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How do we want to engage parents?

By Timothy Boyle on Jul 17, 2012 11:11 AM

In June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors – during the meeting at which Mayor Nutter became its president --  enthusiastically endorsed parent trigger laws, which allow parents to instigate a school turnaround. If 51 percent of parents sign a petition at a low-performing school, they can force drastic reorganization according to one of the four federally prescribed methods – from replacing the principal to replacing half the faculty to charter conversion to outright closure.

Some in the education world, such as Kevin Chavous, champion parent trigger laws as the ultimate representation of parent engagement. I don’t see it that way. This overthrow mentality has nothing to do with collaboration between those who work in schools and the families that send their children to them. Parent trigger laws are not an avenue for engagement but rather for control.

In my experience I’ve seen two models of engagement, contributor and partnership. The contributor model is engaging parents to volunteer to assist with something the school is already doing or has decided it wants to do. The partnership model engages parents to become involved  in the decision-making processes of the school.

The most common type of engagement for parents in Philly schools is to volunteer. Schools need help. Budget cuts have left schools without many of the people that educators depended on to provide important services as well as create community. For many schools, the Supportive Services Assistants and Non-teaching Assistants were hired from the community the school served. These people helped teachers, maintained order in the hallways, and served as another trusted adult that students could go to. Now that many of these positions are gone, and likely not coming back soon, volunteers can fill some of those roles.

The other way to engage parents is to involve them as partners in school policy and decision making. Presently there are few conduits for this type of engagement in Philadelphia. Each school can have a Home and School Association. This group can meet to make recommendations, assist the school leadership,  and serve as an information-sharing network reviewing school documents like its improvement plan.

Each school now hires at least every other teaching position by using site selection (PFT contract page 72). One member of the site selection committee is selected by the Home and School Association. The committee reviews resumes, interviews candidates, and makes recommendations as to who should be hired.  

There was an attempt late in Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s regime to put a School Advisory Council at every school. At Renaissance Schools, SACs interviewed potential management organizations and selected which provider would “turn around” their school (except here, here, and here) Although the focus on creating SACs at every school has stalled, the topic came up in discussions with both superintendent finalists. And this campaign is calling on the School Reform Commission to commit to SACs in every school.

Some schools are really good at getting parents and other volunteers into their buildings; others don’t seek much outside assistance. The volunteer model of engagement meshes well with a command-and-control style of engagement. Many parents are also more than happy to assist the school in any way they can.

But some parents want to play a bigger role than a helping hand. Bringing in parents as true partners requires some humility and willingness to find compromise. Many school communities say these qualities are lacking from their leadership. Giving up some of the authority, because school leaders never give up responsibility, can be a scary thing. Listening to a concern that does not directly relate to test scores is unfortunately not the first instinct in the era of “accountability.”

Clearly parents are invaluable members of a school community. I think that the partnership model is the ideal for every school and that the two models of engagement can coexist. I don’t believe parent trigger laws are going to get us toward collaboration, however. To me, if you want true parent engagement, you ask parents who are happy with their level of engagement in their schools what makes them happy. You ask parents who are unhappy with their level of engagement in their schools why they are unhappy. And most important, you have school leaders answer these questions:

How do you engage parents at your school?

What would you like to change or add to those efforts?

What do you need to make it happen?


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Comments (17)

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on July 17, 2012 4:27 pm

Thank you for the post. I wasn't aware that the U.S. Conference of Mayors had endorsed "trigger laws." As a teacher and parent, the trigger laws are frightening. There is too much room for corruption. A small group of parents could get rid of anyone who doesn't "fit" with their school. In the privatization environment of Philadelphia, this could enable a politician, cleric, religious / community group, etc. to charterize / privatize a school because it is politically or economically profitable for that group/organization. We have seen enough corruptions in charter - and SDP schools.

That said, the traditional way to engage parents - Home and School/PTA/"make a cake" - may "engage" but it does not empower. I've had the experience - as a parent - of involvement in a school committee that actually had influence over policy/programs. I was motivated to give a lot of time and money to make the changes happen. With a change in the school leadership, parental involvement was relegated to primarily "bake a cake." While this is viable for some people, I'm not good at "cake baking."

If more school leadership is willing to bring in parents/families to use their talents to influence policy/programs in a school, the school in the long run will benefit. There have to safeguards to ensure that cliques don't have undo influence. There have to be clear guidelines to ensure the participants represent a broad spectrum of the families. Responsibilities of the parents/families should also be delineated from staff responsibilities.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on July 17, 2012 6:32 pm

I concur on the potential problems you point out. Parents need more empowerment, but I wish they would stick to one solution; I thought that the empowerment was supposed to be "choice".

Speaking of sticking to one solution: Does anyone know what happens when a SAC and HSA disagree? Remember that HSC (and thus a HSA) is a parent organization formed by parents; whereas a SAC (formerly School Council) is a PSD organization under the jurisdiction of the District. It does make a difference (though perhaps in Philadelphia not). HSC is supposed to lobby local District decision makers and lawmakers on behalf of parents (HSC is a PTO as distinguished from a PTA which lobbies nationally). Apparently a SACs decisions can be overruled by the PSD, whether Superintendent or SRC. What an outright disregard of participants', whether principal, teacher, or parent, time.

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on July 17, 2012 6:46 pm

This popped up in my twitter feed this week. The involvement/engagement difference seems to an important sticking point across the country. 

Submitted by Joan Taylor on July 17, 2012 9:57 pm

Although parent engagement is the holy grail in most schools, the parent trigger law strikes me as the sort of meaningless gesture that at best feeds the worst impulses of a school community. I don't know how many groups school administrators can be accountable to in a reasonable way. As much as I can be critical of school administrators, I don't think their performances will be improved by hanging one more threat over their heads. As in the classroom, punishment doesn't really work well. It might offer a temporary satisfaction to whoever is wielding the ax, but it's generally a waste of time. That's what this parent trigger law sounds like to me.

Submitted by Ken Derstine on July 17, 2012 11:07 pm

The parent trigger law is a diversion by politicians who don't want attention on the fact that education is being underfunded in urban schools.

Closing schools with low scores and replacing them with charters is the same political diversion. Schools threatened with closure in low income areas are in the position of a doctor who diagnoses a patient's illness, is denied the medication to help the patient, and then is fired when the patient gets sicker. If we want to fix the schools we must confront the unemployment and attendant social conditions in low income areas, so it's easier to blame schools and teachers for the affects of these conditions.

Submitted by JoJoFox (not verified) on July 18, 2012 5:18 am

"Parent Trigger " legislation is promoted nationwide by the same people who pushed thru ""Stand your Ground" legislation nationwide...ALEC ! (see Parent Trigger Laws are meant to be devisive and to further disrupt public education with the ulyimate goal of full privatization of American education....for-profit schools is the objective. The only alliance,so far, which has been able to stand up to defend public education successfully has been the alliance of parents and teachers together. THAT alliance is a threat to the powerful corporates who would dismantle our public educvation system...and that is the purpose of the "Parent Trigger" legislation. See
The stakes have never been greater.

Submitted by MacMaven (not verified) on July 18, 2012 8:06 am

Timothy: Parents already are, or can be involved in an advisory capacity and/or decision-making by becoming a member of a school CTE program's Occupational Advisory Committee (OAC). Every approved Career and Technical Education program in the state is required to have an OAC. The OAC is a committee of representatives of business, industry, labor, postsecondary, teachers, students, and parents (representative of the community and the trade students are learning). In the SDP, we are directed to have at least two parents on each OAC. Some CTE schools like Dobbins, Bok, Mastbaum, etc., have many CTE programs, thus many OACs; further, some comprehensive high schools also have approved CTE programs in need of parent participation.

OACs are required to meet at least twice a year, some meet more. To quote the state, "The main purpose of an occupational advisory committee is to strengthen the career and technical education program by making recommendations for program improvement and providing technical assistance to assure the most up-to-date curriculum content and appropriate applications of technology". OACs do not have administrative or governing authority, however they do have significant sway in their program recommendations to the school as recognized by the district and the state.

All CTE programs in Philly need parents on their OAC. What's especially helpful is a parent that happens to work in the same trade/industry (a twofer); however the parent need not be involved in trade, just interested in serving the program/students in an advisory capacity. If a parent has a child in a CTE program and wishes to serve on the OAC, they should contact the teacher of the program and express their interest.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on July 18, 2012 9:27 am

I worked at Mastbaum AVTS for three years unitil 2009 and I do not remember any such school based OAC in operation while I was there. There was no parental input on anything. The one woman who was called in when we needed to show we had some parent input, complained to me about how disrespectfully she was treated by the principal.

The original concept of school councils was that they would have actual decision-making authority and they would include teachers, parents, community members, and in high schools, students. Harry Gafne, a long time district administrator, once wrote for the district an excellent set of bylaws and operational procedures for school councils.

Advisory councils over the years have rarely been effective because the district leaders do what they want anyway. They are often used as pawns in the power games of the administration. The councils are powerless.

Also, who selects the PAC members? Are the members selected by the principal or elected by the parents? What are the rules? How are they enforced?

I am in favor of school councils, but through my experience with them over the years, they have to be implemented properly and in good faith. The original SRC had as one of their goals, "Every school will have a school council."

That SRC meant real school councils with meaningful input from parents and teachers.

Submitted by MacMaven (not verified) on July 18, 2012 10:43 am

Rich: Just about the time you left Mastbaum, the state did Approved Program Evaluation (APE) reviews of every CTE program in Philly. Preparation for APE was grueling (much like Middle States Accreditation). State representatives came to each school for several days, charged with looking for compliance/non-compliance with numerous state requirements; schools with CTE programs that did not have significant evidence of an OAC were out of compliance and put into corrective action. Now all CTE programs should have an OAC else possibly lose their Perkins funding. For a very long time in Philly, the involvement of an OAC for each CTE program was overwhelmingly ignored, although the district maintained a Local Advisory Committee. OACs were always mandatory, but now they are enforced.

The OAC is similar to a school council in its advisory capacity; however, it only advises and makes recommendations for each CTE program at the school. These recommendations are required to be addressed by the administration of the school. In many suburban CTE schools, the OAC is supreme, even charged with interviewing potential teachers then making recommendations for hiring.

I didn't mean to confuse an OAC with a school council, I was just answering Mr. Boyle's question with another venue to engage parents. I find that my program's OAC members offer great and varied perspective, invaluable advice, and sound recommendations - many of which were heeded by the administration of the school and improved our program greatly. I do invite and welcome interested parents to serve on my committee.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on July 18, 2012 11:57 am

Thanks for the update. There was an evaluation done by the state while I was at Mastbaum and we passed easily. That was probably before the new and improved evaluations.

Just for the record though: Mastbaum is another Great school with a Great staff. They have a Great leadership core team, too. The programs the teachers developed over the years were outstanding and they had and still have a host of very dedicated teachers.

I didn't think you confused the different types of councils. I just tried to seize 'the teachable moment" to add in a history lesson on the school district's history of inclusive, collegial, and ultimately democratic, leadership.

We once were among the leaders in the nation in the arena of school councils and I participated in the district's "shared decision-making" initiatives sponsored by the Pew Caritable Trusts. I served as Governance Council Chairman at University H.S. way back in the early nineties. It was an enlightening experience.

An institutional memory is a very valuable thing. A value, I do not think many of our new leaders quite understand.

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on July 18, 2012 3:23 pm

Thank you both for sharing more avenues of engagement. I remember two EduCon's ago the deputy superintendent Nunery gave the Keynote address. He focused much of  the keynote on his hopes for reforming the SDP's CTE offerings. Since being removed from the CEO position I have not heard many specifics about reworking CTE throughout the District. With the Middleton family donating 5.7 million over three years toward CTE programs, perhaps more attention will be given to OACs.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on July 18, 2012 3:11 pm

What I learned most when I was transferred from Furness to Mastbaum was how much CTE programs are needed at schools like Furness and all of our neighborhood comprehensive high schools. It was amazing how "into" their CTE classes the students were.

Of course, that just may be because of how good the Mastbaum teachers were!

Have we forgotten what "comprehensive" means?

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on July 18, 2012 8:33 pm

It's also important to keep in mind that at some schools, the majority of parents would rather leave the educating to the educators. I spent a few dozen hours at a neighborhood elementary school in a very poor neighborhood in West Philly. 100% of children qualified for free/reduced lunch and very few children at this school had parents with 4-year college degrees. One of the teachers told me that at this school, many parents preferred to leave the educating to the teachers and other staff at the school. Some of the parents many not have had the time to be involved or may not have felt comfortable being particularly involved in academic matters. In my interactions with students, I spoke with a number of students. None of them used the Free Library. Some of them were rarely read to at home.

My point in telling this story is to say that there is not a one-size-fits-all model for parent involvement or engagement. At schools where many of the children have well-educated parents who are well-informed and feel competent being involved in decisions of the school, then absolutely, a collaborative or engagement model will work. At other schools, the majority of parents may be more comfortable with a command-and-control or involvement model of collaboration. What happens is that for many of the neighborhood schools (charter or traditional public), the best and brightest students or students who have well-educated parents or parents with means don't attend the neighborhood school. Rather, these students attend higher performing charters or private (namely parochial/Catholic) schools. Then, the children who attend the neighborhood schools come from families with less education and money. Some of these parents may be very engaged, but others may not be for a variety or reasons. It's important to keep in mind the unique situations at particular schools when discussing models for parental involvement/engagement.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on July 20, 2012 9:28 am

I agree with you in that the discussion of models seems to be really a discussion of management skills. The principal has a central role to play in being sensitive to the differing cultures and backgrounds of the students' families. Engagement, and involvement leading to engagement (in ways not involving policy for those who would prefer not) is crucial. Even if the culture is one of noninvolvement, a principal can still provide events, such as open houses or student performances to bring parents in. It is part of a public school's mission as a community service institution to increase awareness of/educate families also.

Acknowledging the factor of parent influence on student achievement, it is not a good idea to give parents such political power as proposed in the "parent trigger laws" in a school that has been "failing", because it won't be known how much of the lack of achievement has been due to the culture of the parents themselves.

With today's technology, it would seem to me just a small step to improve the SPI, School Performance Index, to include more than just a small percentage of student family surveys (which it relies on right now). Questions need to be improved to get more valuable responses as well. If a parent says they rarely or never go to school events (including report card conferences) but are "very satisfied", that needs to be noted somehow.

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on July 19, 2012 4:39 pm


Great article. I always felt there existed two kinds of parental involvement in a school: personal and political. The former is concerned with being a good parent (instilling values in your child, reading to them, helping with homework, making sure they receive proper nutrition, volunteering for activities at school, etc.). The latter is more concerned with setting policy and challenging administrators. Although both are needed, personal parental involvement, in my mind, is much more important and is a core part of our school system. In big urban districts with a high concentration of poor, it's so hard to get parents personally involved in their child's education. As a coach, I've had some success getting parents involved via school sports programs, but it's still difficult nonetheless. As for the "parent trigger laws," I agree with you that they are not a good solution; you can play musical chairs with principals and teachers, but ultimately parents can't replace themselves or their own children.

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on July 20, 2012 10:53 am


I think we need to tread carefully when talking about parents personally involved with their children's education. Invovlement should not be measured as parents meeting expectations set by the teacher. I think what you mean when you say "It's so hard to get parents personally involved" is that systems of communication in many schools are generally poor. I was writing this with a school-wide scope in mind, but is important to discuss how individual teachers engage their parents as well. Some caregivers are just not going to be their for their students like students deserve. But most families just need a time, a space, and a medium which work for everyone on the education team. Creating these systems get a lot of lip service in my opinion.   

Submitted by Mary (not verified) on August 2, 2012 2:22 pm

We need to remember that one model don't fixes all school community when engaging parent. These are some Barriers that must be address before buid parent capacity at school site.

Barriers to Family Engagement in Education
Recent research shows that numerous barriers to involvement exist for both schools and families. Some barriers are created by limited resources, while others originate from the beliefs, perceptions and attitudes of school staff . The most common barriers to family involvement include:
• Lack of teacher time.
• Teachers’ misperceptions of parents’ abilities.
• Lack of understanding of parents’ communication styles.
• Limited family resources, such as transportation and child care.
• Parents’ lack of comfort at the school.
• Tension in relationships between parents and teachers.
• Mobility.
• Lack of vested interest.
• Difficulties of Engagement in the upper grades.
• School staff had not been trained to work with families.
• Administrators and teachers worried that increased family involvement would add to their already busy schedules.
• Educators were concerned that closer relationships with families would mean giving up power and decision-making.
• Families were not sure how far they could go in making suggestions or asking questions; they worried that children would be punished for their parents’ actions by a teacher or principal who was annoyed or threatened by the parent.

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