Engaging Parents in Education: Lessons From Five Parental Information And Resource Centers
June 2007
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Connecting With Hard-to-Reach Parents

As noted earlier, PIRCs must spend at least half of their PIRC grant to serve parents who are severely economically or educationally disadvantaged, a category that includes those who are Spanish-speaking migrant parents; those who are homeless; those who may have an address but no telephone, let alone a computer; and those who cannot read. How PIRCs do so varies, depending on the needs of the populations they are trying to reach. For example, IDRA's PIRC partners with a Head Start program that provides or brokers a range of supportive services (e.g., dental, medical, mental health, nutrition) to migrant farmworker families; the PIRC supplies the Head Start program with information about education rights and NCLB, which the program, in turn, gives to the families with which it works. The Indiana Partnerships Center has developed partnerships with homeless shelters in the state to distribute NCLB information, and it places informational spots on Spanish-language radio and television to reach Spanish-speaking parents. For several PIRCs, home visits have been a major outreach strategy because liaisons can target services to meet families' specific needs.

Facilitate Home Visits

For a variety of reasons, many parents never make it to their children's school, which, for many, means they never make it to a parent center. Their work schedule may preclude coming during standard school hours and for parents working two jobs, as many must do, even extended hours might not help. Parents also may stay away because they had a negative experience in their own education and may be mistrustful of educators. For immigrant families whose documentation may not be complete, staying away from school may be part of a general effort to keep a low profile. To serve such parents, some PIRCs promote the strategy of home visits through which parents receive personalized communication geared to their needs. Equally important, home visits allow two-way communication with parents able to ask questions and discuss concerns.

The Utah Family Center trains parent liaisons across the state to make home visits. Since Utah is now a multilingual, multicultural state, liaisons must be aware of and prepared to address cultural differences, language barriers, socioeconomic issues, and social factors that affect parents' ability to be involved in their children's education, such as substance abuse and incarceration. Often home visits provide the best means to assess the needs of families and then to tailor communications and services to meet their needs. The Utah Family Center helps prepare liaisons for these visits through group trainings on a range of topics, including cultural competency and NCLB.

Important as it is to provide effective liaison training, some PIRCs have found that choosing the right liaison candidate to begin with makes all the difference. For example, the Utah Family Center recruited a medicine man on a reservation served by one of the satellite offices to be a liaison. In addition to being highly respected within the communities in that area, he is savvy about what types of communications will be most effective for a community where few families have a phone. When the school in which he was based was on verge of not making AYP, this liaison conducted over 100 home visits to talk with parents about the value of student attendance and testing, explaining that parents needed to make sure their children came to school so the children would learn well and test well, for both the children's sake and the school's sake.

This same satellite center also has helped facilitate improved communication between the local high school staff and reservation parents, many of whom, in addition to not having phones, have no access to transportation or, in some cases, even to running water or electricity. In hopes of making connections between these far-flung parents and their children's teachers, the principal decided that every Friday for five weeks during the summer she would bus her staff to a different area of the reservation. Each visit culminated in a light meal or snack at the home of one of the families, with arrangements made by and the food supplied by satellite center staff. The principal describes these visits as "truly eye-opening" for her staff, many of whom had no prior understanding of the conditions in which their students lived or the struggles their families faced. The staff's new awareness helped them be more understanding when students came to school with no homework done, were late for class, or were distracted; it also helped staff focus guidance and interventions in a more informed, helpful way.

In the IPS, where all Title I elementary and middle schools are now required by the district to have a parent liaison, the Indiana Partnerships Center facilitated the first year of liaison training, in collaboration with the district's Title I Office and Bridges to success, a United Way program dedicated to building healthy school communities. The training, approximately 50 hours over the course of a year, took place one day each month, and one of the key topics was how to connect with hard-to-reach parents, using such strategies as making home visits. Some participants were already experienced in conducting home visits, either because they had worked as a liaison at an individual Title I school before the position became mandatory or because they had worked in another social service-type job prior to becoming a liaison. Their feedback on the training was that they had found the home-visitor module especially important because they had already experienced challenges in attempting this type of outreach.

The Indianapolis liaison training emphasizes an asset-based approach in which, to establish trust and make parents feel comfortable, the liaison highlights positive things in his or her introductory conversation with parents in their home: they first thank the parents for letting them come, then compliment them on the hard work they are doing with their children. They then begin to ask open-ended questions about the children and parents, and then invite the parents to participate at school in ways they might feel comfortable (e.g., volunteering in the classroom, chaperoning field trips). Finally, they ask if the parents have any questions about school or their children's education in general and then set a date to call or visit again. A role-playing exercise in which liaisons trade off playing parents and liaisons helps training participants model and practice the approach.

Partner With Community-based Organizations

Community-based organizations can be invaluable in helping PIRCs connect with hard-to-reach parents. Parents who for any reason have lost trust in their local education system may be more receptive to information delivered by an organization in which they do have confidence, such as their church or local Boys and Girls Club. Also, such organizations tend to have more intimate knowledge of the needs and concerns of their particular constituents and, therefore, understand how to reach them. For a PIRC with a statewide mandate, partnering with other organizations also makes sense as a way to leverage its own limited resources. By working with or through a community- or faith-based organization, PIRCs can exponentially increase the number of parents reached.

To lay the ground for this method of extended outreach, the Family Works (a program of the nonprofit Gaithersburg-based Family Service Agency) that was funded as a PIRC in 2003 to serve Maryland, cohosted an NCLB summit intended to solicit the help of local community-based organizations. (See fig. 6, The Family Works: Invitation to Education Summit for Community-based Agencies in Maryland, on p. 30.) The one-day summit brought together 60 participants from 15 parent-, faith-, and community-based organizations to inform them about the intent of NCLB as it pertains to parent involvement and to enlist their help in disseminating this information to families across the city of Baltimore. In addition to presenting general information, the Family Works produced four topic-specific breakout sessions on parent involvement, understanding your school's report card, public school choice, and supplemental educational services.

ADI's PIRC also has seen value in enlisting other organizations to further its reach to parents. This PIRC has contracted with five community- and faith-based organizations across Illinois to help distribute and facilitate understanding of NCLB information in the communities they serve. The initial contracting organizations (e.g., Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Peoria, Christian Women of the New Wave) were chosen for a variety of factors, among them, their geographic location, the needs of the communities they serve, and their reputations for communicating well with their communities. Using its grant funds, the PIRC contracted with these organizations to provide NCLB workshops and related guidance sessions for parents that would serve a minimum number of families annually. The three-hour NCLB workshops include an ADI-developed community curriculum, materials, and resource guide with general NCLB information that the organizations supplement with data and information from their local district. The guidance sessions usually are conducted for parents who already have attended the workshop and have follow-up questions, such as: What do I need to do as a parent? What are my individual choices? Who do I talk to at the district? These sessions offer information tailored to the specific needs of the participating families.

Figure 6. The Family Works: Invitation to Education Summit for Community-Based Agencies in Maryland

Join Us For ...

A One-Day
Educational Summit
Parent Advocates

Thursday, April 27, 2006
8:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Hyatt Regency Baltimore
300 Light Street
Baltimore, MD 21202


Please RSVP by Friday, April 21, 2006

presented by:

U.S. Department of Education
Maryland State Department of Education
The Family Works at the Family Services Agency

To prepare these organizations for their role as trainers and guidance counselors, the PIRC has brought them together to train three times a year (for five hours per session) in Lincoln. The first training covered NCLB content and trained the organizations' representatives in the processes for leading workshops and guidance sessions; the following two trainings that first year addressed challenges the organizations were facing in carrying out their work with parents and offered continued education on NCLB. In subsequent years, the trainings have played more of a support role and have been used for participating organizations to network and to go over any changes in the law. (For additional information on PIRCs' use of partnerships to expand capacity, see "PIRCs Leverage their Limited Resources," on p. 32.)

Tips for Connecting With Hard-to-Reach Parents

  • Provide information and materials to community-based organizations that are in direct contact with hard-to-reach populations, such as homeless shelters, local Head Start programs, and faith-based organizations.

  • Train liaisons to make home visits that are informed, targeted, and culturally sensitive.

  • Help recruit liaisons who can easily integrate into the target community.

  • Contract with community-based organizations to disseminate information.

  • Host summits and trainings that bring community-based organizations from across the state together for train-the-trainers sessions.

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Last Modified: 06/15/2009