Trend Lines: Enhancing the Parent Association-School Relationship

Winter 2020

By Chuck English and Jill Goodman

Within two weeks of being elected as the new parent association president at an independent K–8 school, the president received numerous calls about everything from concerns about teachers and uniform policies to requests for a playground water fountain. Surprised by the onslaught of calls, she soon realized that the parent organization was functioning more like a “complaint department” or a de facto union rather than a support for the school. With no guidance from the school’s administration, the president decided to attempt to bridge the communication gap by educating parents about the role the parent association plays in fundraising, classroom support, and building community. At the same time, she sought to elevate the parent association by requesting a “seat” at the administrative table. The administration, however, seemed to believe that the association was meant to keep parents actively involved but out of the way of the daily school operations and was not interested in additional collaboration.
 
Meanwhile, at another independent school, an uncertain relationship existed between the school and its parents. The school’s administration dismissed many parental concerns fearing that parents would become too involved and demand a voice in policy and curriculum development. Not surprisingly, that distrust led to the marginalization of the parent association. While the parent association provided fundraising and community-building activities, it mostly operated outside the school’s decision-making processes. Its fundraising programs and events were often at odds with what the school’s administration or board would have preferred. That led to ongoing disputes about the amount of space allotted to parent association activities in communication with parents. In turn, administrators resented having to report at and attend parent association meetings. The parent association felt that it was making a substantial contribution to school life, but the administration was doubtful about the impact of the efforts, setting up a counterproductive “us versus them” dynamic.
 
The parent association is a hallmark of independent schools, but its existence demands that administrators navigate the perilous path between treating parents as customers and volunteers. That has important implications for the relationship between parents and the school. However, a new paradigm for parent engagement—with structures and practices that promote the parent experience and meaningfully involve parents in school life—is on the horizon. 

Serving the Purpose 

Parent associations are designed to involve parents in school life through various activities. According to survey results published in “Independent School Parents’ Associations: The Good, the Bad, and Avoiding the Ugly,” a 2012 NAIS publication, the elements often identified in mission statements for parent associations include: volunteering for school events and duties, promoting a “positive spirit” within the school, parent orientation and education, and fundraising. Noticeably absent are any advocacy functions or opportunities to provide feedback to the administration.
 
On an organizational level, the same survey revealed various structures and levels of autonomy. They included parent associations existing as a subcommittee reporting to the board of trustees; as an auxiliary organization reporting to the school administration; and a free-standing, independent organization. In some instances, the parent association chair or a representative is a member of the board of trustees. In all of these models, the organization representing parents sits apart from the administration.
 
This lack of alignment can lead to many unwanted circumstances, such as parent associations raising money for causes unrelated to and unaffiliated with the school. Another example: Parent association volunteers, who are often key ambassadors, could disseminate messages that are not aligned with the school’s branding strategy. Or activities organized by parent associations may not align with or support strategic planning or goals. Parents could even feel alienated because they have no voice or effective means of providing feedback to the administration.

A New Paradigm 

At many schools, the current parent association model does not adequately bridge the gap between parents and administrators. Some schools are beginning to recognize an opportunity to better communicate and engage with parents by restructuring and repositioning the parent association.
 
John Kidder, head of Barrie School (MD), wanted to revitalize a nearly defunct parent association as a way of boosting parent engagement and reducing attrition. First, he assessed which administrative staff member was best suited to support and guide the activities of the parent association and expanded that person’s role to include a parent relations component. Then, he held a retreat for six staff members and 25 interested parents to create a vision for the new parent association.
 
They evaluated and considered all activities through the lens of diversity and inclusivity, a key priority for Barrie, and opted to sunset some activities to make room for new ideas. The result was a hybrid structure that melds staff support and guidance with parent organizational and committee leaders. After the first year with the hybrid model in place, Kidder believes the key to the successful revitalization of the program is hiring or reassigning administrative staff to guide and support the work of the parent association.
 
The administrator is part of the communication and planning process from the start, helping to keep the parent association from going rogue. This person bridges administrative strategic vision and parent ideals and also creates structure and organizational framework for the parent association that allows for proper implementation of parent activities. And, by doing much of the project management for parent activities, the administrator keeps parent volunteers from burning out and provides consistency from year to year.
 
At The Lovett School (GA), for more than 20 years, a staff person has acted as the liaison with the parent organization. Jennifer Boutte, the full-time director of community relations, is the most recent administrator to act in this capacity. She has expanded her role to ensure that every program and leadership opportunity available to Lovett parents, through its parent association and interest groups, is inclusive of its diverse parent population. Boutte reports that the parent activities at Lovett are enthusiastically supported because each has a well-defined purpose and is highly structured.
 
The organizational structure allows Boutte to use parent concerns to inform administrative decisions. For example, when the school considered a student uniform change, she deployed the grade representatives to collect parent responses and then activated the representatives to disseminate information about the changes resulting from parent input.
 
Gilman School (MD) has embraced involvement in the parent association as a retention initiative. Maria Tilley, the full-time director of parent relations, is now part of the admission team. Realizing that the goal for parent engagement is retention and community building—not fundraising—Gilman shifted Tilley’s position out of development and into admission to help continue the relationship that parents forge with the staff through the admission process. Tilley is responsible for creating an inclusive community across all divisions via its parent association and parent affinity groups. She has reimagined what volunteering looks like and has created many more opportunities for parents of dual-working households. She has also decoupled the fundraising component from some of the most popular schoolwide events to ensure accessibility and inclusivity.
 
As more schools focus on the parent experience, they must find ways to value parents as both customers and volunteers. Administrators, in consultation with parents, must think about how best to ensure that parents are heard, involved, and engaged. Parents are an inseparable part of the school community, and their experience is key to the success of every school.
 

A New Way Forward

For schools that are ready to redefine the school-parent relationship, here’s a suggested plan that parent-leaders and administrators can discuss.
 
Introduce a hybrid parent association model that includes a parent outreach and engagement coordinator who is part of the administration and works alongside parent leaders acting as coordinators and advisers. Empower the parent outreach and engagement coordinator to recruit parents to fill volunteer roles.
 
Collaboratively create an array of parent association activities designed to support operational and strategic initiatives as articulated by the administration and that contribute to the stated mission and philosophy of
the school.
 
Develop meaningful opportunities for parents to express views and the practical means to address parental concerns.

Invite faculty and staff members to be an active part of parent activities.
 
Develop a formal coaching or orientation plan for faculty, staff, and parents designed to create successful endeavors and positive experiences.
Author
Chuck English

Chuck English is a school marketing and messaging strategist. 

Jill Goodman

Jill Goodman is a consultant who specializes in leadership, mentoring, brand assessment, and fundraising.