Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Increasing Parent Engagement

When families are engaged with their children's school there is a positive impact on student learning, attendance and student aspirations for their future. There's a powerful connection that's been found again and again. While virtually all teachers and principals recognize the value of having parents and families engaged with their school they often struggle to figure out how to promote engagement particularly among families of limited means and those who are recent immigrants.

There's lots of evidence for building productive partnerships with parents and families. There's also a lot of really good resources available for teachers and principals to consider when developing plans to improve engagement. I recently wrote a Research Into Practice brief for principals in the Oregon GEAR UP program and after a review of the literature on family engagement identified six things to consider. The complete brief is available here and on the Oregon GEAR UP website.

Here are the six strategies that can be used to improve engagement of parents and families at your school.

1. Check Assumptions and Stereotypes – Be careful about assumptions and stereotypes about families. Most teachers and employees share a middle class background and view the role of parents through their own experience. Recognize that a diverse parent community reflects a variety of values, beliefs about the role of parents and their relationship to school, and comfort in interacting with school personnel. Often Latino and poor families feel unwanted and unwelcome in their child’s school. Be cautious about relying on training, books and other resources that makes generalizations about poor families or families of diverse cultures. Do not organize your parent engagement program around majority, middle-class norms and values. A single approach to parent engagement will not succeed with all parents.
2. Build Trusting Relationships – Personal relationships are important when working with families. Many parents are more comfortable interacting with school personnel in smaller, more intimate settings where it may be possible to share information and ask questions. Latino parents are often concerned about being dismissed due to language or cultural barriers. They are aware of the stereotypes present among school employees and other parents and may resist participating in parent activities where those stereotypes may be displayed. Identify ways to meet and talk with families at churches or community centers off campus. Your outreach must be culturally sensitive and specific to each cultural group. Similarly, parents of limited means share these concerns and resist participating in programs where involvement is measured by the economic resources you can contribute to the school.

3. Value Robust Two-Way Communication – All parents want to be active partners in their children’s education. An important part of parent engagement is their sense of efficacy, believing that they can contribute to their child’s education. The literature repeatedly discusses the importance of both learning from families about their children as well as sharing information about their children’s schooling with them. Too often school communication occurs just one way, school to family and just about problems rather than successes. Parents, particularly parents of limited means, but also parents from diverse cultures, perceive that the school may not value their knowledge about their own child. They may resist sharing information that re-enforces assumptions they believe school employees hold about their family and their child. Schools often create structures for parents to share information but those systems are built on middle-class norms about when and how to interact with the school.

4. Identify Authentic Opportunities to Learn From Families – Just as two-way communication is essential, so is creating opportunities for families of diverse backgrounds to share their knowledge and skills. Parents enjoy the opportunity to contribute their knowledge to the school’s program. Don’t rely on a parental engagement program based solely on fund-raising or other resource-based programs. Many parents are eager for an opportunity to provide leadership. Seek opportunities for Latino parents and parents of limited means to participate in decision-making groups. That may require working with community leaders to identify parents comfortable with that role.

5. Train Teachers and Other Staff – It’s important to work with teachers and other staff to become knowledgeable about the diversity present in your school community. The most effective learning occurs when members of these diverse communities are part of the training. Their involvement makes the training more authentic and signals the community that you are committed to learning about and respecting the diversity present in your school. As stated earlier, do not rely on a single book or training session to form generalizations about poor or Latino families. Those materials may only re-enforce negative assumptions and stereotypes.

6. Develop and Implement a Plan – Improving parent engagement requires an intentional plan of action. Good intentions are noble but a systematic, sustained commitment requires planning and resource allocation. The best plans are developed with parents and community. Current governance structures like the School Improvement Team or the PTO may not adequately reflect the diversity of point of view central to a successful plan. Assure that your planning team is diverse and involves each group that will be part of the plan.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What Makes a Principal?

My current job at Eastern Michigan University is all about the preparation of school leaders. I really enjoy my work and watching students learn and grow. In my course on the principalship I'm often asked "what makes a principal?" I must admit that's a challenging question because I believe that leadership emerges when a principal has a clear vision for their school but at the same time recognizes the importance of developing shared vision; when a principal understands the importance of nurturing and developing teachers and other adults who work at their school; and when a principal has the skills to build consensus and help their school community chart a path forward that includes a "laser" like focus on improving the educational experience for students.

Now I'm not nieve. I understand there are a whole set of management duties and I recognize the political role of a school principal. But, I believe if these characteristics are present a principal can have a dramatically positive impact on their school.

I'm fascinated by the complex interplay between the personal characteristics of individuals and the contextual present in a school community. I recently read an article from 2009 from Educational Leadership that described three important roles of a principal---becoming an effective consultant to help identify actionable strategies for teachers; a mediator and consensus builder to facilitate and coach individual colleagues and groups; and a person who values relationships.

I'd enjoy hearing from you about what you think "makes a principal."

Monday, August 19, 2013

Resources for Implementing Common Core

One of the most talked about issues in public education is implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Every state is at a slightly different stage of development but implementing the common core has significant implications for teachers and principals. I'm always looking for resources that can help principals and their teachers deal with these issues. and recently found two helpful free resources.

I hope you find these resources helpful and would enjoy hearing from you about your experience implementing the common core.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Beginning the School Year - Part 2

The start of another school year is rapidly approaching. When I was a principal I began every year with lots of anticipation and a little bit of anxiety. I always focused on assuring that my school was a welcoming place for students, families and staff. And I was always looking for new ideas for how to get the year off to a good start.

This week I was searching for some resources for a friend and found this blog post from The Connected Principal. It provides 15 great ideas for new principals but as I read them I found them to be helpful for experienced principals as well. So, I want to share them and hope you find them helpful.

As always I would welcome your feedback and thoughts about other tips you have for the beginning of the school year.

Monday, August 12, 2013

BYOT - Bring Your Own Technology

Many schools have begun to encourage students to bring their mobile phone or tablet to school so that they can use it during class to access instructional resources, participate in online discussions and interact with curricular materials. It's called "BYOT - Bring Your Own Technology" and a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 73% of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers have students use the technology in class to complete assignments. Dan Domenech of the American Association of School Administrators reports that about 25% of schools now allow phones. George Fornero, a Chicago area superintendent described his districts rationale. "The kids taught us a lesson. They're still going to bring their phones anyway, so let's allow them to use them in a constructive way." More detail about these initiatives is available from a recent USA Today article.

 I'd enjoy learning from you about whether your school welcomes student use of phones and tablets on campus.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Beginning the School Year - Part 1

The start of every school year is filled with the promise of a new beginning and more than a little nervous anticipation. Every year, whether a teacher or a principal, I had a restless night just before the year began. A principal's job is two-fold. You must help everyone feel safe and secure as they anticipate and begin the year and you set a tone that reflects your vision for your school. It's sort of Leadership 101---what the principal does and pays attention to becomes important.

The tone of beginning activities and the signals they send about the tenor and tone of your school are important signals about what you value. One Michigan high school welcomes new ninth-graders by lining the hallways with teachers, staff and tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders. Everyone applauds as the new students arrive. Another school takes photos of new students during registration and then posts the photos along with a little biographical information in the main entrance to the school.

Of course, don't forget to plan opening day activities to support both parents and students. Have lots of helpful adults available to assist students and their families locate classrooms, lockers and other facilities. Have plenty of directional signs, clearly posted in the languages of your student population. And have every student assigned to a classroom and a teacher. One of a parents worst nightmares is to site in the office on the first day of school feeling like they don't really belong. Finally, encourage everyone to smile. For anyone walking in the door it sends a powerful, welcoming signal.

I'd enjoy hearing from you about how you begin the school year so that students and families feel welcomed.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Summer Hiring

Summer always includes unexpected personnel changes. Teachers transfer, they move or may take another position. Finding the right people can occasionally be a challenge. When I was a principal I once conducted an interview with a teacher who called from a phone booth in a campground. It was a great interview and I ultimately offered her a job but it certainly was one of the most unique interviews in which I've participated.

Hiring is often guided by district policy but there are some important things you will want to consider. First, develop your selection criteria. Each criterion should be relevant to the work. Differentiate between the skills or characteristics that are required and those that are simply desirable.

Second, create and use a set of standard interview questions. They should be linked to your criteria but open-ended enough so that they provide in-depth information about the candidates. Principals I've worked with have suggested these examples because they don't lend themselves to a single answer and allow you to assess how the candidate responds.
  • What do you see as your strengths and how will they help you in this position?
  • As you think about your past work experience, what has been your biggest challenge?
  • Talk with me about the things you consider when designing a lesson.
  • When you're teaching a lesson how do you monitor whether students are learning?
  • Imagine you were hired for this position and it is a year later. What was the best part of your first year and what was your biggest challenge?
Finally, follow the same process for every one you interview. Even when you realize early in the interview that a person is not the best fit for the job, you need to respect the candidate and finish the interview. Otherwise they can suggest that they were not given an equal opportunity to share their background and skills.

I also like to send everyone who interviewed a short written note thanking them for applying and considering my school. Even if the person is not a fit for a particular job they might be right for another position in the future.

Schools are basically people places. So it is important to hire the right people and nurture talented employees so that they feel part of the school. That can begin during the interview and hiring process. Asking about student learning and professional growth sends a signal about their importance to you.

I'd enjoy learning from you about your experience with hiring and look forward to hearing from you.