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Field Trip: How to Get Parents to Take an Active Role in Your School
There’s a difference between parent involvement (like getting parents to show up for fundraisers and meetings) and parent engagement (where parents take a more active role and have a voice at the table). This high school principal is moving mountains to bring parents on board. Here’s how.
From lunch-and-learns and chat-and-chews to food trucks and taking events out into the community, Hatboro-Horsham High School principal Dennis Williams means it when he says he wants to hear from parents. In this podcast, he shares how they’re working to get parents more engaged in the school lives of their students:
- What the changing socio-economic makeup of the community means for parent engagement
- Why getting active participation from parents is so important for students and the school as a whole
- What roadblocks and questions they’ve had to grapple with as they’ve made parental engagement a priority
- How any school can work toward the same kind of success with parents and the community
Podcast: One District, Two Communities — How does a district strive for equity when it serves two distinct, racially-diverse communities?
A few months ago, Frontline Education asked principals all across the country to tell us about their work. What do they love most about their jobs? What motivates them? What do they wish they knew more about? And, of course, what do they find most challenging in their work as principals.
At the very top of the list – the answer we got most often when we asked what was most challenging – was “parents.”
DENNIS WILLIAMS: I want parents to be active participants both in their student’s life, their child’s life, high school life, but also in the inner workings of the school. You know, I want to see parents at sporting events. I want to see parents at concerts and walking the halls during different things that we have here.
But how do you get there? How do you take parents who are either critical, or absent from the school, and turn them into partners in the educational life of the building?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: A lot of people fail to realize that this is a customer service business, right? We have people’s most precious commodities for seven and a half to eight hours a day. So it’s important for them to have a clear understanding of what’s happening, and if something is not going as they think it should, why? And can we do things a little bit differently?
That’s our story today, as we speak with one high school principal who isn’t satisfied with bringing parents along for the ride. He wants them to help drive the bus.
DENNIS WILLIAMS: I do believe it’s time well spent. Sometimes it may not feel like time well spent, when you’re expecting a hundred parents and 20 show up. But those 20 parents, the impact that you can have in the dialogue and the conversation and what you get from those individuals, I think is valuable.
From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.
Dennis Williams is the principal at Hatboro-Horsham High School in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania – about 15 miles outside of Philadelphia. It’s a school with about 1550 students, and Dennis has been here for a while.
DENNIS WILLIAMS: I have been here for the last 15 years as an administrator, and prior to that, I am actually a 1993 graduate of this high school. So I like to tell people that one of the inmates is running the asylum here.
RYAN ESTES: That’s great. And you’re giving us some of your time here on AP exam week?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: Yes, yes. This is, this is an interesting week. This morning kicked off the first series of AP exams. It’s a two week window and I’ve got 500 kids running around here crazy over the next two weeks. But we’re ready to go.
RYAN ESTES: We’re talking today about engagement, and specifically, how you work to engage families. And while most people would agree that this kind of engagement matters, how would you articulate why it matters?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: First of all, I think it’s important for people to really have an understanding, especially administrators and teachers, that there’s a significant difference between involvement and engagement. Schools do a great job of involving parents, sending information home. So you know how to be involved. “Here’s when this PTA meeting is going to take place. Here’s where the fundraiser is going to take place.” That’s involvement.
What schools have not done a great job of, what we need to improve, is how do we engage parents more effectively? How do we get people to the table as we start to make decisions? Because ultimately the decisions that we make, whether they be academic co-curricular, policy, typically those decisions are made top down. And that’s not to say that that won’t be the case for many things. But I think there’s a significant shift in terms of how our students are wired, which ultimately means there’s a shift in how our parents are wired. So the better job we can do in terms of engaging families more effectively and engaging our community more effectively, the better off I think we’ll be.
When schools don’t work effectively with parents, no surprise, parents don’t have a good sense of what’s happening in the building. So Dennis said that they try to get as much face time as possible with the parents. Every other month he invites parents to what he calls a “chat and chew” – he runs over the goals that they’ve set, and how the school is making progress toward them.
DENNIS WILLIAMS: But the most important part of that time together is, “Okay, so tell me what we’re doing right, and tell me what we’re doing wrong.”
A lot of people fail to realize that this is a customer service business, right? We have people’s most precious commodities for seven and a half to eight hours a day. So it’s important for them to have a clear understanding of what’s happening, and if something is not going as they think it should, why? And can we do things a little bit differently?
The piece about engagement comes in when, after you’ve attempted to engage, everybody should be connected. So our demographics have changed significantly, and we’re finding more opportunities where it used to be great for our parents to come out during the day to get involved in some things. So we took that parent chat and chew opportunity, and then turned it into an evening opportunity, virtually, for some of our parents. So they still have that opportunity to get together with us online, hear some of the same information and share some of those things.
You have to remove roadblocks to parents getting involved, he said, especially when it’s an important initiative.
DENNIS WILLIAMS: We’ve had a number of opportunities where we’ve brought in food trucks. Because some of the biggest barriers to parent engagement are transportation, work schedules and the time that you do things. So we try and look at, “How can you break down some of those barriers to engage your parents a little more effectively?” And I’m also a firm believer that if you can hook the kids and you can engage the kids, the parents will follow, because parents want to be involved when they think that their kids are involved and they’re happy and they’re talking about what’s happening, and it’s positive at school.
RYAN ESTES: It sounds like you’re not just talking about engagement as a way to say, “Hey, here’s the information you need,” but you’re actually setting it up as a listening post. Is that right?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: Absolutely. One of the things that we do every two years is try to get some information from our parents about how we operate. So we send out what I call a customer service survey. That customer service survey doesn’t just talk about, “What are the extracurricular opportunities for your child? Does your child feel like they’re being treated fairly?” But even down to the point of, “How were you approached when you walked into our building? Are you greeted in a positive manner or not? When you call an office in our building, how are you treated? What do you think about our grounds, our facilities?” All of those things are important because, selfishly, the high school is the flagship of the district, right? So it’s important that people have a positive experience, and I think when you can engage them and show them that what they think, what they feel, what they say actually matters, I think that’s important.
Getting parents engaged involves a lot more than just disseminating information. Dennis said they also tap the expertise of parents in the district, for things like career days.
DENNIS WILLIAMS: We just engaged in what we call our lunch and learns, and those lunch and learns are opportunities for students to look at different careers. Well, who better than to use our parents, right? This is a pretty significant area that we’re in now for engineering and computer networking and in medical professions, just in this particular area. So those are the individuals who we bring in.
Trying to connect your parent population in your community to your school, that has a significant impact. Once every year, we have the opportunity to meet with 35 of our business partners, people that are around this area, and talk to them about, “Hey, here are our goals, and these are some of the things that we would like to be in a position to do, and here’s how you can help us.” Sometimes that results in donation of funds, sometimes that results in student internships. There’ve been times when that has resulted in jobs for parents. So again, engaging families and engaging the community are things that I think schools need to seriously look at.
RYAN ESTES: Some leaders in schools across the country might be saying, “Look, we’re involving parents, but we’re still struggling with this stuff.” Why do you think that might be? What are some of the things that keep school and district leaders from doing this effectively?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: I think oftentimes when you’re looking to engage parents, we look at it from a standpoint of what is most effective for us as administrators, right? Work is tough, right? I challenge you to find an administrator whose day stops at 3 o’clock, or starts at 7 o’clock. So when we start to look at things and schedule things, oftentimes we do put those parameters in, that criteria in place. “Well, we can meet with parents, but it’s got to be three, four o’clock,” or “Everything that we do has to be 6:30 and 7.” So I think part of that is really looking and thinking outside of the box, “What is going to allow me to reach and engage the largest number of people? And then for those that I can’t reach, how do I get to them?”
I think that is oftentimes one of the biggest barriers is, everybody knows when back to school night is, but when you start to see a decline in participation, why is that? What is the reason why parents are no longer coming? I think those are some of the tough questions that we have to ask ourselves sometimes because we do get set in our ways. And we know that every fall this particular event happens, and every spring this particular event happens. But if we’re not looking at that event, aren’t looking at the way we communicate that event and really, truly getting feedback from people, then I think we remain stagnant and stuck in our ways. This is a generation of parents and students for whom things don’t look the way that they used to. “Why do I need to come out and listen to you speak when an hour after you’re done, it’ll be up on somebody’s Facebook page or some sort of social media outlet?” So I think we have to take into account how things have shifted in the paradigm shift of both our students, our parents and our community.
RYAN ESTES: Specifically, what have been some of the things, some of the trends that you have seen with parents? Some of the reasons that they might not be coming out and engaging at the level that you’d like to see?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: Like many districts around here, the socio-economic status has changed quite a bit. So you do have parents who are working more. We also have situations where we have parents who have multiple students now throughout the district, and that becomes tough as well. You know, when you have three back to school nights to go to, sometimes you have to prioritize.
Transportation can also be an issue. Hatboro-Horsham School District spans two different communities, about 3 miles apart. That may not seem like much, but some parents might not feel like making the drive for an event. So they’re looking at taking some events to the community.
DENNIS WILLIAMS: So, one of those events that we’ve talked about is potentially like a town hall, right? You know, when we roll out our new safety and security mission, and some of the new changes and things that we’re going to have, part of that is communicating that effectively to parents. Why couldn’t we go out to one of the local churches or to the YMCA and host it in a place where people feel comfortable? When we start to talk about, “Hey, here’s the vision and the plan for the next three years for graduation requirements,” oftentimes, it’s us making those decisions and why can’t we get feedback from parents with some different programs? Why couldn’t we go out to Hatboro and do some of those things, or different places in Horsham? So I think it’s just really looking strategically at what do you want and in what way do you want people to engage, and then what could hinder that engagement? When you start to think that way, I think results can be positive.
RYAN ESTES: Well, let me ask you that question then. In what way do you want parents to engage?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: I want parents to be active participants, both in their student’s life, their child’s life, high school life, but also in the inner workings of the school. I want to see parents at sporting events. I want to see parents at concerts and walking the halls during different things that we have here. One of the interesting things that we’re going to unveil in the spring is going to be a parent mentor group. This isn’t public yet, but there’s going to be a parent mentor group. And we’re going to have groups of parents who have had kids who have gone through high school come in and mentor some of our incoming freshmen parents. Because oftentimes those parents can be a little hands off for a couple of different reasons.
One, their kids don’t want them involved. That one, and two, I think there’s a fear coming from eighth grade to ninth grade. There’s a fear about high school and you kind of want to remain hands off. But one of the trends that we’re starting to see is, I would say 60-70%, 60-65% of parents that we have in the building right now for ninth graders, we’ve now hit that point where this is their first kid? So that’s a completely different approach than people who have had two with three and four kids come through. So that’s another aspect of engagement. When a parent comes in and you know that there’s somebody who you can turn to, somebody who can ask some of those questions, somebody who may say, “Hey, I’m going to swing by and pick you up on a Friday for the game.” Those are the kinds of relationships and types of engagement opportunities that we want to create.
RYAN ESTES: You mentioned that you were, you say, a 1993 graduate of this school that we’re in? What were the specific things in your own background or that you saw at Hatboro-Horsham that made you say, “This is something we really need to focus on?”
DENNIS WILLIAMS: I graduated from here in 1993, but did not grow up in this district. I moved here when I was a freshman in high school. I grew up in North Philadelphia and my family made the decision to move out here when I was a freshman. So in terms of engaging more support than anything, I was one of very few African American students in this building, so this was complete culture shock for me. I moved up here and wasn’t necessarily happy about, I didn’t like the fact that I was pulled out of my routine and my environment, even though that was getting me in a little bit of trouble. But it was the support of individuals here, teachers, coaches, that I think have allowed me to have some of the successes that I’ve had to this point. But in terms of pure engagement, I think there was more engagement than I had seen in other places.
The parent booster club was strong, the parent marching band club was strong, but it was engagement that was in segments, right? If you are involved in a sport, involved in the band or a very specific activity, everybody was engaged. I think part of that is positive. But then what about the other 45, 50, 55, 60% of students and parents? So one of the things that we’ve tried to do, as I mentioned, is try to get to the point where we’re more well-rounded in terms of the people that we try to bring in and focus on.
RYAN ESTES: What kinds of questions did you have to grapple with, or what kinds of questions do leaders at other schools have to grapple with, if they want to be effective at engaging parents?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: Wow, that’s a very good question. There’s a couple key things. One, is it worth it? And that sounds like a crazy question, but it’s work. It is time. It is energy. It is getting other people on board to help and support. When we do our evening event and do our online thing, my whole administrative team was online talking to parents and answering different questions. So, it’s definitely a question of, “Is it time well spent?”
RYAN ESTES: Is it always time well spent?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: I do believe it’s time well spent. Sometimes it may not feel like time well spent when you’re expecting a hundred parents and 20 show up. But those 20 parents, the impact that you can have in the dialogue and the conversation and what you get from those individuals, I think is valuable.
So yes, I would say it’s always well spent. I think the other pieces, you know, why are you looking to engage versus involve? Because again, that is a key. I think that’s important. And I think the third and probably final thing is, will you have the support to move forward? Because some of these ideas that I’m talking about are a little outside of the box. But we receive tremendous support from our central office administration to try and change and do various things. I think those are the three things that you have to kind of ask yourself: “Is it worth it? Why are you looking to do it? And then will you have the support from the people that matter moving forward?”
So… it’s important for a school to bring parents and the community alongside it in working toward goals. But how do you decide what it is you’re shooting for? Do you just say, “Here’s the goal?” Or is it better to set goals collaboratively? And if so, how?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: There’s a fine line between that authoritarian dictatorship and the democratic way of doing things. So I think that the opportunities that exist for parent involvement in these types of things and that we used to engage parents is where they actually can, right? So, you know, if there’s a specific state mandate that must be implemented, whether a parent is involved or not, we have to move forward in a specific way. But if there are things where there’s some flexibility, then I think it’s important for parents to try and be a part of it. So if there’s something that we have to implement, there’s nothing wrong with saying to a group of parents who you may have assembled in any of the ways that I mentioned earlier and saying, “Listen, here’s what we have to us.”
Here’s what we have to do, but here’s a couple of different ways that we can do. What are your thoughts? What are some of the pros and cons of doing it this way from both a student standpoint and a parent’s standpoint? One of the things that we’ve implemented this year when in fact we just had our assembly last year is, we’ve taken the same approaches. We wanted to do some things a little bit differently in the culture and the climate of our building. So I created what was called a student A-Team, which is the student advisory team. And that advisory team spent the first few months really looking at the culture and the climate of our building. And they came up with two very important things: social, emotional awareness of students and teachers, and then relationships, student to student, student to teacher.
So we started working on those two things. Then we brought in a teacher A-Team. A teacher advisory team who worked with the student advisory team. In September we’re going to create the parent A-Team, the parent advisory team. So now you’ve got 360 degrees of constituents that are working together at these particular issues to try and say, “How do we make the culture and the climate better both here in the building and then also in the community?” That’s what I mean in terms of, some of this takes time. So it takes some patience, but those are areas where parents can significantly have some impact on what happens in the building.
I asked Dennis about those three different groups – students, teachers, and parents. Did he see a significant difference between what the students recommended and what the teachers recommended?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: The reason why I started with students first is because it’s very easy for, in my opinion, it’s very easy for adults to make decisions and how it should impact kids. We started with our students first because I really wanted some student input and student voice, which I’m really passionate about student voice because this is their building, right? And this is their experience. So within reason, we want to make sure that they have a voice in terms of what things look like in their building. So we started with them first and if indeed we believe that, that the things that they wanted to work on and the things that they wanted to improve aren’t legit or ideal, or weren’t feasible, then we would have interjected and moved some things around. So I think bringing in the teachers, because the two things that they wanted to address, our students were so real, so heartfelt and so easily to attain, our teachers jumped right on board and said, “Okay, well here’s how we can help in this particular area.” And I think the same will be for our parents as well, because they want their parents, they want their students while they were in school, to have strong, positive relationships with each other, and then also with teachers. And clearly they want the social, emotional awareness of kids and kids around them, and the social emotional opportunities that exist for students to be positive. So I think it could have looked different, but we always start with the kids.
So where are there sticking points in all of this? Where are the biggest challenges to getting parents involved and engaged?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: That’s a good one. I would say one of the biggest sticking points has probably been social media. Social media is a positive thing, obviously, if used appropriately. But it also can have a negative impact that sometimes it’s tough to recover from a where you spend a lot of time trying to clarify miscommunications and misconceptions. Pretty much every district has a “parents of such-and-such” Facebook page, whatever school district. I’m a part of the one for my daughters. And sometimes it’s very easy to start and share information out there that just is not communicated effectively, or just flat out wrong. And sometimes that can turn people away from, “Well, here’s where I’m going to go for all of my news.”
So sometimes it takes a while. I like to say sometimes it takes three or four social media outputs in order to change one negative one. So I think that has been a barrier at times. And then I think it’s just a matter of constantly trying to reinvent ourselves with what we do and how we try to engage people because life does get hectic. I have a daughter who’s a freshman in high school, and between softball and honors courses and everything else, it’s hectic. So parents live in a very hectic life, and running kids all over the place the crack of dawn all the way till the sun sets. So I think constantly looking to reinvent ourselves with how we approach them and how we ask for their feedback and how we get them in the building or how we go out to them is always going to be a struggle.
Knowing that we have listeners who are leaders in other districts, I asked Dennis what were some of his “Aha!” moments… what are the most important things he’s learned that could be helpful to others, when it comes to engaging parents and the community?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: For $49.99, I’d be… [laughter] Those “Aha” moments. I would say the first “Aha” moment for me, probably, was the first time, and this has been about six years, seven years, the first time that we did our customer service survey. The questions that we asked and when we were first putting the questions together, we were like, “This is kind of silly. Why do we need to ask people if our fields look good, or how they’re treated when they enter the building?” But some of that feedback, and some of the responses that we received from parents, “Thanks for asking.” You know what I mean? Like, “Thanks for asking us this. This really makes us feel good that you actually care.” We got a significant response from that.
When you look at the national average of surveys as somewhere between 28 and 33%, I think we were at 45, almost 50% of people who responded to that survey. That went out grades nine to 12. So we’re talking 700-800 parents, because I think it was something that nobody had really asked before. But it wasn’t until we got that back, where I started to sit down and say, “Well, okay, so what other ways can we get people engaged?” And not just on the status of the building but on the curriculum and some of the changes, and we’re looking at how to better engage a certain segment of the population.
“Parents, what do you think? We’re looking to expand this internship program.” Those are the kinds of things that I think sparked from that. It’s work to keep it going because you can’t get stale and you can’t get stagnant. The reason why we moved to our evening online virtual chat and chew is because we got to the point where the population of people who used to come into the building for the chat and chew started to dwindle.
But again, you have to ask yourself “Why is this happening? And then what can we do to address it?” And if we feel like we can’t address it, then we’ve got to throw it away and pick something else. But you never want to lose sight of how valuable and how important that parent and also the community engagement piece can be. I mean, talk about community engagement. We’re getting ready to say goodbye to our seniors in about a month. We have a community who gives away about $85,000 worth of college scholarships to kids. So we’re going to have about a hundred kids at that. They get significant amounts of money, all from local businesses and corporations that are in this area, because we’ve made it a priority to engage with them and that’s their way to give back to us. So it all is positive, but it is work.
One of the things that I mentioned a little bit earlier is that our demographics have changed. We’ve moved from a building that about five years ago was probably 85, almost 87% white. We’re about 76% right now. So we’ve seen our Hispanic/Latino population grow significantly, and with that, sometimes, creates some of our English language learner population increasing, which creates some language barriers. So one of the things that happened two years ago was, we decided to have a resource fair. That resource fair included everything from Spanish speaking resources, low income heating, utilities, those kinds of things, medical care for some of our populations that that may not have been with us before who didn’t know how to access those resources.
The amount of people that showed up and the amount of people who were able to connect because of it, it makes your heart happy, right? Because now you’re talking about one small event, but the impact on families was tremendous and that was K-12, right? Oftentimes, there are different resources within a community that handle that. But I think one of the things that this school district does very, very well is, once we’ve identified an issue, trying to work very hard to at least be in a position to help support. Not that we’re going to solve the issue, but how can we support people and try to provide as much information as possible? So that has absolutely been a success story in this. This past summer we did our second one. And again, numbers were great, because it is difficult to manage.
When you’re new to a community, you know, where do I go for these resources? Or, I’m struggling financially, where is the closest food bank? Or, I may not have health insurance, what are my options? That has just been tremendous for us as a district.
RYAN ESTES: And that got that helped bring those parents into and become more involved in their kids’ education at the school.
DENNIS WILLIAMS: And not just that, that has also made it very clear for us, many times now when we are sending out communication, when we’re working in small groups, parents would address things. We make sure that there is a Spanish version, right? We make sure that one of our cultural proficiency coordinators who speak Spanish is present. That student A-Team, just in assembly the other day, actually Tuesday, it was pretty cool to see our Spanish speaking cultural proficiency coordinator sitting on floor kind of translating to kids and explaining to them what was happening. It has been successful, but you have to be in a position to be nimble and move as things change in your district and in your building or whatever the needs and wants and roles and responsibilities are in the district.
RYAN ESTES: What would you say have been as you’ve worked at addressing this issue, what have been your biggest takeaways? What are some things that other principals or leaders can do right now to improve family engagement?
DENNIS WILLIAMS: Honestly, this is going to sound crazy, but it ain’t rocket science, it truly is simple. I think it’s a matter of really sitting down, looking at the things that we do, and then saying, “Is there a way that we could do this differently that engages more people?” Again, I go back to the example of something that happens every single year on your back to school night. When you have parents that have sophomores and juniors and seniors, sometimes that back to school night is a waste of time, right? That’s an hour and a half of your life you cannot get back. Because I’ve had that conversation with parents.
One of the things that we’re potentially looking at is, next year, we’re going to make our back to school night a showcase where parents can come out and see some of the work that kids have done in these classes. You have food trucks. So that way the excuse of, “Well, I’ve got to get kids home. I got to pick up a little little Johnny, we’ve got to get food.” We’ll have that out there as well. So you make it more of an experience. We’re talking about potentially kicking it off with a tailgate. So imagine a parent tailgate, something that they can come out to the school, you know, fellowship, meet new people, connect with old people, eat food, head in to the building, right?
So it’s really not anything ingenious. It’s just a matter of how can we look to do things a little bit differently to engage the people that we want to engage. And like I said, if we do that for year or two, when we start to see it dwindle again, well then it’s time to retool. But I’m a big proponent of the question “why.” And I think by the time you get why, on the fifth time, you have your answer.
RYAN ESTES: Dennis Williams is principle of Hatboro-Horsham High School. Mr. Williams, thank you for joining us.
DENNIS WILLIAMS: I appreciate it. Thanks for the opportunity.
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For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.