John Heim and Barbara Hunter

If you search online, you’ll find study after study linking parental involvement in schools with student success.

“We need parents involved,” said John Heim, NSBA’s CEO and executive director. “Anything you do to get them involved helps the kids. It increases engagement, achievement, test scores, and graduation rates.”

Heim discussed the best ways for school boards and districts to engage with their parents and the community at the closing session of NSBA’s Advocacy Institute in late January. He was joined by Barbara Hunter, the executive director of the National School Public Relations Association and former communications director at several school districts, including Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools.

“Research finds that the more community knows what is happening in schools,” Hunter said, “the more supportive they are about changes in the schools.”

A former superintendent, Heim gave two personal examples of how community engagement worked in his districts. First, he recalled how his district and school board handled an emotionally charged issue: school boundary changes. The community was 60 percent non-English speaking, which presented specific challenges.

The board hired a group to do community outreach and hold listening sessions with parents and others. When the board voted on the boundary decisions, there was no pushback. “We had involved so many people that the community felt like they were part of the decision,” he said.

Several years later, the district wanted to change a year-round schedule, and school leaders used the same process of community engagement. Unfortunately, a critical group in this rural area was left out of the process: the 4-H Club officials. When the year-round plan was rolled out, they reminded the community and the board that students couldn’t be in school in August during the county fair.

“We forget about them,” Heim said. “It didn’t work.”

He pointed out that the best time to engage your community is before you have a project, program, or change. It’s better to build trust gradually over time, rather than do it all at once. Heim mentioned a practice in his former district of holding monthly meetings with a small group of parents and community members. Each month, he would cover a different aspect of the district, such as budgeting or teacher recruitment. “Don’t get complacent and take the community for granted,” he said.

Small group discussions, not large meetings, are most conducive for best for two-way conversations. “Small groups take more time and effort, but they are so much productive,” said Heim.

Hunter agreed: “A town hall is not a productive format for getting feedback,” she said.

The pandemic has spurred anxiety from parents, staff, and the community. School boards have seen controversies over mask mandates, school closures, vaccines, and other issues. The controversies have resulted in board candidates interested in a narrow focus or single issue.

Single-issue candidates are not new or unique to the pandemic, of course. But when they earn seats on the board, they will see that their responsibility encompasses the entirety of the district. “It’s important not to push those people away,” said Heim. “It’s important to bring them in and show them the whole picture.”

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