Models of Meaningful, Productive Parent Engagement

Compiled by the Learning First Alliance, September 2012

Parent trigger laws have been attracting a great deal of attention lately. At least 18 states have considered legislation including parent trigger language in the past two years, with seven states enacting some version of a parent trigger. And Won’t Back Down, a recently released motion picture with a high-profile cast, chronicles a fictional account of a parent and teacher "pulling the trigger" to improve an elementary school.

While advocates of parent trigger laws claim that these laws give parents an active role in school management, others question the need for them, given existing ways that parents can get involved in their child's school. Some worry these laws are part of a larger effort to privatize education in ways that benefit businesses at the expense of children. They also argue that the debate over parent trigger laws distracts us from our primary focus: That each child receives a high-quality public education. When policymakers are discussing these types of laws, they are not talking about how to provide all students and teachers with the resources they need to succeed.

An additional concern: Parent trigger laws often pit educators and parents against each other. Yet educators and parents are on the same team — both responsible for student success.

Models of Meaningful, Productive Parent Engagement
Active parents are a critical component of a successful education system. While parent trigger laws provide one avenue for parents to engage, their energy might be better directed at collaborating with educators. By working together in meaningful ways, educators and parents have already improved outcomes for students across the country. Examples of successful family/school partnerships include the following.

  • Putnam City West High School in Oklahoma City is a diverse school where 80 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. By hosting a series of community conversations, school staff learned that parents did not feel welcome in their building and had specific concerns about the school and instructional program. As a result of these conversations, the school has hired more bilingual staff members, written descriptions of courses and college entrance requirements in both Spanish and English, strengthened the school’s English Language Learner program, implemented an outreach program for Hispanic families, and more. As a result, the graduation rate among its Hispanic students rose nearly 70 percent. Test scores among this population are up as well. Learn more:

  • Virginia’s Woodbridge Middle School has undergone a dramatic demographic shift. In 2005, most students were white and few qualified for free or reduced price meals. Today, there is no majority group and almost half of students qualify for meal support. But over this time, the school’s performance on standardized tests has increased, thanks to a strong school leader who works collaboratively with staff and families. One example of shared decision-making: The process the school undertook when deciding to offer single-sex as well as traditional co-ed classes in core courses. After preliminary research, school staff took the idea to the community. After gaining their support, they moved forward with professional development for staff and parents. Six years after implementation, parents still defend this option. Learn more: 
  • In Federal Way Public Schools (Washington), a diverse district where nearly half of students receive free or reduced price lunch, community concerns about educational inequity led to the creation of a Family and Community Partnership Office that gives parents access to the educational system. Among their activities: District-level accountability meetings on family engagement; professional development for all employees (from bus drivers to principals) on family engagement; a “parent leadership institute” that teaches parents to advocate for their children and suggests ongoing involvement opportunities based on their student's specific interests and needs; and more. Learn more:
  • For ten years, Sand Springs Public Schools’ (Oklahoma) “Partners for Progress” committee of interested parents and patrons has met with the superintendent and district staff prior to monthly school board meetings to talk about how to improve the district. At their September 2012 meeting, for example, discussion included Parent Advocacy/Action Teams being organized at each school site, district technology challenges, a possible bond issue that could be raised in March 2013, and more. Since the committee was formed, bond issues have passed with 80% margins and student achievement (as indicated by ACT scores, enrollment in AP classes, and other measures) is up. In fact, the district now outperforms the state on most standardized assessments, despite serving a higher proportion of students in poverty. Learn more:
  • Charlotte County Public Schools in Florida serves slightly more students receiving free or reduced price lunch than the state average. Yet the district outperforms the state on reading assessments, perhaps in part thanks to its school-based Title I Family Resource Centers. Each center houses a wide variety of books and, among their activities, runs the Family Reading Experience, a twice-weekly book checkout activity. Parents are welcomed to the center and receive guidance on helping their child with reading strategies, as well as assistance in choosing appropriate books. An evaluation showed that children in families that participated frequently in the program had more positive attitudes towards reading (both academically and recreationally), as well as better academic outcomes than their peers. Learn more:

Find more examples of public schools and districts that are engaging parents in productive ways, as well as undertaking other innovative reforms aimed at improving student achievement, from:

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