Involving parents in positive ways in our school is heavy on my mind this week; I am in charge of coordinating stakeholder participation in my school’s three-day strategic planning session happening the end of this month. Working with my Head of School, we created a list of target parent voices that I asked to represent the parent-voice of our school. While our school community is decidedly not low-income, our students are performing at low levels for a number of systemic reasons. Essentially, our school culture has not supported a strong academic focus in the past partially due to extenuating circumstances (last year was the first time Grades 11 and 12 were offered) and partially due to low expectations by teachers, parents and students. With our school improvement efforts in the back of my mind, I was intrigued with the section on community organizing efforts to improve schools in A New Wave of Evidence. In this report, Henderson and Mapp (2002) point to the following key finding on parent and community organizing:
“Organized initiatives to build parent and community leadership to improve low performing schools are developing in low-income urban areas and the rural South. These community organizing efforts use strategies that are aimed at establishing a power base to hold schools and school districts accountable for low student achievement. They have contributed to changes in policy, resources, personnel, school culture, and educational programs” (p. 53).
The finding in this report are about low-income public school in the United States, but the impact that this type of parental involvement can have on students’ education is meaningful for any school that need improvement.
The report indicates eight areas that measure impact:
- Leadership development
- Community power
- Social capital
- Public Accountability
- Positive school climate
- High-quality instruction and curriculum (p. 55).
The students at my school are fortunate in that they come from families with means, have nice facility to learn in and a group of dedicated and for the most part, highly capable professional educators. Much has been accomplished this year, but much remains to be done. As a school, we are fortunate in that we have a core group of parents that support the positive changes we are trying to achieve this year, mainly a shift towards a strong academic program. These are the parents that had been invited to take part in the strategic planning session as we work to craft a vision and mission for our school. However, there is value in hearing from voices that are divergent or are not as forthright with their support.
When I was at school on Thursday (this week) I was approached by the business owner that provides cafeteria services for the school and he is also a parent of a child in our Pre-K program. This parent was highly agitated, verbally attacking me as I just happened to be walking by. He expressed his anger over not being told that the majority of our secondary students were going leaving for an all-day fieldtrip and would not be at school to purchase food during break and lunch. With a small student body of less than 200 students, any change to our schedule or attendance dramatically affects his business. His initial approach was highly aggressive and non-communicative; after exploding at me that we “needed to solve our communication issues” he attempted to walk off before I could respond. I knew that I had to remain calm and insist that we talk about the issue at hand so it could be resolved; I also figured that his aggressive approach was due to more than this particular incident which turned out to be true. His anger was based on a number of underlying issues; anger at the school’s parent company management structure, anger over what he feels is an inequitable business contract, anger over replacement of the former Head of School with whom he had a close relationship and a perceived sense of loss of community at the school.
I remained calm and continued trying to engage him in conversation about his initial issue over communication even as he tried to walk away three times. Eventually, he stayed. We talked about the issues above and more and what I learned was an important insight into human nature: we all want to be heard and our feelings validated. Through simply listening intentionally, validating his feelings, offering a simple solution “If communication is the problem, that’s easy to solve”, and apologizing, I was able to change what began as a very negative interaction into the beginnings of an alliance.
After reflecting on this interaction, I spoke with the Head of School. I explained how this parent felt detailing his many complaints, many legitimate and that we (Administration) see as well. I suggested that instead of ignoring or trivializing his concerns that instead, we invite him to be a parent representative at our three-day strategic planning session at the end of this month; my Head of School agreed and the invitation was extended. The parent accepted.
I believe that by bringing in divergent viewpoints from parents that have legitimate concerns and issues about our school, we can create partners rather than adversaries. I also believe that when people are given an opportunity to productively channel their negativity, everyone benefits. Yes, my school is an expensive private school for privileged children living in Indonesia. But, that doesn’t mean that we won’t benefit from nurturing strong parent organization that will carry on the work that we begin, long after we’ve moved on to a new country and new school.
Henderson, A. T., & Mapp, K. L. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement. Austin, TX: National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools.