Public Agenda

Engaging Help Seekers

Unlike the potential transformers and school helpers, help seekers don’t seem ready or willing to take on more active roles in their schools or to become education advocates. Instead, this group is somewhat more alienated from their schools and don’t see teachers and administrators making genuine efforts to help their children succeed.

To engage these parents effectively, it seems important to gain a deeper understanding of their core needs and experiences. This can be achieved by conducting targeted research into the views, values and concerns of this particular group and by utilizing these research findings to develop engagement approaches that speak to these parents’ needs. Meanwhile, change leaders should focus on opening up new lines of communication to better understand and reach this group of parents.

  • Strengthen relationships and understanding between school personnel and the community. Help seekers are less likely than other parents to trust principals and teachers to do what’s right when it comes to their children and to say they have a good feel for the community. To overcome this disconnect, schools should make concerted efforts to establish relationships with the school community and build a greater under¬standing of the social, cultural and environmental factors that affect the education of their students. For instance, parents in focus groups offered ways for schools to provide services that address common community concerns:

    The teachers know who [the students with less engaged parents] are. Get to know that student. Get to know what is going on in their lifestyle and in their family and what is going on, and then maybe they can step out of the school and go to their home and communicate with their family.

  • Create opportunities and policies that welcome parents into schools. Help seekers are less likely than other parents to believe their schools welcome parental involvement, and several focus group participants shared experiences of being treated as unwelcome outsiders by school staff and administrators. While they recognized the safety concerns with allowing pedestrians to enter and exit school buildings during school hours, several parents said they had become frustrated by the attitudes of staff and administrators at the schools or felt they were treated with suspicion when their intentions were to visit their children, check in with teachers and monitor student progress. School personnel might be able to find ways to reduce teachers’ perceptions of parental visitation as a threat or provide profes¬sional development that cultivates the teachers’ skills in conflict resolution and moderation. As one parent stated, a welcoming environment and attitude can go a long way:

    I love it when teachers thank me for coming. I love it when the principal says, “Glad to see you. Hope to see you again.” I think it is just old-fashioned, hey, being polite and thanking each other and making people feel welcome and not making parents feel like, “Hey, you’re infringing on us”—making parents feel like, “Hey, we’re really glad that you were part of this process,” and make a concerted effort. This is something that we have to do, and so I think a person ought to talk to the staff and say, “Hey, when parents come around, make them feel good. Make them feel comfortable. Make them feel welcome.”
  • Help parents’ efforts go further. Many help seekers feel as though they are doing as much as they can to be involved. In fact, they are not absentee parents— most report checking homework regularly and meeting several times a year with teachers. Yet many are dissatisfied with the ways teachers and principals communi¬cate with them about their children’s progress. To make parents’ efforts count more, school personnel might strengthen communication between teachers and parents about the issue these parents tend to care about most: helping their students learn. In focus groups, some parents expressed great frustration at not having the support they need as parents to help their kids succeed in school. Parents shared the following comments:

    Teachers don’t send any textbooks home. When kids get homework, they get a packet stapled together, and schools want you to help these kids with homework. [The packet is] not explaining to me how I’m supposed to explain [the homework]. When he is doing homework and he’s looking at me like “help me,” I have to call up the school. They have a hotline or something that you call, but they’re not really explaining, not even trying to explain to you how to explain it to him.

    I had a teacher tell me if my son had paid attention in class that I wouldn’t be calling up there asking for help. “You’re so right, but I am calling, and I’m saying that I don’t understand how to help my son, so don’t expect the homework back tomorrow. You need to send home better instructions so that he can get help.” Her exact words were, “Your son should have paid attention in class and you wouldn’t be calling up here asking for help.”

    Some parents say that prioritizing communication about the most critical instances of disciplinary issues or the most important meetings to attend can help them have greater impact despite their limited capacity to get involved. One mother explained,

    You got some teachers in some schools that will call you for everything that your kid did. But in this school, they have a disciplinary person... This person will mediate, she’ll calm him down, and nine times out of ten I probably won’t even know that he got a write-up that day because it wasn’t serious enough to call home. That works out for me because say if I have a call center job, I cannot get off of the floor every time the school calls.




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Recommendations: Ready, Willing and Able?

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Public Agenda developed the following series of recommendations to help education leaders successfully engage all parents in school improvement.

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