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Scenes from an Open House

Why do we continue to blow it with this annual back-to-school event?
Scenes from an open house

"How many of you have ever been to a school open house?" asks Senior Lecturer Karen Mapp, Ed.M.’93, Ed.D.’99. Pretty much all hands in Askwith Hall go up. “And I bet you just can’t wait to turn off Scandal to go to another one.”

Based on the laughter in the room, the answer is clearly no. Although open houses are a rare chance for parents and caregivers to walk freely around the school and meet with educators, unfortunately, as Mapp points out and as the audience reaction clearly confirms, traditional open houses just don’t work.

They’re boring. They’re rushed. And they end up feeling a lot like cattle drives, as Mapp likes to say, with parents first crowding into the cafeteria to hear the principal talk for 20 minutes about rules related to bussing and attendance before being herded to classrooms where teachers usually talk about — guess what? — more rules.

“Do I get to learn, as a parent, a new tip or tool? Do I get to practice something that helps support my kid’s learning?” Mapp asks. “Not usually. Do the teachers get to hear from me about what I know about my kid that might help them be a better teacher? No.”

As a result, on any given fall night in the United States, “15,000 or more of these open houses occur, and we blow it,” Mapp says.

We blow it because open houses are not linked to learning and because they don’t do a good job of helping families make that initial connection to the people in the building. And as Mapp points out, when it comes to helping students succeed, relationships really matter.


This realization that relationships matter when it comes to student success is exactly why Mapp is now on a personal quest to revamp the open house in America — to make this time-honored back-to-school event a useful tool for parents and teachers and not just something a school ticks off as “done” at the beginning of the year.

“It started with Trinity College,” she says, where she once worked as associate director of admissions. “I was asked to coordinate efforts to recruit a more diverse group of students to the college — racially, ethnically, and socio-economically. As I traveled and talked to young people, I started to ask, ‘What is it that led you to being so successful in school?’ I was struck by how many said it was my parents, and by parents I mean also aunts, grandparents, any adults who pushed them and told them they could do it. It was pretty powerful that almost every student I talked to mentioned one of these people. I talked to guidance counselors and said, ‘The kids are telling me adults are key.’ I asked what are you doing to get them, the adults, involved. They looked at me like I had three heads. They didn’t think family engagement was very helpful.”

But Mapp, who later served as a deputy superintendent for family and community relations in Boston Public Schools, knows how important it is. And schools, more often than not, aren’t doing as much as they could, or should, to engage families.

“We waste a wonderful opportunity with many of our events at school, and open house is just one of them,” she says.

Illustration by Kevin Pope
Although there are lots of ways to engage families throughout the year, given that most open houses are fairly well attended (at least at the elementary level) and one of the first events of the school year — and sometimes the only face-to-face contact parents have with teachers — it’s critical that schools rethink their back-to-school night.

“It’s really the beginning of the relation - ship between home and school. It’s a partner - ship focused on the child’s learning,” Mapp says. “As a staff, if we said, ‘Here’s our first chance to engage parents,’ then surely open houses wouldn’t be planned the way they are now. They would be a much warmer, much more collaborative event and” — here she stresses the term — “linked to learning.”

Then why aren’t they? Why are most schools following the cattle-herding formula, leaving families with a ho-hum first impression and wondering the next year if they should even bother attending?

The main reason, Mapp says, is that “people don’t know how to do open houses” or family engagement in general. “Parents say they want to partner with schools, but they don’t know how. Teachers say they want to do better but don’t know how.” Even when family engagement became federally mandated when Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act stated that any Title 1 school had to develop an agrement, or “school-family compact,” describing how schools and parents would work togther, there was no guidebook on how to do that. As the U.S. Department of Education noted in a statement to Education Week in 2012 about the mandate, “The approach to family engagement has been fragmented and nonstrategic, often constituting ‘random acts of family involvement.’”

Mapp says educators want to “do right” by families, “but their capacity hasn’t been built. We have not done a good job of train - ing our practitioners.” As she writes in Beyond the Bake Sale, her first book on family–school partnerships, many teachers “tend to be more comfortable with helping families to be involved with their children at home than with engaging families in their classrooms and school buildings.”

What holds them back? For starters, there’s mindset. Some educators, whether they admit it or not, don’t necessarily believe that parents want to be engaged or even want the best for their children. Some don’t recognize that their school culture is unwelcoming or that fami - lies feel like they are “bothering” school staff. What ends up happening is what University of Washington Assistant Professor Ann Ishimaru, Ed.M.’08, Ed.D.’11, a researcher on school–community relationships, calls a toxic cycle: Schools organize events, like the open house, and, if parents don’t show, conclude they just don’t care.

“A Somali mom I met recently put this so potently,” Ishimaru says. “She said, ‘Just because we don’t speak English doesn’t mean we can’t see. We know they [educators] are judging us.’ That’s what happens when parents don’t attend the typical open house or parent-teacher conference or they do attend once and then decide to be ‘too busy’ the next time.” Too often, as Ishimaru has found in her research and her work with the Family Leadership Design Collaborative, which looks at racial equality in family engagement, teachers default to stereotypes about whole cultural, ethnic, or socio-economic groups of people. Worse case scenario, she says, “well-intentioned school events, like open houses, can actually inadvertently send the message that people are not good parents unless they passively support what educators and professionals say is best for their children.”

Mapp, in her forthcoming book due out next spring and co-written with Eileen Carver, a Boston teacher, says this is why, when they work with schools on improving family engagement, “we start with thinking about the teacher’s mindset. What do you really think about the families in your class? Do you see them as resources or problems?” In order for family engagement to be effective, educators have to believe that all parents have something to offer (regardless of education level or background), and they have to trust that what parents offer will be valuable. “Guess what? Families and communities have funds of knowledge that we need in order to be better educators,” Mapp says. “It can’t just be teach - ers and principals talking at the families.”

Elizabeth Canada, Ed.M.’15 , works with teachers every day as a family engagement coach for the Boston-based nonprofit 1647, which was named for the year the Massachusetts legislature declared that educating children is a community responsibility. She says families have to be a welcomed part of the team — but often aren’t.

“Unfortunately in education, we’ve gotten really good at working in silos,” she says. “We need to break those down.”

As Mapp writes in Beyond the Bake Sale, “The expression ‘Parents are their children’s first teachers’ is so widely used it has become a cliché, but it is true. We should view and treat parents as the experts they are.” Educators and parents “are two such important systems for kids — they have to work together.”

This sense of working together comes from developing a relationship — something everyone working in the family engagement field says is what parents crave.

Illustration by Kevin Pope
"Parents tell us that feeling welcome and being treated with respect by school staff is the number one key to their connection with a school,” Mapp writes. “When school staff construct caring and trustful relationships with parents, treating parents as partners in their children’s education, parents are far more likely to become involved,” and, she says stay involved down the road.

Unfortunately, deep-seated layers of mistrust often develop between schools and families. Canada, remembering her days teaching, says at events like the open house, “Everyone is afraid of something. Educators are worried that parents will think less of them. Young teachers worry parents will think they don’t know what they’re doing. Families are worried they’ll be judged. Both sides are nervous about what the other is thinking.”

Mapp says this mutual mistrust or unease “makes it very difficult to execute any strategies to improve outcomes for schools. Trust is like the lubricant that keeps all of the other things moving.”

Which is why Canada and her colleagues at 1647, including founder John Connolly, a former Boston city councillor, help teachers and families get to know one another with home visits that initially happen well before potentially tense events like the open house.

“The home visit flips the dynamic,” Canada says. “When I was a teacher, the classroom was my kingdom. That’s where I felt safe, where I was in control, where I could invite others in, but it was still my space. Home visits flip that power dynamic; teachers get out of the school and visit with families in their space, where families feel most comfortable.” She says this could be in a home or at baseball practice, in a park, or at a coffee shop. “Just not at the school. We are always asking families to come to us, to cross the academic threshold to meet with us — to come to our turf. Relationship-building home visits, scheduled in advance, allow us to meet with families in a non-academic setting to have authentic, positive conversations during which we get to know one another as people.”

At Gardner Pilot Academy in Boston, Liz Byron, Ed.M.’08 , a sixth-grade math teacher, says her school also makes it clear early on that each family is valued. Leading up to the open house, for example, every middle school family receives a personalized phone call from a teacher not only inviting them to the event, but also confirming attendance.

“If families are not able to attend,” says Byron, who is transitioning this fall to become 33 Fall 2016 the school’s K–8 visual arts teacher, “we offer to meet with them on their own time to share the information they missed.” Over the course of the year, the staff also makes an extra effort to connect with harder-to-reach families. “For example, teachers complete a minimum of two home visits to families who have not been able to actively attend our out-of-school-time events,” says Byron. They also offer rides to events like open house to families that don’t have transportation.

At Whittemore Elementary in Waltham, Massachusetts, Principal Emma Herzog, Ed.M.’14 , has found that in all of the diverse schools where she has worked, open house is a key opportunity for staff to explain to parents how U.S. schools work while simultaneously building relationships.

“The majority of our students do not speak English at home. Most students speak Spanish, but we also have students who speak other languages, like Portuguese and Haitian Creole,” she says. “We use open house as a tool to help make all families feel comfortable and welcome and to build strong and lasting rela - tionships. We also use open house as an opportunity to explain systems and structures, to explain what their students will be learning.” For parents and caretakers who come from different cultures or did not attend school in the United States, she says, “Open house gives us a chance to demystify how our school works.” Moving into her second year as principal, Herzog says she will be adding more translators at events like open house to cover all languages spoken by her families.


Why is all of this important? Research shows that family engagement improves student success at school. As Mapp wrote in her paper A New Wave of Evidence, students with involved parents — no matter their income level or background — earn higher grades, are more likely to attend school regularly, have better social skills, and are more likely to go on to college. One study found that elementary school students made greater and more consistent gains when teachers were “especially active” in their outreach to parents, which included face-to-face meetings, sending home material for parents to use to help their children, and calling home routinely with updates.

However, educators need to be mindful of when and why they reach out, Canada says.

“We do a great job of reaching out to families when something goes wrong but never positive calls,” Canada says. “We run out of time. We know that the things not happening well need to be addressed, so we do those things first.”

But educators need to think beyond the here and now, she says. “When you establish a positive relationship with parents, it saves you time later. If you have to reach out to a family to give bad news — say their child was throwing things — if this is the first time [they’re] hearing from [you], that message will be received differently” than if you’ve already created a trusting partnership with them.

Illustration by Kevin Pope
Mapp also stresses that everything a school does, including engaging families, should be “linked to learning.” Many schools offer obvious ways to engage families that also improve academics — family math nights or tutoring sessions — but she says schools need to get into the mindset of connecting all of the activities that involve families to learning, including events like the open house or the spring concert, in ways that are both fun and useful.

Alice Drive Middle School in Sumter, South Carolina, has found a way, by offering not one, but two back-to-school events. Trevor Ivey, Ed.M.’10 , the assistant principal and a former third-grade and middle school science teacher, says the change came in response to feedback that open house was boring and too hectic to accomplish much. They decided to host both an orientation and an open house. The orientation, held a week before school starts, is like a mini fair with stations that allow families to meet and mingle with staff, take student IDs, and learn about fun extracurriculars. Open house is held around mid-September, after relationships have been nurtured, and is more academically focused. It’s also student-led.

Students individually prepare an electronic presentation to share with parents and caregivers regarding their current progress in the form of “glows and grows” — an assessment strategy related to strengths and challenges, Ivey says. “It also includes a synopsis of the data and their action plan for moving forward.” For students unable to attend open house, presentations are divided up during the school day. “The secretary takes a few, counselors have a group, career specialists, even the principals have a group of students they meet with who then present their data,” he says. “Even the head custodian.”


What are other ways that schools can improve on family engagement in general and open houses specifically? From her days working in Boston Public Schools, Mapp remembers one middle school in the district getting creative. They renamed open house to Family Fun Night. There was a jazz band playing in the lobby. The staff rolled out a red carpet for families to walk down as they entered the school, and kids were lined up along the carpet, taking pictures like paparazzi. The photos were later used to create a big family tree in the main hallway. When families branched off later to visit their individual classes, the teachers asked parents and caregivers specifically to talk about their hopes and dreams for their kids. Those answers were eventually posted alongside the family tree.

“This night said, ‘We’re going to be a part of a team,’” Mapp says. “By doing this, it says I value your knowledge about your child.”

Ishimaru says schools can also design the event so that families have a chance to get to know other families and to begin to build relationships with each other, family to family. “In racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse contexts, that can sometimes begin more comfortably by ethnic/cultural/language group,” she says. On a practical level, schools can also stagger the open house, with one grade per night, allowing parents with multiple kids not to feel rushed as they race from class to class. Open house could be held off site or on the playground, becoming more of a get-to-know-you party, where the principal and teachers serve the families.

“I’ve also seen open houses where everyone wears big name badges and they have fun activities that let the teachers and parents get together to talk. The principal is saying this is the kind of relationship we want to have with you this year,” Mapp says. One high school she visited explained to parents that students would be learning how to craft an argument. But rather than just giving them another handout to take home, teachers gave parents an exercise to do on the spot. “Parents had to use evidence from around the school and make their own case for a particular argument,” Mapp says. “They got to explore what it meant to craft an argument and find evidence, exactly what was expected of their kids. This let them learn what the kids would be learning, but in a fun way.”

It’s these kinds of activities and this kind of engaging event that are “designed to really start the year off right,” Mapp says. “It says we care about you. We want your engagement.”

In the end, no matter what format an open house — or any family engagement event — takes, Mapp says families should leave feeling excited about the year and have an understanding about learning goals. They should learn at least three or four things their child will know by the end of the year and they should definitely feel included.

“If we don’t do these things,” Mapp says, “not only do we not engage families, but families stay away.”

And when you don’t do these things, says Canada, you lose who the whole student is.

“You lose their full story when you’re not engaging families,” she says. “It’s like if you’re on a hockey team and you’re down two players — maybe they’re in the penalty box. You’re now a three-person team. That’s what education is like when we’re not engaging families. We lose the full team.”

Illustrations by Kevin Pope.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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