Beyond the Open House: How Schools Make Parent Engagement Fun and Effective

A decade ago when parents and educators thought about parent engagement activities, they probably conjured up uninspiring images: fall open houses in hot gymnasiums where school leaders would drone on about school procedures, or midyear events where a handful of earnest-looking parents stood by a table stacked with flyers and near empty sign-up sheets.
Nowadays, many schools are engaging parents at a deeper level, driven by research that shows it is critical to student and school success. A longitudinal study published in 2011 by the University of Chicago showed that improving schools requires parent engagement. In addition, Harvard University’s Family Research Project has reported that schools must go beyond traditional methods — and focus on building closer relationships with parents, immersing parents in their children’s learning activities, and helping parents understand their children’s development in and out of school.
“The enormous influence that parents have in our schools should not be taken lightly,” says Glynn Below, director of admissions at Randolph School, a K-12 school with about 920 students in Huntsville, AL. Here parent ambassadors take on many roles beyond helping with special events, such as serving in the classroom and recruiting new students. “While schools should be student-centered, adult interactions really set the climate and tone of an institution.” 
According to Below, Randolph’s students perform better when parents get involved in a positive way, and engaging them has created many of the school’s “best experiences and a special school culture.”
Experts support this line of thinking. Karen Mapp, former superintendent for family engagement for Boston Public Schools, consultant to hundreds of schools nationwide, and co-author of Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships, has helped develop a new national parent engagement framework. The biggest roadblock she’s found: Schools knew they were doing it wrong and didn’t know how to fix it. Here are some ideas.

Put parents in their children’s shoes.

Every year, you can find parents on the floor playing with blocks at City and Country School, a progressive independent school in New York City that enrolls 370 students from nursery school through grade 8.
“They think it is sort of silly and they start very tentatively, but soon they get into it. They’re talking seriously to each other and having fun and building these structures,” says Matthew Payne, director of communications. “They enjoy working together, planning, and building — and they begin to see how we use blocks with students to introduce them to key concepts related to their learning and social and emotional development.”      

As the parents connect with the school and get to know other parents through these playful activities, they better grasp the school’s central block-building concept, which teaches students about spatial relationships and “to articulate and solve problems, to negotiate, and to cooperate.”

Parents of three-year-olds work together to build the same types of block structures their children create at City and Country School in New York City. Credit: Megan Lau

Other schools, too, are helping parents understand things from their children’s point of view. Summit School, a coed day school in Winston-Salem, NC, has adopted Harvard's Project Zero approaches to learning. Through their children’s assignments and the way work is displayed in the classroom, parents begin to see how Project Zero is changing the way teachers work with their children, says Julie Smith, director of the lower school, who leads parent engagement for the families of the 624 students from Junior K-9.             
To build deep partnerships with parents, Summit School leaders offer numerous parent learning opportunities during the year, including the four-week Mindful Parenting class, which uses Project Zero's tools, Smith says. One example is introducing the project’s Thinking Routine, “Notice, Wonder, Recommend,” to address parents’ questions about their children’s behaviors at home, Smith says. For example, if a child does not want to play soccer, we might encourage the parent to “step inside” to explore these feelings further. Or if a child says, “I don't want to go to the birthday party,” a parent could respond, “What makes you say that?”
Integrate parents deeply into school culture — and show engagement makes tuition cheaper.
At Randolph School, Adam Bernick, director of institutional advancement, says although the parent association “has provided opportunities for parents to bring cookies to music concerts and work in the concession booth at athletic contests, it lacked engagement in programming.”
So, the school developed a parent leadership team, which encompasses its three divisions, each grade level, and the areas of admissions, academics, arts, athletics, and hospitality. This team is part of an executive committee, the chairperson of which sits on the school’s board of trustees. The army of parents offers input on parent schedules, attitudes about parent-school relations, and how to involve more fathers. They also communicate with other parents, and, especially, solicit funds. (Because of their numbers, each parent is asked to contact just a handful of prospective donors.)
“The school makes a big effort to provide a platform for parents from different sectors and with different talents to engage and help the school in a meaningful way,” says Jennifer Swoboda, a parent who manages client relations for a technology firm. “For me, that is the Admissions Ambassador Committee, but for others, it may be the arts, academics, hospitality, or athletics ambassador roles.”
For parents at The Raleigh School in North Carolina, which serves 405 students from ages 2  through fifth grade, it’s a requirement to annually participate on a parent committee. With that much involvement, the school enjoys extraordinary participation from parents. Historically, part of the incentive has been that parents’ involvement helps keep tuition lower. “That is one part of how we explain the requirement,” says Bud Lichtenstein, head of school. “And we give them plenty of choices.”
Parents can serve on one of more than 40 committees, supporting an event — or even doing work for the school at home. The library committee, for instance, keeps the facility open for longer hours for student use; the technology committee, made up of parents who work in the tech industry, develops and maintains the school’s technology infrastructure; and an outdoor education maintenance committee is building a nature trail around the campus.
“The Cultural Arts Committee works with the school administration to bring diverse writers and artists in residence to work with our students,” Lichtenstein says. “That’s the sort of thing we might not be able to do otherwise.” 
The Raleigh School’s roots are from a preschool developed as a parent cooperative. Today the school continues to believe that children, parents, and teachers can collaborate to foster a love of learning. 
Focus on learning and child development.  

It’s vital for schools to help parents understand their children’s academic and emotional development so they can aid their children’s learning toward improved school performance, say experts, including Mapp. In addition, parents see that the school truly cares about their family.
At Hanahau‘oli School in Honolulu, which serves about 210 students in grades JK-6, parents participate in a range of programs about child development and well-being, including learning differences, appropriate physical activity, and technology integration. The coordinator of learning resources (CLR), a four-year-old position, leads strength-based teaming meetings that value parents for being the experts on their children. 
On the other side of the country at The School at Columbia University (TSC), which serves more than 500 students in grades K-8, division heads began a new parent engagement initiative about two years ago. Inspired by a Harvard education institute with Mapp and other experts, the leaders worked with a faculty committee to develop specific, effective ways to engage school families, all of whom have diverse backgrounds and needs.
The committee established two primary goals: building trust with parents and encouraging open communication about learning as a priority at home, said Kathryn Kaiser, who leads the school’s K-2 division. “It’s not whether you can help with algebra, but whether you communicate a value for education,” says Belinda Nicholson, middle school director at TSC. “How do you talk about school and learning, and what do you do to make it a priority?”
To underscore this point, primary school teachers ask parents to provide input about class topics, and survey them about what their children are reading at home and how teachers can aid in developing their children’s reading skills. “This way teachers set the assumption that families are engaging with their children at home — it honors the strategies families are already using, and allows them to share strategies with the group,” Nicholson says. “This helps in the trust-building relationship.”
Meanwhile, middle division leaders have shifted family open houses from talks about school rules to grade-specific activities, including meeting with an adviser, discovering how their children are applying yearlong grade-level themes like “courage” in each class, and learning how to dive deeper at home, whether it’s through reading, watching programs, or talking together as a family.
TSC also hosts coffees for different grade levels at least once a month at various times during the day to accommodate parents’ demanding schedules. Three times a year, the school leads larger “Powerful Parenting” sessions. A panel composed of both parents and faculty members typically kicks things off, and robust discussions follow about how parents can promote their children’s independence, advocate for them, and develop their talents. School leaders hope these gatherings further encourage parents to prioritize learning at home.
“We have learned that there is no straightforward program for this,” says Nicholson. “But we understand the value of engaging parents, and knew we needed to think about it in new ways.”

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James Paterson

James Paterson is an education writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, District Administration, Principal magazine, School Counselor, Teaching Tolerance, Education World, TeachHub, and several other education association magazines.