Equipping our Schools to Engage the Community Around Us

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By Christine Swanson
I’m sure most people at some point have wished for a magic wand—for the ability, with a single wave, to take away some of their challenges, or make their lives a little bit easier. As a principal, I know all too well that in education there are no magic wands.
However, when I think about all of the things that are important in my school (student achievement, school climate, as well as teacher and student happiness), I’ve realized there is something sort of magical that has the power to improve all of these things: parent engagement.
Studies have shown that, especially in elementary school, parental involvement in school leads to significant benefits, and that these benefits are not limited to just a certain type of school—they hold true regardless of family income and parental education level. Students with involved parents are more likely to enjoy school, have higher grades and test scores, attend school regularly, have strong social skills and to graduate and go on to college. Parental involvement also leads to higher job satisfaction for teachers and improves teachers’ self-perception.
My staff and I have worked hard to develop a school culture that is positive, welcoming and supports parent engagement. We know that one of the most important components of building a positive school culture is communication: communication between teachers and parents, between teachers and students and even between educators within the school.
In a perfect world, communication would be easy. However, we know that people are busy and it is sometimes hard to find the time to have the meaningful conversations that help build strong relationships. To help make this communication a bit easier, my teachers have turned to technology.Class Dojo message
We use a communication app called ClassDojo to help break down barriers between teachers and parents so they can have a personal relationship that extends the experience of learning from the classroom to the home. We know that meaningful relationships require communication outside of parent-teacher conferences, and ongoing conversations that go beyond just problems being faced.
And yet, before this type of platform, no easy way existed for my teachers or myself to reach out and develop meaningful and positive relationships with parents rooted in ongoing conversation. Communication is such a simple thing and yet so important for reaching student success!

We work hard at our school to build a positive culture by letting parents know about the great things that happen at school. As principal, I always want to make sure that parents know that when I call, it isn’t necessarily because something negative has occurred.
Parent engagement isn’t just about staying in touch, however. We also want to empower parents to be teachers at home—to help reinforce concepts their child is learning at school, for example. We know parents are busy, so we find ways for parents to support their child’s learning through the course of everyday activities.
For example, each month our school-wide newsletter has tips to help parents support what we’re doing in the classroom, such as asking their child to practice skills while at the grocery store like rounding or estimating. We also hold family game nights, where families play common board games, and we talk about how playing these games, as a family, can help practice curriculum at home—using Scrabble or Boggle to help with spelling, for example.
Another way our teachers communicate and empower parents as educators is by making sure parents feel confident assisting their child with his or her homework.  Sometimes parents either don’t quite remember how to do something (as an adult, when was the last time you were asked to find the least common multiple?), or they find that the strategies we teach now are different from the way they learned.
In order to support parents, our teachers have started using ClassDojo to share pictures of worksheets or learning games that they are assigning as homework with parents. Each activity or concept is explained, and answers are provided.  Teachers send these pictures to parents ahead of time, allowing the parents to review so that when they sit down with their children to help with homework they feel more comfortable and empowered to explain the concept to their child.
As much as I would love one, I know I’ll never have a wand to magically give my teachers and parents more time and help them connect with one another easily. The best I can do is work to build a school culture that honors the family-school connection and, whenever possible, provide access to the tools my teachers need to make that connection a reality. I’m glad emerging technologies have helped our school make that happen.
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Christine Swanson is the principal at Edison Elementary, part of Wayne-Westland Community Schools in Michigan. Follow them on Twitter: @wwcsd.

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