Advisers know how important parent involvement is to fostering community engagement, student success, and a positive school culture. Parents are key stakeholders in a school, but generally aren’t physically in the building on a daily basis like students, teachers, and administrators. But keeping them in the loop can be critical.
“More than 40 years of research shows that when families and schools work together, student achievement increases and schools improve,” says Laura Bay, president of the National PTA and a longtime educator and parent advocate who believes strongly that family-school partnerships are integral to children’s success at all education levels. “Students whose families are involved attend school more regularly, earn better grades, enroll in higher-level programs, and have higher graduation rates. If we want children to achieve at higher levels, it is critical that meaningful partnerships are established between families and schools in every district and every school.”
Parental communication is especially important in student leadership organizations like student council and the National Honor Societies because these organizations often provide students with out-of-classroom and extracurricular opportunities that require parental support. “Keeping parents informed means they have the knowledge necessary to help students plan and find their balance, making for more successful students and a better NHS,” says Stacey Fiske, National Honor Society adviser at Mill River Union High School (MRUHS) in North Clarendon, VT. Advisers can build strong support and design the right parental engagement toolkit by contacting parents as soon as the school year begins and continuing with clear communication throughout the year.
When designing a parental engagement toolkit, it is important to consider frequency of contact, varied mediums, visual presentation, and clarity. NHS and student council leaders around the country have provided some best practices to consider when building a comprehensive plan for parent communication.
Communication Is Key
Make home contact a shared task. Enlist students to craft messages home to parents as a marketing and communications learning opportunity. This supports a manageable balance for the adviser and provides an excellent opportunity for students to create and send authentic work. In addition, using student-created content will likely increase both student and parent enthusiasm for the missives. “Parents really appreciate getting information that is not only about their kids, but created by them, too,” says Chelsea Congdon, co-president of MRUHS’ student council. “It makes them feel like they are part of the experience and keeps everyone on the same page.”
Use the parent notification process as a way to start a conversation with your students about annual goals. The process of writing an early fall letter to parents is an excellent time to think about and record your organization’s mission and specific goals for the year. There is nothing like a public announcement to make one accountable, and this can be the perfect opportunity to get the entire organization together and have a thoughtful discussion about what the group would like to accomplish during the year. “It is useful to use the drafting process to discuss goals such as increased shared leadership, more student networking, acquisition of important leadership and organization skills, and making a positive impact on the community,” says Annette Parrish, student council adviser for MRUHS. “Helping parents understand the goals of your organization helps increase support and clarity.” Encourage students to collaboratively structure the words of the message around the group’s goals. This not only embodies shared leadership, but also helps ensure students fully understand the organization’s mission and can speak eloquently about these objectives to their parents, supporting family discussion around your message.
Gather information from parents. One way to begin the year is to start with a parent-centered skills-and-interests survey. In addition to some generalized information about your school’s organization and mission, a parent survey can ask about volunteer availability, special skills, and interests. This not only gathers information about the community, but can lead to unknown connections and can tap parent specialties. Maybe a professional baker wants to help with fundraising or a nursing home administrator parent knows of some impactful service learning opportunities. “Parents want to be more involved, but they don’t always know the best ways to help us,” Congdon says. “They’ll be happy to get involved if their skills are needed.” Plus, the response rate of those surveyed can provide information about enthusiasm for parental involvement and give some baseline information about how to increase parent buy-in. If you are highly organized, the start of the year can be the ideal time to put together and share a general calendar for the year that shows the pacing of major deadlines and activities.
Share expectations and requirements. Begin the year with an overview of expectations, standards, and shared beliefs to allow parents to feel like they are a part of their child’s experience. This helps to bring an understanding and awareness of student council and the National Honor Societies. “This can also help if difficulties arise at a later date and the adviser needs to explain to parents why a student has not met standards or needs to improve,” Fiske says.
Advertise new opportunities. Fiske believes that back-to-school-themed student council and NHS informational packets can be the perfect place to share college and career planning information. For example, she plans to share information about NHS’ partnership with the Get Schooled Foundation (a nonprofit organization that taps into media and technology to help increase high school graduation rates and inspire college readiness) to offer a customized scholarship search tool for Honor Society students. Accessible through the NHS website for student members and their parents, the search tool offers filtered results of scholarships that align with the four pillars of NHS: scholarship, service, leadership, and character. Advisers can alert chapter members and their parents about this tool, which is accessible at www.nhs.us/scholardollars. Finding scholarships can sometimes feel overwhelming to parents, and providing students and their guardians with preselected opportunities that match NHS students’ attributes can help. In addition to this tool, new college planning webinars and other materials are available on the NHS website. Fall is when the real work toward college acceptance happens, so be sure to give parents of college-bound students news of these services as soon as possible in the school year.
Focus on the Details
Dot the I’s. Make sure that you’ve secured administrative approval for any mass communication that is to be sent home to parents. Kim Rizio, NHS co-adviser at Long Trail School in Dorset, VT, says that her school frontloads important protocols around communication at the beginning of the year. Long Trail disseminates a schoolwide photo and media release permission slip at the beginning of the year, and school organizations like the National Honor Societies and student council make sure photographers are aware of which students are not to be included in public posts. It is also a good idea to have someone read over your communications before sending them out, especially if students are crafting the message.
Be clear about specifics. When advertising an activity, Rizio recommends including the event cost, who is in charge, contact information, and, if relevant, the charitable beneficiary for the event. It is important to be clear about which dates and events are definitely scheduled and those activities that are still in the planning stages. “It is fine to send home information about ideas or possible events, but in this case, it is best to clearly communicate that these are plans in the making and that further communication will be sent once dates, times, and details are a sure thing,” Parrish adds.
Indicate the best avenue for response. Do ask for feedback or parent volunteers, but be specific about the best way to contact you. “All parents have the capacity and want the best for their children. The challenge for many parents, however, is figuring out what they can do and knowing the most effective ways to get involved,” Bay says. Advisers are constantly juggling multiple balls, so it is important that parent communication fits into the workload in the right places. Including some specific directions for preferred methods of response not only preserves the adviser’s time, but also helps ensure that parents know how to reach out for a quick response. Do not forget to put these contact details—whether it’s an email address, a request for social media contact, or a phone number—on each piece of communication that’s sent out.
Building Parent Support
Balance support with student leadership. Student leadership organizations are intended to increase student voice and shared decision making. Parent support is integral to this, but this support must take a back seat to the work being done by students. “Kids need to have primary ownership of organizations like NHS/NJHS and student council because they are the future leaders,” Parrish says. Be sure to clearly outline which communications are informative and which are a request for action on the parents’ part. When asking parents to volunteer or take part in events, provide written communication outlining what the adult roles will be. This provides another opportunity to have students think about and craft these messages, further supporting the growth of communication skills.
Celebrate the chance to reach out to parents. Some teachers and advisers who are reluctant to contact parents are concerned that parents do not want more information from school or are worried about the extra time commitment of opening up lines of communication. “Early, regular, two-way, meaningful communication is critical and will help build relationships,” Bay says. “For advisers, reaching out to parents should be an opportunity to celebrate. Advisers should look at it as a positive, exciting opportunity to connect with parents.” It is essential that parents and educators develop a relationship and keep in touch often.
Highlight award winners and impactful events. Parent newsletters and updates are a great place to write about and show off photos of past events and honors. This increases community support for school leadership organizations and provides extra kudos for students doing a stand-out job. “Letting people know what made the event a success and how people felt about it are critical points to future buy-in by families,” Rizio says. “With the busy lives that families have these days, it is so important to provide confirmation that their choice to be at the event made a difference.”
Give early notice for major events. Major events like traveling to conferences require advance planning and budgeting at the family level, so getting the word out early could make the difference in whether students are able to participate or not. For example, Leadership Experience and Development (LEAD) Conferences (www.leadconferences.org) provide excellent opportunities for students to network and practice leadership skills on a larger scale. Multiple conferences throughout the school year allow students to grow as young leaders and scholars. Giving parents an early introduction, along with dates and the proposed cost of attendance, gets them excited and could spur some fundraising activities.
Use technology and social media. One of the benefits of living in the age of technology is that communication is easier than ever before. “Technology allows families to access information quickly in a number of formats, and when it is most convenient for them. It is important that multiple mediums, platforms, and dissemination tools are used for parent-school communication,” Bay says. Consider gaining administrative approval to begin an organization-specific social media account (or two or three). Social media allows for frequent and easy updating of information and is easy for many parents to access. Most social media platforms allow for the creation of closed groups so information only gets to those approved to receive it. In addition, these platforms generally have automatic archiving, allowing all messages and posts to be housed in one easily accessible place. Creating a master electronic mailing list for the group is another way to set up a communication window. Students are frequently well versed in modern technology, so this is a natural place to collaborate with organization members to get the message out. Fiske says that parental communication became much easier when she created a closed-group NHS Facebook page. “Posting pictures of our events or tagging the students who were involved in a status about a successful service project got quick and positive responses from a lot of parents,” she says.
Keep everything in one place. It’s a good idea to create a binder or electronic file and keep copies of every communication that is sent out to both students and parents. This allows for easy access of past notices and makes for a convenient resource if there is a request to catch someone up on the work being done.
Follow up. If your letter indicates that you will be sending more information at a later date, make sure you place a reminder in your calendar to send this information at the required time. As Parrish notes, “The best way to model effective leadership for students is to show commitment and organization.”
Be inclusive. Poll students about which languages are spoken at home and in your community. Bay believes an important way to support diversity is to make sure communication is available in the languages parents speak at home. An easy way to do this is to use an Internet-based free translation service or ask student volunteers to translate your words. Bilingual and non-English-speaking parents are sure to appreciate your efforts.
The packaging matters. In marketing, the design of a message can be almost as important as the message itself. Consider using graphics and pictures to capture your audience’s attention. “Keep critical information such as the date, place, time, location, group, and purpose clear and visible for easy confirmation for your readers,” Rizio says. “Use school logos or stationery as well as organizers’ names and job titles consistent and available in correspondence.” Work together with students to choose fonts, colors, and appropriate layout. If you’re using social media to present your information, ask students to utilize templates, filters, and other tools to give your message a definitive style (see sidebar).
Use your school’s existing resources. Bay recommends using any existing parent portals to make communication with parents easier. She suggests that advisers “use their parent portal to share calendars, assignments, and activities that are occurring at the school.” If parents are already using the school’s portal frequently, they will appreciate a one-stop information hub.
Coordinate efforts. Fiske suggests that when designing a parental engagement toolkit, it may be useful to join together with similar school organizations to make contact easier and ensure that parents are not receiving duplicate messages. For example, if student council and NHS traditionally co-host an important fall event like a Thanksgiving food drive, coordinate messages to ensure that parents receive one piece of information co-written by both groups.
The right parental communication toolkit contains multiple mediums, plans for frequent contact, and builds on the organization’s strengths. Most importantly, crafting and sending out messages to the wider community should be fun. Try to enjoy the process with your students, as the laughs will shine through in the words you send. The larger the community supporting your organization, the better it will be.
Jodie Stewart-Ruck is dean of students at Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon, VT.
Sidebar: Style and Substance
When composing correspondence to parents or community members from your chapter or council, it never hurts to put some extra umph into your design to grab readers’ attention. Consider using the following tools to make your messages shine.
Easily create beautiful design presentations, social media graphics, and more with thousands of layouts to choose from with this free resource. Choose from the site’s catalog of images, photo filters, icons, and fonts for all your design needs. In addition, the site has tutorials, a blog, and even a teaching materials section so you and your students can become master designers in no time. It’s also available as an iPad app!
Go ahead and show off those event photos. Pixlr is a great image-editing tool that boasts more than 600 effects, overlays, and borders. All this in addition to everything else you’d expect from a photo editor such as cropping, resizing, and removing red eye. In addition to its online format, it’s available for both iOS and Android.
Blender is a free, open-source 3-D content creation suite that allows users to model, texture, animate, render, and composite content. Advisers and students can even use it to edit video and create their own games. What better way to solicit parental involvement than by creating your own commercial?
Sometimes it’s best to go in with the cold, hard facts. That’s where Google Charts comes in. Users can choose from a variety of charts and configure an extensive set of options to visualize their stats, whether it’s service hours, funds raised, or the number of participants for a particular event. Harness the power of your data.
Easel.ly is a free, web-based infographic builder that offers several easily customizable templates to get you started. It also delivers access to a library of items like arrows, shapes, connector lines, and fonts. You can even upload your own graphics and position them however you please.