Connecting parents and schools

Connecting parents and schools is a challenge in many countries, according to a survey by the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). “The most striking feature of parental involvement in school activities is the relative lack of it,” says a PISA report released this year. “In most schools, parents and teachers generally meet only when students are having difficulties.”

The study found that the best ways for parents to help their offspring are simple: read to young children, engage teenagers in conversation and demonstrate reading for pleasure. But the report also stressed the importance of building school-parent partnerships.

“Children of involved parents are more motivated to learn for learning’s sake, and have more control over their academic performance because they adopt their parents’ positive attitudes toward school and learning. They know, too, that they can obtain guidance from their parents on how to navigate school and its challenges.”

Furthermore, teachers may pay more attention to students if they know their parents are involved, the report adds.

Shelley Green, president of the B.C. Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association, said school staff must understand the culture of their community before they can develop solid relationships with parents. “The old tradition, where you had parent-teacher interviews on one night and expected everybody to come, is long gone,” she said. “That might work for a small population but it certainly doesn’t work for everybody.”

Her message to parents is that their help is critical “You know your children the best … and we need your knowledge and involvement. We want to be a team with you.”

Porter, who has been hired by the Vancouver school district to teach immigrant families how they can support their children’s learning, said she emphasizes the importance of informal connections rather than formal ties through groups such as the school’s parent advisory council (PAC). While PACs do good work, they usually attract parents who are already plugged in, she added.

In giving advice to parents who are new to the school system or uncomfortable, she uses the word “smile” as an acrostic, with each letter standing for a particular action. Smile at the teacher when picking up your children, Make eye contact, Introduce yourself, Leave when the class commences and Engage. Her advice for schools is to use food, family and fun — such as potluck meals, games nights and talent shows — to make an initial connection in a non-threatening way.

Respect is key. Terry Berting, head of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, said parents shouldn’t be made to feel guilty if they don’t have time to volunteer at school or join the PAC. And those who do have time, shouldn’t barge into the school with unrealistic expectations, he added. “You want to encourage parent involvement … but it’s so important to respect the role of administrators and teachers,” he said. “I think parents are still struggling a little bit with where we fit into the school system.”

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