Engaging Parents in Education: Lessons From Five Parental Information And Resource Centers
June 2007
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Getting in Touch with Parents Statewide

States and PIRCs have the challenge of ensuring that all parents statewide receive information. Thus, PIRCs need to consider how to effectively communicate with parents and other constituents who are beyond easy geographic reach.

No matter where a PIRC locates its office(s), some portion of its targeted audience(s) is likely to live too far away to easily take advantage of any office-based meetings, trainings, or other resources. Conventional methods for delivering information long-distance, such as direct mailing or sending information to schools and asking that it be sent home with students, may be successful in reaching some parents. But even when written materials are sent in the home language of a family, this method is not reliable in reaching or being effective for all parents, especially those most in need of the information. Moreover, these methods preclude parents being able to ask questions, and PIRCs have no way of knowing whether the information has been understood. Thus, while such communication strategies may have a place, each of the five PIRCs selected for this guide chose to augment them. This section covers how PIRCs are using technology and school-based "parent centers" (not to be confused with the PIRCs themselves) to make information easily available for as many parents as possible.

Use Technology to Communicate

The highlighted PIRCs are using technology to extend their reach: Web sites because they offer important flexibility in communicating complex and, often, evolving information, and videoconferencing because it enables PIRCs to bring farflung parents and educators together without travel costs.

Web sites. Many education Web sites discuss accountability standards and other NCLB-related information. The trick in creating a useful Web site for parents is to make sure the information is both relevant and clear to a wide range of people. To help ensure that its Web site is as useful as possible for its intended audience(s), the Indiana Partnerships Center has included a survey on the bilingual site. The survey includes both user satisfaction questions and a prompt to find out what kinds of additional information parents and educators would like on the site. In addition to considering the responses as it continues to develop its site, the center sends users a packet with information related to their stated interests. Initially, very few users completed the survey. So when the PIRC recently revamped its Web site, the survey link was renamed "Freebies," and those clicking on the link learned that if they completed the survey they could receive books, kids-eat-free coupons from local restaurants, a tote bag, or informational CDs about parent involvement. Subsequent to this change, the center began receiving about 10 responses a week from both educators and parents. The information compiled from these surveys is used to continue tailoring the Web site and center offerings to more closely meet the needs of its client base.

At the time the information for this guide was researched, IDRA was about to launch a Web site aimed at helping parents decipher and understand accountability data for schools across Texas. As planned, the Web site would allow the public to access test scores from all the schools in the state, as well as to get additional school information, such as the percentage of bilingual staff and the percentage of resources dedicated to special education. Additionally, the Web site would offer a bulletin board to field questions, with responses offered in both Spanish and English. (The organization is planning eventually to have the whole site available in both languages.) As part of its planning process, IDRA staff was working with parents at ARISE, a community-based organization serving Latino immigrants, to vet the information on the Web site and, thereby, ensure its usefulness. The biggest challenge they said they were facing was to translate the education jargon into terms that are meaningful for the lay person; in doing so, they drew heavily from their conversations with the ARISE parents.

Videoconferences. Although Web sites often include chat rooms and sometimes even have video capabilities, these technologies do not offer the immediacy of human contact and dialogue available in face-to-face gatherings. Videoconferences provide a middle ground, allowing people to come together and feel more personally connected without having to travel long distances. Years ago, IDRA staff started meeting via videoconferences and began to consider how this technology also might be used for training and information dissemination to the public. In 2000, IDRA received funding from a foundation for its PIRC to start this practice in collaboration with other parent or family outreach organizations, such as Project READ and the IDEA South Central Collaborative for Equity. Since then the PIRC has been hosting live, interactive videoconferences whose purpose is to bring together educators and parents from across the state to discuss education issues, such as NCLB. In doing this, the PIRC benefits from the fact that each of Texas's 20 regional education service centers, arms of the Texas Education Agency charged with helping school districts to improve student achievement, already had videoconferencing equipment and that, increasingly, individual schools have video technology that allows them to join in. The sessions tend to be two hours long, with presentations given in both English and Spanish. Conference materials are sent in advance to each participating location.

A chief benefit of convening so many people from so many different regions is that in addition to building a common information base, participants can share stories, ideas, and advice. A sense of extended community reinforces the notion that participants are not working alone on these issues. One member of a focus group for this guide who had participated in an IDRA-facilitated videoconference is the executive director of a local nonprofit organization and, also, the mother of two boys enrolled in Texas public schools. She said, "sometimes I feel a sense of hopelessness, but to know everyone in Texas is going through the same thing is wonderful!" The Director of IDRA's PIRC says he thinks the videoconferences have produced a "leveling effect" because parents and educators from all over Texas are talking and listening to each other as equals.

Establish and Coordinate Conveniently Located Parent Centers

For four of the PIRCs highlighted in this guide— the Indiana Partnerships Center, the Utah Family Center, and the PIRCs run by ADI and IDRA— making sure parents have a conveniently located place where they can pick up NCLB- and other education-related resources and can meet and talk with other parents or with school staff is seen as a basic strategy for further engaging parents in efforts to improve education. Such places are broadly referred to as parent centers (spelled in lower-case and, as noted earlier, not to be confused with the PIRCs themselves). Although some PIRCs operate some sort of parent center at their office, it is more common to have such centers located at a school or in the general vicinity of several schools. The point is to locate them as conveniently as possible for parents. In some instances, PIRCs operate parent centers themselves, as the Utah Family Center has done, for example. In other instances, they encourage and support schools to set up and operate their own parent centers, as the Indiana Partnerships Center and the ADI and IDRA PIRCs have done.

Some school-based parent centers consist of little more than a bookshelf of materials in the waiting room of a school office; others are more elaborate and self-contained, with comfortable seating and coffee at the ready, books and other materials that can be taken or checked out, and a computer, VCR or DVD player available, which visitors can use for informational purposes. Some have no staff, some are run by a changing cast of volunteers, and some have an actual staff member. Minimally, the purpose of such parent centers is to distribute information and to make parents feel welcome at a school or, if the center is located off campus, to make them feel more comfortable with the U.S. education system in general. Ideally, every school would house its own parent center, but given the limited resources of most schools (including time, funding, and space), parent centers are less common than many educators and parents alike would want.

Some PIRCs, such as the Indiana Partnerships Center, have stepped in to help schools establish and coordinate school-based parent centers that offer a range of parent-friendly materials as well as workshops and trainings on topics of interest to that parent clientele. Indiana now has some 75 parent centers, most in Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS). This is a district whose superintendent has required that all Title I elementary and middle schools develop parent centers staffed with trained "parent liaisons" responsible for setting up and maintaining the centers, including working directly with parents to help them get needed education information. At the time the study underlying this guide was conducted, the district had asked the Indiana Partnerships Center to train 57 new parent liaisons for this role. Initially, IPS's parent centers were funded through contributions from local companies and other small grants, but the district has since begun using Title I funds to support the liaison positions. The Indiana Partnerships Center uses its PIRC grant (as opposed to additional funding it has received from other sources, such as private foundations) to provide technical assistance for the centers along with NCLB materials and other resources for stocking the centers.

The experience of the Indiana Partnerships Center suggests that school-based parent centers that get the most use tend to be located in an easily accessible area, close to a school's front door or parking lot, for example. However, if an optimal location is not afforded—one IPS parent center is located in a former broom closet—just remember that it is more important to have a concrete area where parents know they can go to get the help they need. As the associate director of the Indiana PIRC notes, "Just do it! Just open the space and don't worry." (See "Setting Up a Parent Center" on p. 24.)

IDRA's PIRC also works with representatives of schools and community organizations, and parent outreach personnel who request help in setting up parent centers, and it has helped establish 30 centers over the past eight years. The PIRC offers this service as a technical assistance package that includes three days of planning and follow-up that, similar to the Indiana Partnerships Center, includes supplying materials for the center, training for setup of the center, and training on using computers to find pertinent parent resources. The services also include a choice of many Spanish-English trainings, such as parent leadership training, an invitation to participate in local and regional parent leadership networking meetings, and training of trainers for parents and parent-involvement staff to help plan and conduct workshops for parents.

Setting Up a Parent Center

For those interested in establishing a school-based parent center with NCLB- and other education-related resources available for parents to use on site or to check out, the Indiana Partnerships Center created a simple checklist for what needs to be done. The following is adapted from that checklist:

Steps for setting up a parent center:

  • Seek approval from the school principal.

  • Schedule a planning session (expect it to last about two hours) bringing together interested parents and educators to:

    • Create a vision statement;

    • Establish goals;

    • Create a framework for implementation;

    • Set a budget;

    • Plan the physical setup of the center; and

    • Identify and organize what resources it will offer.

  • Identify and, if necessary, train the coordinator who will need to deal with inventory, help parents use the computer, locate volunteers, and establish committees.

  • Find the things needed to furnish the center, including lamps, table, phone, computer, printer, coffee pot, and filing cabinets.

  • Contact the nearest PIRC to get resources for the center.

The Utah Family Center takes a slightly different approach. From the center's inception, its executive director has recognized the need for PIRC-established and -operated satellite offices that would serve as parent centers so parents in other parts of the state, particularly in its more isolated areas, can have easy access to needed resources. The PIRC has operated with a central office in Salt Lake City. At the time of this study, the office was located in space donated by the PIRC's fiscal agent, the Utah Parent Teacher Association, in its own building. In their common space, the two organizations ran a parent resource center. However, the PIRC also runs nine satellite offices as parent centers elsewhere in the state, seven of them housed in local schools, and all of them staffed with a paid coordinator. All of the satellite centers offer the same baseline information and resources for parents, as well as additional resources or services tailored to local needs.

The first six of Utah's nine satellite centers opened in 1998 and were fully funded (including the coordinators) through the Utah Family Center's original PIRC grant. In 2002, the center received an additional PIRC grant and was able to add three more centers, for which it budgeted to cover only materials and resources, not coordinators. The goal was to have communities take more ownership, with local districts figuring out how to fund coordinators. Districts stepped up: one center has been staffed with a worker from Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA); the coordinator position at another center, located next to a low-performing school, has been funded partly by the local district's Title I money and partly by the Utah Family Center's PIRC grant; and the position at the third center has been paid for by school-level Title I funds. Materials for all of the satellite centers are covered through PIRC funds, and the facilities are all donated by local districts.

Through the Solid Foundation (SF), the ADI PIRC's cornerstone program for building community and parent involvement at a school, the PIRC has been helping participating schools set up a family resource library. With accommodations ranging from a few comfortable chairs and a bookcase located in a hallway to an entire classroom dedicated to parent resources, these libraries focus primarily on providing materials that parents can use in working with their children (e.g., NCLB information, books on tape with cassette players, lists of community resources, parenting books, family games). In addition, some of the larger libraries serve as places for parents to convene informally or for parents and staff to come together for Solid Foundation trainings. Although various school staff (e.g., teachers, the principal) and volunteer parents ensure that the centers are organized and well stocked, the resource libraries do not have permanent staff available to answer questions or help parents find resources. Instead, they function as lending libraries that operate on the honor system.

Tailored services. One benefit to having parent centers as localized as possible is that they can be tailored to meet the needs of their respective communities. For example, each Utah center has a local advisory board to help identify community needs and how best to meet them within the limits of funding and other resources. (see fig. 5, Utah Family Center: Brochure From Satellite Parent Center With Tailored Services, on p. 26.) These advisory boards are made up of a range of people varying slightly from center to center, but usually including four to five parents; the regional director of the Utah PTA; a representative from the district superintendent's office, who might be the Title I director; and, if there is a university nearby, a representative of it as well. Broad membership on a parent center advisory board helps ensure that a center understands and serves the needs of its community.

Figure 5. Utah Family Center: Brochure from Satellite Parent Center With Tailored Services (inside panels from open three-fold brochure)

Granite School District Family Center Facilitates student learning by providing support to District families

  • Parenting classes
  • Parent Literacy classes
  • Parental rights and procedures
  • Employment Services
  • Tobacco/Substance Abuse
  • Granite Peaks Lifelong Learning
  • Early Childhood Classes
  • Family Education Classes
  • Food Pantry
  • HEAT Program
  • Lending Library
  • Computer lab/Internet access
  • Tutoring
  • Translation Services
  • Granite Peaks Adult Education GED, ESL, HS completion
  • Health Services
  • Medicaid/CHIP Services
  • Preschool Services
  • Consultant for parents with students with disabilities
  • Mental Health Services
  • Refugee Outreach Worker
  • ESL Parent Liaison
A collaborative effort by Granite School District, Utah Family Center, PTA and Community Action Program

In serving economically disadvantaged populations, PIRCs invariably run into families in need of much more than the education-related information and services that PIRCs normally provide. Some families need help with much more basic needs. While generally speaking, other types of agencies (e.g., public, nonprofit, church-based) are set up to address those needs, some PIRCs have seen a role for themselves, recognizing a link between family conditions and children's school performance. For example, parents who do not have jobs may have more trouble providing healthy food, let alone school supplies; homes without showers or washing machines cannot ensure children's cleanliness or health; and no access to a telephone limits communication between home and school. As one PIRC staff member notes, "If the parents feel better, the child feels better." Thus, a number of PIRC-facilitated parent centers offer resources not directly related to education. For instance, centers in both Indiana and Utah offer resume and job-placement help for parents.

Utah's Monument Valley Satellite Center, located on a Native American reservation in southern Utah, has gone a considerable step further, addressing families' basic needs through a variety of services that have included use of an on-site shower and washer and dryer, use of a telephone (for parents with a phone card), and use of one of the center's six computers for writing resumes, printing documents, and searching for information and jobs.

Tips for Reaching Parents Statewide

  • Develop Web sites and use videoconferencing to reach larger and more dispersed audiences.

  • Help establish parent centers in or near schools across the state that inform and invite the participation of parents in the education of their children. If a center serves a high-poverty population, it should also provide services as possible that help meet families' basic needs (e.g., jobhunting assistance, including access to computers for writing resumes, telephones, showers, and washing machines).

  • Open satellite PIRC centers across the state that can assess and address the needs of local or regional constituents.

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Last Modified: 06/15/2009