Like many educators, the subject of school comes up in conversation in all kinds of settings. Recently, I was sitting at a wedding reception, enjoying the blissful scene of the newly-married couple showing off their tutored first dance when my cousin-in-law’s wife sat beside me. It wasn’t long before the subject of conversation turned to school.
What she shared with me was very intriguing. Her son, finishing eighth grade this year and transitioning to high school next year, will diverge from her family’s tradition and enter a different high school than the expected one. What she said to me is the following: “Bob (assumed name) wants challenges. Everything I get from the school he will attend is “yes” while the other school keeps saying “no”. The “no” school wants him to fit inside their box and won’t accommodate what we need.”
The parents’ requests to the school centered on rigorous and varied course offerings as well as accommodations for their child’s health needs. So, in addition to the typical courses of a high school freshman, Bob will take Latin online. Also, when he needs to miss school for health reasons, he will be able to Skype in to all of his classes. These are just a few examples that this parent shared with me.
Lingering from that conversation is a question and a thought:
Question: What has that high school done to create the kind of culture that is a “yes” culture, with a seemingly clear understanding that students are individuals with a continuum of needs that impact their learning?
Thought: This school has done itself a remarkable favor by inviting this family into their school community. One of these parents is a nurse practitioner and will be a very involved resource in both health-related and academic needs that the school might consider.
It is no surprise that parent engagement in schools wanes as children progress into the middle and high school years. With the growing emphasis on preparing all students for college success, middle and high schools face a need to engage parents in their children’s learning at deeper and more personal levels than ever before. Parents like the one mentioned earlier are more than happy to be involved in a school community that learns together and engages parents in that experience. But even parents who are reluctant to become involved will be more motivated to do so if the school reaches out in a way that becomes part of the culture of caring about students’ future success.
Once a paradigm shift is underway, good ideas flow easily. But it’s that first chipping away at old themes that takes such painstaking work. The mantra to “go beyond the bake sale” in parent engagement is taking hold in education blogs and conversation. One way to engage more parents in secondary schools might be to introduce or grow existing health-related initiatives. As children enter adolescence, they are at increasing risk of engaging in dangerous patterns of behavior such as drug and alcohol abuse, early sexual activity, gang violence and others. School personnel often cite such behaviors and their consequences as major barriers to teaching and learning. Simultaneously, parents are often overwhelmed by the challenges they face as their children make their way through the academic, social, and emotional changes of middle and high school.
Schools and parents have equal interests in working together to promote healthy behavior among adolescents and the benefits of a sustained partnership in this way could naturally be transferred to academic areas.
The Center for Disease Control provides resources for educators who wish to engage parents. According to their handbook titled, Promoting Parent Engagement in School Health (http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/adolescenthealth/pdf/parentengagement_slides.pdf), when parents are more involved in school, their children have:
• Better student behavior.
• Better school attendance.
• Higher academic performance.
• Higher school completion rates.
• Enhanced social skills.
Healthy adolescent choices include getting involved in school, exploring academic interests and planning possible future pathways. Since these are conversations that schools are trying to have with families, it makes sense to take a more holistic approach to programming. Driving safety, nutrition, sleep habits, and other pertinent teen issues could be part of these conversations.
Combining health-related parent engagement with informative exchanges connected to academics and college preparation can deepen the school-parent partnership and position students for a better chance for success when they graduate and move to the next stage of life. Resources for parents and educators about outreach and training are available on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website (http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/adolescenthealth/parent_engagement.htm).