent to parents.

A Five-Step Strategy

Based on our experience in Hawaii, we've developed some specific steps schools can take to involve more parents and other community members. Such a strategy should address the barriers between schools and parents and find ways to bridge the gaps.
1. Reach a shared understanding of what form parent involvement will take. Site-based managed schools, in particular, must clarify whether participants have an executive or advisory role, and in what areas—school policy, personnel, budget, curriculum, or facilities, for example.
We found that schools often send mixed messages to parents, reflecting different opinions or conflicts within the school about how best to involve parents. For example, at one school we visited, a group of vocal parents attempted to participate in making administrative, curricular, and instructional decisions. Many teachers felt threatened, interpreting this as an indication that parents lacked confidence in them. The principal likewise felt that parents didn't trust her ability to make sound administrative decisions. For their part, parents felt betrayed and unappreciated; they felt school staff had been disingenuous in welcoming their involvement.
2. Develop strategies for involving more parents. Although school governance typically involves a relatively small number of parents, it is important to develop mechanisms through which the involved parents represent others. When parents feel that the parent voice in school governance reflects the parent population as a whole, they will more likely be supportive and involved. Existing groups such as the PTA can be useful, but because many parents do not belong, extensive outreach is usually critical. If possible, enlist one or more parents or respected community members to recruit other parents, in part through phone calls and home visits. Appoint a liaison at the school to encourage parents to get involved, while also assessing their needs and helping the school accommodate them. Surveys are useful to tap into parents' concerns and get information about those who might not attend other meetings (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Tips on Creating and Using Parent Surveys


  1. Determine what is you want to find out from parents.

  2. Translate the questionnaire into the languages parents speak, and make sure parents receive the version they need.

  3. Keep the language simple and avoid jargon.

  4. Minimize the number of open-ended questions. Multiple-choice questions will increase the response and make responses easier to analyze.

  5. Make it clear that the survey can be completely anonymous. Give respondents the option of signing their names, but put this request at the end of the questionnaire.

  6. Inform parents ahead of time that you'll be distributing the questionnaires so that they will know to look for them.

  7. Enlist teachers, students, and parents in disseminating and then collecting the questionnaires.

  8. Allow only one response per family.

  9. Involve members of the school community, including parents, in interpreting the data and developing an appropriate plan. Then, provide feedback to school staff and the parents.

—Julie Z. Aronson

3. Provide parents information on the school and ways of getting involved. Never assume that parents know how to get involved, or that they feel comfortable doing so. While soliciting parents' opinions and concerns, describe specific ways they can get involved. The parent liaison can help establish a parent center on campus, while suggesting other ways of making the school more parent-friendly. The parents and community members who are recruiting other parents can also supply information.
4. Involve those parents who are hardest to reach. To overcome any language, literacy, or cultural barriers, you might need to rely less on written materials and more on phone calls, home visits, or even videotaped messages. Newsletters, reports, meeting agendas, and other written materials should be brief, and written in direct, jargon-free language. Whenever possible, translate the materials into the major languages the parents speak (parent volunteers might be good at doing this). Make sure that meetings are scheduled conveniently for parents, and notify them well in advance. Whenever possible, help with transportation and child care. In general, create an environment that says "We respect everyone. We understand and will try to accommodate your unique needs and concerns."
5. Reach out to parents who are reluctant to participate in the school. This is one of the biggest challenges, and it often requires persistent outreach. When recruiting these parents, be sensitive to feelings of fear or intimidation about associating with teachers and administrators. Encourage parents who attempt to become involved with the school. Ideally, have a room or office specifically designated for parents. Creating a school atmosphere that welcomes visitors is an important start.

Chavkin, N. F. (Summer 1989). "Debunking the Myth about Minority Parents." Educational Horizons: 119-123.

Finders, M., and C. Lewis. (1994). "Why Some Parents Don't Come to School." Educational Leadership 51, 8: 50-54.

Izu, J. A., J. Z. Aronson, B. De Long, J. Cuevas, and N. Braham. (1995). Voice, Collaboration and School Culture: Creating a Community for School Improvement. San Francisco: Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development.

Marttila and Kiley Inc. (1995). A Study of Attitudes Among the Parents of Primary-school Children. Boston: Marttila and Kiley Inc.

Julie Z. Aronson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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