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Virginia Journal of Education


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‘Parent Academy’ nights have been an innovative way to reach out to parents in Alexandria.

By Stephanie Hope Kessinger

As educators, we know that getting parents involved in school is incredibly valuable to the ongoing support and growth of our students. Research shows parental involvement is associated with positive outcomes such as lower high school dropout rates, increased on-time high school completion, and higher grade completion. We all recognize that family support is essential.

However, while many parents would like to be more involved in their children’s education, many of them lack the skills, content knowledge or teaching techniques to effectively support them at home.

At my school, we’ve addressed that issue through a school-wide event called Parent Academy Night. At Parent Academy, school staff members offer parents a selection of mini-courses focusing on content areas, skills or techniques they can implement at home. 

Here’s how it worked for us, and how it could work for you. The first time we held the event, my principal and I decided we’d focus on language arts and math (although Parent Academy nights can be held in any subject area). If you teach at a middle or high school, focusing on one content area, such as history or math, can help give the night a concentrated purpose, but be mindful that some parents are intimidated by certain subject areas and may need the ‘pull’ of another subject to get them through the door.

After getting administrative support, we worked on gaining teacher buy-in. I spoke at our school staff meeting and explained our vision for the event and the possible benefits for parents, students and teachers. We discussed how the purpose of Parent Academy was to help educate families on what we do at school to teach their children, and how parents could learn to use effective skills or techniques at home. If parents used the techniques and strategies we taught them, it would hopefully cause positive changes at home (during homework time), result in higher student gains, and help build a new relationship between parent and child. In addition, the event could help break down barriers between parents and teachers and reinforce the importance of the home-school collaboration.
Though we hoped to include teachers at all grade levels, the event was completely optional. It was important that participation in Parent Academy Night be a teacher’s decision (we already have too much on our plates!). I also suggested teachers could partner up on sessions in order to lower the workload.

Teacher volunteers then began focusing on their sessions, and I made sure we had a variety of skills, concepts and grade levels. They came up with excellent presentations, honing in on important skills and concepts that typically need reinforcing. The math courses offered included “Fun with Fractions,” “Partial Quotients,” “The Music in Multiplication” (learning math facts through music) and “Mathematical Discourse.” Language arts courses included “Read Alouds,” “Vocabulary,”  “Using the Newspaper Across the Curriculum” and “How to Get Your Child Turned on to Reading.” Each session featured a flyer or other handout with information parents could later use at home. In our second year one of the most popular courses was entitled “Music, Math and Motion,” which was taught by our physical education teachers, who showed how they integrate math into everyday games and how parents could do the same at home. 

Next we had to drum up interest in Parent Academy among our school’s families. About a month prior to the event, we sent email blasts to the PTA listserv, promoted Parent Academy Night at the PTA meeting, and sent home posters with descriptions of each of the courses, broken into grade bands K-2 and 3-5. About two weeks prior to the big night we sent home a sign-up sheet (see page  for an example) to get an estimate of how many parents would attend and if anyone would need child care, which we offered free to increase attendance. One week prior to the event we sent home reminder posters, emailed the listserv again, and advertised on the school announcements.

In the future, I’d like to include a way for parents to sign up for an interpreter, so those who speak other languages can participate more fully.

To help increase attendance we offered an incentive to the homeroom with the most participating parents. At my school, students wore uniforms, so a “free dress day” is a very big deal. We offered one to the class with the most parents in attendance, hoping students would be more likely to ask their parents to come and then push them to show up.

The night of the Parent Academy, while teachers prepped their rooms, parents met in the multipurpose room (essentially our auditorium), where the principal explained the purpose and structure of the event. There were two 25-minute sessions with a five-minute break between them. Parent and teacher volunteers helped attendees sign in, handed out brochures with all the offerings, and stood in the hallways to give directions, before slipping into sessions of their own choosing. The end of the first session was announced over the public address system so parents and teachers would know when to switch to their second session. 

At the end of the evening, teachers handed out a survey to each parent to find out which sessions generated the most interest, to get some feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the sessions, and to collect comments and suggestions for the future. The surveys were anonymous, allowing for honest feedback, and a parent volunteer was stationed at the school’s exits to collect them. This way parents weren’t handing the survey back to the teacher they just assessed. If you do this at your school, you can create your own survey and also include a QR code for parents to access it online. 

Our survey results have been overwhelming positive. One hundred percent of the parents who returned their surveys agreed or strongly agreed with the following statements:

● The information presented will help me assist my child in math.

● The presenters were well prepared for their presentations.

● I would be interested in attending another Parent Academy Night. 

Parent suggestions included having more than two sessions so they could attend more classes and videotaping the session so that they could be posted online for parents who couldn’t be there. 

 Parent Academy Night has had a number of positive results for us. First, by observing teachers in action, parents gain respect for them and for our profession as a whole. They begin to see us as the experts we are as we utilize our knowledge and know-how to assist them. Second, when they see our passion, knowledge and joy in teaching, and our willingness to give up an evening to help them, parents begin to see the educational journey as a collaboration between parent, teacher, child and school. They also better understand that we’re on their side and that we’re all here for the same reason. Finally, Parent Academy Nights create an opportunity for an open dialogue: What do our parents need from us? How can we as teachers help you with your child? What can we do together to help your children succeed?

Certainly the benefits of holding such an event are almost endless and with the early involvement of parents so integral to student achievement in later years – can we afford not to reach out through events like Parent Academy Night?

Kessinger, a member of the Education Association of Alexandria, is a ninth-year math teacher now in her second year at Charles Barrett Elementary School, where she plans to launch Parent Academy Night in a few months. She’s a 2012 winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.


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Keep In Touch


Here are some of the strategies I use to establish and maintain open communication with my students’ parents:

● Connect.  Calling each parent within the first few weeks of school to introduce yourself and share something positive about their child opens up a dialogue, establishes a positive rapport, and allows parents to share important information. It creates a firm foundation for your relationship and makes them more likely to pick up the phone next time you call!

● Inform.  I send out weekly emails to parents reminding them of upcoming field trips, tests and school events. I have different listservs for each math class which I use to communicate upcoming content, inform parents of interesting discussions from that day to discuss at the dinner table, and suggestions for discussing math in the real world. You can also use the app “Remind” at www.remind.com to send mobile messages to parents. With this great app, parents and teachers never see each other’s phone numbers, but teachers can send secure reminders, photos, voice clips and pdf documents to parents.

● Collaborate.  I recently started recording short videos explaining techniques or strategies I’m using to teach my students “new math.” By modeling the partial products algorithm, parents learn the strategy and are more likely assist their child at home. It also gives me an opportunity to review key vocabulary.

● Educate.  I used to give my third grade students study guides that I told them were for their parents. The guides were meant to be review for my students but also instructed parents of the new strategies and algorithms I was teaching.

--Stephanie Kessinger

 


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