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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 08/31/2011

A different kind of parent involvement — in school policy

This was written by Idette B. Groff, a member of the Conestoga Valley school board for 12 years and a member of the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. Conestoga Valley School District serves more than 4,000 students in Lancaster County, PA.

By Idette B. Groff

The relationship most parents have with their child’s school is through teachers or principals to deal with an issue affecting their child. Most parents never have an issue that needs to be taken farther up the chain of command. But have you ever been in a situation where you wished you had a voice in policy decisions made at the district level? Or even been in a position to help contribute to the agenda of the policymakers?

Serving on a local school board takes a great deal of time, and that’s not appealing, or even a feasible, choice for most of us. Boards deal with a long menu of issues and must pay attention to what are called governance or boardmanship guidelines.

These are the benchmarks of effective boards that are reflected in how they function and affect the quality of the district and its student achievement. Time spent paying attention to these benchmarks is well spent if in short supply.

Among them are guidelines for communication with the parent community. On my own board, we talked frequently about our communication efforts, and thought we were doing a good job until we discovered that our perception wasn’t necessarily the same as that of some of our parents.

When issues related to reconfiguring the length of the school day and to reassessing our multi-age classrooms came before the board on consecutive months, we were given a strong reminder that communication, being a two-way street, is only effective if everyone thinks it’s effective.

While we could list the multiple ways we had apprised parents that both these issues were being reviewed for changes, it didn’t matter if they felt left out of the decision because they didn’t get the message. It didn’t matter that we had recruited parents to be on the study committee and referenced the studies in district bulletins and had a link to the committees on the website. If parents didn’t know there were changes coming until the recommendations were already being made, we hadn’t communicated effectively and the responsibility was ours.

Having taken the extra time to discuss our commitment to the guidelines for effective communication, we revamped and expanded our communication plan.

The first test came during this year’s budget process. The result could be measured in the number of parents and residents who knew about and attended our town meetings which had never been nearly as successful. Everyone had multiple options to be heard: at the microphone, through written questions and comments, or online. A dedicated link on our website was kept up to date.

In the end, we received a flood of comments and useful suggestions and everyone had an opportunity to have input. There was no mystery about what we planning, and there were no surprises when the final decisions were made nor were there any complaints about the process when it was done. I’m not saying everyone agreed, but everyone who wanted was involved and informed.

What does this all have to do with time, especially parents’ time? If effective communication requires participation on both ends and participation takes some time, will parents give just some of your time?

If your district doesn’t keep you informed of opportunities to serve on short term district committees and provide opportunities to hear your input, tell them what you want. If they already do this, give a little time to be part of the process. It’s like being a part of the school board without having to invest as much time.

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