One of the most common questions we get at EdNavigator is how schools can increase and improve family engagement. In our experience, the best way is by running a school families love. Not like – love. There are plenty of schools that families like. Plenty of pretty ok schools. But there aren’t many schools families love. These are schools parents won’t stop talking about at backyard barbecues. They tell their family members they have to get their own kids into these schools. These are the schools with unusually high engagement.
There’s no single formula for running a school that families are passionate about. We all know that it involves wonderful teachers, engaging content, and a rich culture. But there are also some basic building blocks that far too many schools skip. Here are six essentials:
1. Hire someone very nice to work the main office desk.
We visit a lot of schools. The person who probably makes the biggest impression is the first person you meet — the one who welcomes you to the building and asks how they can help you. In too many schools, the front office seems to be run by someone who was rejected by the Department of Motor Vehicles for being too mean and indifferent. Parents stand for several minutes waiting to be acknowledged, let alone helped. Their mere presence is treated as an inconvenience. Whatever they want, the answer is no. You get the idea. There's a better way. Prioritize making families feel welcome when they come to school and ensuring they leave with a smile on their faces. It all starts with hiring good people for the front office and making excellent service a non-negotiable.
2. Respond to every parent communication within 48 hours.
Teachers and administrators are extremely busy. It's exhausting work. It simply isn't possible to respond to every inquiry or question on the spot. We understand that. But it shouldn't take a week, either, and parents shouldn't have to ask the same question three times to three different people before getting an answer. Set a standard that families will get a response the same day - even if the response is just an estimate on when their question can be fully answered. In unusual circumstances, things might slip to the following day. Any further than that and families will quickly get the message that their concerns aren't important, and schools will see parent engagement decrease accordingly.
3. Set a clear calendar and stick to it.
Before the start of the school year, a school ought know its full list of holidays, early dismissals, faculty training days, and so on. Families should know those days too. Put the calendar in a prominent location on the school website and keep it up to date. That way, families can plan ahead for instances where they will need alternative child care. You'd be amazed how many schools don't even publish a calendar before school starts, and how many others make changes on the fly, often with only a few days' notice for families. It makes schools seem disorganized and drives parents up the wall.
4. Don’t define “engagement” as parents coming to school.
Ask many schools about their plan to involve parents and you're likely to get a list of events where families come to school and participate in some form of programming or a social activity, like back-to-school night or parent-teacher conferences. You might get a list of volunteer opportunities or PTA meetings. In schools like this, parents are almost invisible unless they are physically showing up. But that's not how parents think of engagement. For them, engagement means saving money to buy school clothes, asking about homework, reading stories at night, getting kids to the bus on time. Smart schools focus on helping parents be actively involved in their children’s education, regardless of where, when or how that happens. If you want real engagement, try using structured home visits to get teachers out into the community. Organizations like Flamboyan can help.
5. Make simple, clear report cards.
When was the last time you read a school report card? Be honest: did it make any sense to you? Gone are the days of A-F grades for core subjects. Today, families are treated to a dizzying array of data and acronyms. You might see a student rated from 1-3 on each of 45 different standards. Or you might see the results of benchmark tests presented in percentile form, which is baffling because the 50th percentile is average, but a grade of 50 percent usually translates to an F. Report cards include so much but don't tell parents what they really want to know: Is my child on track? As a result, too many parents get a rose-colored portrait of student progress, which makes everyone feel better in the present but means opportunities are lost to provide supports that kids desperately need. They should be written in a way that every student and parent can follow.
6. Ask families for feedback—and act on what they say.
Every time I finish an Uber ride, I am asked to rate the driver. Consumers are deluged with requests for reviews. But many schools don't ask for student or parent feedback even once a year. It doesn't go unnoticed. Good schools are good at listening to families. They understand how families experience the school's culture. They pick up on concerns that the new uniforms are a little too pricey. They can tell that families would like to see less punitive disciplinary approaches. They use this information to adjust and improve. It doesn't have to be a survey — but it should be systematic and frequent.
This list could be a lot longer, and everything on it is easier said than done. But most schools will find at least one area where they could do better, and that’s a good place to start.