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Learning From The Field

Please consider contributing to this regular column on the Learning Forward Colorado website. Send your essays about learning and professional learning to Joan Watson at joan.watson@learningforwardcolorado.org.

One Size Does Not Fit All:
How Parents Are Included in a Title I School

by By Carol A. Sorvig, Ph.D.

No one disputes the notion that parent involvement leads to greater student success. In a school with high poverty and second language needs, however, genuine parent inclusion requires an elevated strategy which underscores the reality that one size does not fit all.

According to Title I mandates, parents must be involved in the school improvement process. Feedback must be solicited and included when making decisions about the fate of the educational process, and thorough documentation concerning that parent involvement is required. Through the years as a Title I Principal at Thornton Elementary in Adams 12 Five Star Schools, parent involvement took on an increasingly more deliberate and refined process for gathering parent opinions and ideas. While I enjoyed listening to the thoughts of parents regarding educating their children, what I came to realize after several years of working and listening to their needs was that more times than not, they were perfectly okay with what we were doing as a school.

This opinion was based, in part, on how their children felt about school. If their children were happy and learning, then they were happy. This was the only yardstick by which they had to measure school success. When posed with questions about what they wanted, often their responses had to do with extra curricular activities, more or less homework, better lunch menus, or school uniforms. When discussing our school improvement plan and asking for feedback, I would often be met with silence. Out of necessity, I developed a more deliberate and refined process for gathering parent opinions and ideas.

It dawned on me that parents really didn't know what good instruction looked like or how the day to day operations of the school proceeded. I saw how truly interested parents were and began to ask what they needed in order to be more informed about their school. I listened to their suggestions and began to design a program that would provide them with the background they needed to become a part of the school improvement discussions. We developed our Friday morning "Coffee and Conversations." These dialogues centered on how the school operated and eventually evolved into parent field trips.

Coffee and Conversation
Every first Friday morning of the month, I invited parents to share coffee in the cafeteria and discuss anything new going on at the school. I also took this time to answer any questions parents had about their children's education or to explain anything about our school that parents did not understand. I would separate them into small groups: those needing translation and those who didn't. I provided a translator for those who required one. I gave parents direct access to me; it was their agenda for the most part. Sometimes I had things I wanted to share with them, but I always made time for them to ask me whatever was on their minds. I took the time to write down their inquiries and made sure every one was addressed.

Field Trips
Next, I set up the field trip visit for that day. The staff would be informed in our weekly newsletter as to the area or grade level that was to be visited so they could prepare. During my previous conversation with parents, I explained to them where we would be visiting and what was being taught that day.

We would then go into the classrooms and spend approximately 10-15 minutes per room, usually visiting one or two grade levels each time. We included our specials teachers, reading interventionist and special education classrooms as well. This was at the parents' request. Their insatiable curiosities always delighted and inspired me.

My role during these visits was to observe the teacher's instruction, student responses and parent expressions, and take notes about what I thought parents were focused on. Students were accustomed to adults coming and going in their classrooms. We often had lesson studies, peer observations, side-by-side coaching or additional teachers in the classroom for second language and special education learners. Sometimes I encouraged the parents to participate and sit with their students.

After our "field trip," we would return to the cafeteria where I explained why the teachers chose a particular lesson, the instructional strategies they used, and why they responded to the students as they did. I also answered any of the parents' questions at this time. I invited them to relate how this was different or alike to the education they had received. Because of the parents' insights, I often walked away with a greater understanding of the educational process.

Of the many ways we involved and included parents in our school process, this was the most productive. The Coffee and Conversations along with the field trips into the heart of the school helped to endear the staff to the parents. Nothing did more to cultivate a sense of trust and relationship building. It was after initiation of this process that a working relationship was established. This translated into empowering the second language parents to feel as though they could volunteer for needs around the school.

This was also the time that I had more parents offer to become an on-going part of my school improvement team, which grew to approximately twenty parents, half of whom were second language parents. Although I only speak English, this invitational program of parental inclusion was successful primarily due to honoring the interest and patience of our second language parents, a true plus for Title I schools. One size, just asking parents about their satisfaction with a school, does not fit all schools.

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