It had already been a long school year and it wasn't half over.


It had already been a long school year and it wasn’t half over. I was vice president of my daughter’s elementary school PTA and our school community was in its second year of a new principal. The start of the previous school year, we’d not only welcomed a new principal, but also a new assistant principal, new teachers, new students, and new parents due to the tumultuous effects of redistricting and several significant retirements. The top of the PTA had turned over along with the school’s administration. The physical plant was old and in need of much repair and as always the budget was tight. The new principal was hired to whip our test scores into shape and she knew exactly how she was going to do it. No one fully appreciated until much later that her notion of how to make sure no child was left behind might not match the notions of others in our school community.
That first year of so much change was full of bumps and bruises. As parents and members of the PTA we were totally unprepared, unorganized and under-supported. By the middle of that second year, and despite being in line to head-up the PTA the following year, I found myself trying to figure out if I had any options or choices when it came to how and where my children were to be educated. I was tired and frustrated as a school volunteer and I wanted to quit. I was also at a loss as to how to help my oldest daughter, who was often sick and struggling just half way through fourth grade while simultaneously my middle daughter, who never met a book she couldn’t read, was bored and thought school was a waste of her time, despite only being in second grade.
All of the changes in our school and all of my private concerns for my daughters probably explained why I was motivated to serve as vice president of the PTA. Similarly, all of the changes and all of the concerns of the PTA president — a single, full-time working mother — probably explained why she was president of the PTA. We were determined that our children and all the children of our elementary school would experience the best education our school community could offer.
To an outsider, it probably looked like the PTA’s president and vice-president had very little in common. We are racially, educationally, economically, and martially diverse. But a deeper look proved that we were much more alike in terms of our hopes and dreams for our children. Through our trials and tribulations with the PTA, we discovered our deep rooted similarities and developed a good friendship that continues to this day. As the leaders of the PTA, we had big ideas about what we wanted to the PTA and the school to accomplish together and on behalf of all its students. We also agreed with each other that the PTA was more than a fundraising organization, but as we were learning, we were somewhat alone in that regard. Nevertheless we were successful in increasing our parent and teacher membership as well as dollars and volunteer hours donated and we regularly found ways to build and celebrate our unique school community.
And so it was during these three years of active leadership in the PTA, that I learned one powerful truth about how to create a healthy, high-functioning learning environment for all children: For all children to succeed and for none to be left behind, we must learn how to invite and actively engage all parents in their children’s education and their engagement, though its form may vary, must last at least through high school. In every school, there may be some strong headed parents like me and my friend who are not going to stop involving ourselves despite road blocks or discouraging local efforts at implementing national educational initiatives, but we are the few and it is the engagement of all parents that is essential to both the education of our children and to our society writ large. We need to nurture a national culture that values, encourages, promotes, holds-up, applauds and lauds parent involvement. We need a greater understanding of all the many types of parent involvement, from classroom volunteers to PTA presidents to parents with a regular interest in knowing how their child’s day went. We need teachers and administrators with the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively develop relationships with their students’ parents so that all feel they are on the same team. Teachers need parental insight and support of their students. Parents need teachers’ ideas and knowledge about different learning styles and approaches so that together they can effectively reach and teach each child. We all need to see the development of these relationships as a real priority; as resources and not burdens.
I believe that the majority of parents care about their children and their children’s success and well being. I believe that with support and encouragement, opportunity and knowledge, all teachers can make great strides in engaging all parents in contributing to the successful educational outcomes of their students. But I also know that for this to happen each parent needs to be asked in person by a child’s teacher; in person by the PTA president; in person by the principal or school director to participate. An email or flyer in the backpack or phone call at the start of school just isn’t going to accomplish what a smile, and a handshake and a real interest in the other members of the ‘educational team’ can.
To motivate our greatest untapped resource will take time and new and creative ways of thinking, but as I continue to learn, it is time well spent and it is usually a lot less time when done from the start rather than later when we are scrambling to solve a problem and anxieties are heightened. The greatest tragedy I know of is when a parent gives up trying to engage in their child’s life. So, I believe that we cannot afford to keep this great resource turned off much longer. I fear that the risk of not creating school environments which expect to engage parents in their children’s education will result in continued disappointment and disaffection with our education system and most assuredly lead to further increases in the dropout rates and the numbers of youth who move along the school to prison pipeline. For parents, but also for society, our schools are the centers of our communities and the recipients of much of the resources we expend. They are where our hopes for the future are pinned. We must engage every parent in our schools’ efforts if our society’s future is to remain bright.