Engaging School Helpers
As we have discussed, school helpers are already involved with their schools in traditional ways that are admirable and important to the schools’ success. Can they be engaged in even more robust ways in addressing the issues that stymie school and student success, such as truancy problems, lack of essential resources or poor teacher preparation?
School helpers tend to believe they could be doing even more, and we believe that at least some of them can be more intensely engaged if they are asked in the right way and provided with “user-friendly” ways to get involved that respect their time and other commitments. Again, it’s important to start with where these parents are by making the most of the support they are already providing to their children and schools.
- Present options that provide a range of engagement levels and opportunities. When we advise leaders about how to think about sound public engagement, we like to say (as we did above) that it’s not an event, but rather an ongoing process of enhancing communication and building trust, respect and collaboration. But the flipside is that everyone is busy, and their time should be respected. Although school helpers believe they could be doing more, they are already supporting their schools to some extent. Engagement in deeper ways to help improve school policies and practices or to forge new community partnerships should not be presented as an all-consuming involvement. Relatively quick-hit, high-quality engagement, such as participating in a focus group or a well-designed community forum rather than an ongoing task force, may allow more people to contribute. Some may then develop a taste for the process and want to do more. Also, since these sorts of parents are inclined to help out at school anyway, inviting them to do so at parent engagement events, such as asking them to provide food for a dinner prior to a community forum, can expose them to a broader range of issues needing attention. A Kansas City parent, a head of a PTA, described the activities at one school:
We try to give busy parents different avenues. We have different things throughout the school year at different times, different days of the week, because we realize everybody has different schedules, so we try to change up the schedules, change up the times, use different ways of communicating with the parents.
- Raise awareness of important education policy issues. Raising awareness of pressing policy issues will not necessarily influence behavior change or move people into problem solving, but it is an important prelude. Introducing the issues and providing a clear picture of how these play out in their own schools is a critical step in keeping the door open to parents who are already involved and may be spurred to further action on an issue of particularly deep concern. Since school helpers tend to feel comfortable in their school environments, using this setting as a launching place for civil and open dialogue on pressing public issues will be most effective.
- Demonstrate the power of parent engagement. With parents in this group saying parental involvement is not necessarily the highest impact way of changing schools, there is a need to connect the dots between parental involvement and policy or practice changes. Change leaders should help these parents answer the question, “What can I actually do if I don’t like what’s going on?” A parent participant posed the question in the following way:
As far as you’re talking about the importance of knowing where your school ranks—it would be nice to also know what you can do about it if you don’t like it. If Kansas City is not accredited, what the hell can you do about it?
- Communicate through trusted sources. School helpers have positive relation¬ships with and trust in teachers and school principals. This provides a unique opportunity to strengthen and leverage these communication channels as a means to encourage parental engagement beyond traditional in-school and at-home activities. Moreover, building connections with fellow parents, especially those who are potential transformers, might build momentum for change among school helpers.