An Abbotsford principal is cancelling his school's monthly newsletter as part of an effort to improve communications with parents.
Dexter Horton said the newsletter took too much time to prepare and often didn't make it home with kids.
Instead, he and his staff at Clayburn Middle School will deliver more frequent messages to parents using Facebook, Twitter and school blogs.
"That's one of our goals this year - using social media to connect," he said, noting it will permit more timely communiques about school activities to be delivered in the bite-sized style that has become the norm in recent years. He hopes these messages will draw more parents into the school to find out what's going on, meet the teachers, discuss their children's progress and maybe even volunteer.
The changes at Clayburn are one example of how some educators are strategizing to get parents more involved with their children's education with the start of another school year, as research has shown parent involvement is key to students' success in school.
While Horton is determined to improve home-school commu-
nication, he knows some parents aren't comfortable visiting schools, especially if their own experience as a student was negative. He's also concerned about the tendency of some parents to pull back when their children enter high school in the belief they are no longer needed, or that their kids require greater independence.
Parents need to stay connected through the school years, he said, and that's one reason he's embraced social media.
"We have to go to them," he said.
"I worry that the only contact I have with [some] parents is when things have gone sideways. We need to have those conversations before they go sideways."
If parents feel more connected to the school as a result of frequent communiques, they may decide to visit and possibly become involved, he said, noting that sends a positive signal to their children about the value they place on education.
Education consultant Patricia Porter agreed. During her 30-year teaching career, Porter said she was struck by the fact that although parents want to support their children's learning, many don't know how.
They are reluctant to seek advice from schools because they fear they will be dismissed as bad parents or their children will be singled out for unwanted attention.
Teachers, meanwhile, aren't always comfortable talking to parents and may resort to using jargon that parents don't understand.
"Parent-teacher communication is not good," Porter said. "It's not good from the parents' side because they're often reluctant to talk to the teacher, and from the teachers' side because teachers don't really know how to talk to parents."
Connecting parents and schools is a challenge in many countries, according to a survey by the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment.
"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 parentteacher 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, 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. While PACs do good work, they usually attract parents who are already plugged in, she added.
In giving advice to parents 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 nonthreatening way. Respect is key.
Terry Berting, head of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, said parents should not 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. I think parents are still struggling a little bit with where we fit into the school system," he said.
Kerri Henry, a parent at Clayburn Middle School and chairwoman of the PAC, agreed that parents have to do their part to nurture relationships at school.
"I know some parents feel disconnected, but I think that's kind of their choice."
What parents can do to help their children's education, from the PISA report on The Parent Factor in Education:
Talk and read to your children from an early age
Develop channels of communication with children that motivate them to take and justify a position (e.g. discuss political or social issues or books, films and television programs, eat dinner together)
Show interest in what happens at school, even when your child is doing well; participate in school activities and contact your child's teachers
Ask your child's teachers what you can do to help your child learn
Set an example: read at home, show interest in intellectually engaging your child