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Assessing Local Needs Related to Parent Involvement
The relative family-friendliness of a school refers to how inviting it feels to the families of its students: do families feel they would be welcome to ask questions, to contribute somehow in their children's classroom, to make suggestions, or to otherwise support their children's education? The degree to which parents feel at ease in their children's school is influenced by such factors as who initially greets them and whether they are met with a smile, with a frown, or ignored entirely; whether there is a physical space for parents to meet and find information and resources related to the school and education in general; whether they receive timely information (e.g., about school events, student productions, upcoming assessments) on a regular basis, as in a weekly newsletter coming home with their children, for example; whether teachers and the principal seem open to questions or feedback; and whether the only time parents hear from anyone at school is when there is a problem with their child. Parents who have made an initial effort to come to school to meet their children's teachers and principal are less likely to return if their experience is not positive. On the other hand, if parents are enthusiastically invited into schools, warmly greeted, and engaged in ways that make them feel comfortable and assure them that their input and questions are valued, they may be willing to come back and become involved at levels they might not even have considered.
By assessing both parents' current thoughts on the climate of the school and staff feelings about parent involvement, schools can get a better idea of how they need to improve in the area of family friendliness, and they can solicit targeted help from their PIRC. While personal interviews and focus groups can be used to solicit in-depth information about parent and staff attitudes, few schools can manage such intensive ways of soliciting information. Written surveys are a much more efficient method that can still yield good results. The act of conducting a survey is itself a parent-friendly message to parents that a school cares what they think. It gives both parents and staff a voice in articulating what works and what does not work in the particular school community as related to parent involvement. In yielding site-specific information, it offers important guidance. one parent noted when talking about the value of a school survey, "It gives us data about our actual community. It's not just something we got from someplace else like ours that may or may not really fit us."
Provide Surveys on Schools' Family Friendliness as a PIRC Service
While some schools and districts develop and conduct their own school surveys for various purposes, both the Indiana Partnerships Center and ADI's PIRC recognized that not all education agencies have this capacity. Six years ago the Indiana PIRC contracted with an outside agency to develop the "Are We Family Friendly?" Survey for distribution to Indiana schools. This perception survey asks parents how comfortable they feel in the school; how informed they feel about their children's performance and how to help them; whether or not they feel invited to participate in the school's activities and at what level; and how empowered they feel in addressing any issues and concerns they might have. Teachers, in turn, are asked how often and in what capacity parents are invited to participate in their children's education in the classroom and at home; how informed they keep the parents; whether they make home visits and go into students' communities; and how much they solicit information.
The PIRC's intent was to have schools across the state administer the survey, with the PIRC analyzing and feeding the results back to them. But over the years it had become clear that many schools were unable to ensure enough of a response to make the survey worthwhile; sending surveys home with students or mailing them to a family's home was not effective. In 2005, the new superintendent of IPS required that all Title I schools in the district administer the survey to assess their family friendliness. The Indiana Partnerships Center collaborated with IPs to revise the survey and, also, create a spanish-language version.
To further ensure a greater parent response rate, parent liaisons were used to disseminate the survey. Given the nature of their work, which entails developing strong relationships with parents at their site, the liaisons seemed well positioned to encourage parents to respond to the survey, to answer their questions, to monitor survey returns, and to provide follow-up if parents need additional encouragement to respond. As a result of this approach, some 4,900 parents completed the survey. Equally important, 880 or 18 percent of the parent respondents were Spanish speakers, whose voices may have remained silent in the absence of a translated survey.
ADI also offers a school survey, which was first developed in 1996 in a project with the Regional Educational Laboratory at Temple University. the survey has evolved and expanded over the years; today, in addition to asking parents and teachers about parent-related issues at their school, it includes questions for principals. If the survey is administered for a high school, students also are included. The topics covered for parents and teachers are similar to those in the Indiana survey, while principals are asked more about what existing services and structures are already in place to support parent involvement: What types of written policies have been developed to promote parent involvement (e.g., homework policy, school-parent compact), what mechanisms exist to invite parents into the school (e.g., family nights, conferences), what resources are available at the school for parents (e.g., parent resource library, trainings), and what methods are used to communicate with parents (e.g., home visits, newsletters). (See fig. 8, Academic Development Institute: Principal Element From School Survey, on p. 40.) The survey is given to principals to administer to their school populations. ADI then analyzes the data and generates a detailed report, which is shared with the school community, administration, and faculty; the school board; parent organizations; and other interested parties.
Use Survey Results to Inform Parent-related School Practice
Both ADI and the Indiana Partnerships Center take steps to help ensure that survey results are easily understandable and are used by schools in meaningful ways. ADI's analysis of survey results report goes into considerable depth comparing and contrasting how parents and staff view issues and identifying areas where more work is needed to generate effective partnering between parents and school. Its purpose is to help school communities draw conclusions about areas of successes and challenges and to aid them in creating an action plan to strengthen their community. In addition to administering the survey, ADI offers a consulting service that includes up to three site visits: a pre-survey visit, a visit to review results and develop an action plan that is often tied to the goals of the school improvement plan, and a final visit three to six months later to assess progress. For Solid Foundation schools, the survey is administered at the beginning of the program and again at the end of the two-year Solid Foundation process. The results of these two surveys are then compared to identify areas of progress and areas still in need of improvement. ADI also administers progress reports twice a year for two years in December and June. These reports track implementation of the action plan through factors, such as how many home visits have been made.
At one school, survey results identified homework as a significant issue for many parents, although they did not necessarily agree on how much or what type of homework there should be. As a result, however, at the time of this study, the school was considering a new homework policy that might include, for example, ensuring that all teachers use what ADI has identified as a best practice approach to assigning homework (i.e., 10 minutes of homework in first grade, 20 minutes in second grade, 30 minutes in third grade, and so on) and sending parents tips on how to help with homework.
Because ADI employs an evaluator, the organization has the capacity to handle its survey analysis in-house. The Indiana PIRC does not have this same internal capacity, so it includes in its annual budget the funds to contract with an evaluator from a state university who analyzes the survey data and writes a report based on the findings. Committed to making findings accessible to those surveyed, including parents, the Indiana Partnerships Center has summarized survey findings into two pages of parent-friendly text with easy-to-read graphs and advice on next steps based on the findings. "We know from responses to our newsletter that people like things simple and they like information in graphs," says the center director, adding, "Less is better." In addition to preparing the written report, the evaluator consults with the PIRC about any implications for policy and practice, and the PIRC, in turn, incorporates this into its subsequent discussions with the client school or district. Once parents and educators realize that their voices have been heard and their input considered, they might be more willing to support any proposed changes in policy and practice. (See fig. 9, Indiana Partnerships Center: Example of Parent and Educator Survey Results Presentation, on p. 42.)
The analysis of IPS's 2005–06 survey identified "parents as decision-makers" as the area most in need of improvement across the schools surveyed. Based on this information, individual schools began considering how to get parents more involved in school decision-making; the district started reviewing its parent involvement policies and supports; and, for its part, the Indiana Partnerships Center undertook a review of its leadership training.
Figure 9. Indiana Partnerships Center: Example of Parent and Educator Survey Results Presentation
Tips for Assessing Local Needs Regarding Parent-Friendly Nature of Schools