For the past 124 years, parent teacher associations (often referred to as PTAs) across the country have been advocates for children and have done everything from planning Halloween parades for students to helping address food insecurities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet all too often it can feel like a small group of parents is running the show. However, PTAs and other parent teacher organizations (PTOs) serve their schools and communities best when they are working to bridge gaps in understanding between schools, families, and the local community — and to do that work, they need to be an inclusive space for all voices.
Anna King, president of the National PTA organization, based in Virginia, and Helen Westmoreland, an alum of the Harvard Graduate School of Education who serves as the organization’s director of family engagement, say that language, time, and generally feeling welcomed and comfortable in schools may be barriers to participation. For example, schools may only reach out to families in one or two languages or expect parents to volunteer for school events without recognizing that it interferes with work. This can make families feel excluded. As a result, King and Westmoreland have worked to help PTAs across the country be intentional about build relationships in and outside of schools.
“That often means thinking about who’s at the table, who isn’t, and how to we authentically engage with those families and communities,” says Westmoreland. “There are parents and community members hungry to be part of the change and be part of supporting our students — and sometimes, they need our school system to respect, invite, and engage them in ways the school system may not be used to.”
And, importantly, school leaders and educators who lay the groundwork to welcome all families into the life and culture of a school see that pay off in the long run. “We know when you have successful partnerships, effective communication and collaboration, and you teach parents to be advocates for their kid, they will advocate for you as an educator,” says King.
As the school year starts up, King and Westmoreland share a few tips school leaders can keep in mind during those first few weeks of school as they build relationships with families.
1. Learn more about the community your parent teacher group is serving to counteract assumptions and bias
Many educators can hold assumptions about who people are and why someone does or does not participate in school life. To uproot some of these narratives, PTAs/PTOs, because they are often made up of community members and families, are well-positioned to relay information back to administrators. To get to know the school community better:
- Acknowledge your own bias and how it can impact your work with parents and volunteers.
- Ask the PTA/PTO to send out a survey or check-in of some kind before expressing an expectation of participation in school-based events and activities. Ask them: What does “school participation” mean to you? This will give school leaders insight into how they can help support families and kids.
- Work with the PTA/PTO to find alternative ways to engage families. Time or money isn’t something all families and parents are able to give but may often be an expectation. Are the same 10 parents volunteering for events? If so, what’s the barrier for other parents? For example, a parent may want to be on the parent teacher board but can’t attend board meetings, which at your school have traditionally been held at 8 a.m. Try alternating morning meetings with evening meeting times or include a virtual option.
- Offer meetings or gatherings in other community organizations like churches or community centers. Not all families may feel comfortable or welcome in school buildings based on their own experiences in school, previous interactions with administrators, or immigration status.
Learn more about bias and the PTA from a leader in Kentucky: 10 Minutes to PTA the Transformative Way: Let’s talk about bias
2. Streamline communication channels
Communication should be accessible to everyone in order to ensure every family can access the same information about student success. Reaching all families requires:
- Figuring out how families prefer to communicate with the school and offering multiple ways to get in touch. Some families may prefer email while others may want a phone call. At the same time, share the same information through all channels so everyone has access.
- Knowing what languages are spoken in the school community. Provide communication in languages other than English when necessary to ensure all families have access to the same information.
- Being aware that not all families will want to provide information like email or phone numbers, possibly for immigration status concerns. Don’t let this be a barrier to participation by reaching out via alternative communication channels like networks of friends.
- Providing parents and families with a designated space or “cafe” in the building, if space and resources allow, to use during the school day to let them know they are welcome.
Resource to share: Check out and consider sharing these resource guides for parents as a newsletter supplement. They provide information about helping students succeed in both English and Spanish.
3. Recognize that families have strengths and assets they want to use to help their children succeed
It’s OK to ask for help! Especially during this past year, parent teacher organizations stepped up to help schools and were able to provide supports like curriculum, professional development, technology, food, and supplies, like sanitizer and masks. Seeing families as equal partners in the work of educating children encourages a strengths and assets-based mindset, rather than a deficit-based mindset — for example, seeing families only as being “in need.” You should:
- Operate under the assumption that families want to support their schools. Make sure all families have an opportunity to participate and share in school life. This isn’t limited to attending meetings, volunteering time, or donating money and can include leveraging skills or interests they have or encouraging them to be a voice at the local, state, or national level for improving education.
- Find ways to reflect and celebrate the backgrounds of students and their families in school culture. This could mean celebrating events and holidays that are essential to certain communities or inviting parents to lead initiatives they may be passionate about, even if it’s not something the PTA/PTO has typically done in the past.
- Be proactive in outreach efforts. While some families may be able to advocate for themselves and their children, others may need to be drawn into the conversation. Sometimes, a simple “ask” in person — not on Facebook or through email — goes a long way. Building two-way relationships with families is the first step to welcoming families who may otherwise feel disconnected from parent teacher organizations or their schools. Remember that many people want to know who you are and what you care about, as well as feel like you will listen to their hopes and dreams for their child, before being part of larger family engagement efforts.
Resource to share: PTA’s Multicultural Calendar