The conferences most parents had with their children’s teachers this school year probably went something like this: They occurred twice, in the fall and spring. Many parents failed to show up. Those who did asked whether their children were behaving and passing. After 15 minutes, the meeting was over.
But there’s a growing movement in the nation’s schools to overhaul parent-teacher conferences.
In hundreds of schools in the District and elsewhere, these conferences look drastically different as educators seek to build stronger relationships with parents and equip families with tools to reinforce classroom concepts at home. Teachers and parents meet in a large group setting at least three times a year, sometimes with students present. They discuss how students are performing on key measures such as reading comprehension and mastery of math concepts. Parents leave the meetings with games and other activities they can use at home to reinforce classroom learning.
“The traditional parent-teacher conference is isolationist,” said Maria Paredes, a former teacher who created a model in 2012 known as Academic Parent-Teacher Teams, or APTT. “It is me and the teacher, maybe my child, and I don’t hear about anyone else in the class.”
Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Northwest Washington uses APTT for all classes. Parents and teachers met in October, February and June as a group for an hour. Those conferences have replaced the traditional one-on-one meetings familiar to the vast majority of families elsewhere.
Paredes, who works for the WestEd nonprofit education group, estimates that 600 schools, like Tubman, have adopted this model in 22 states, including Georgia, Arizona and Texas. In the Houston schools, a WestEd study found that students whose families attended the meetings had stronger gains in English language arts compared with those whose parents did not.
“It’s a whole shift with how we think parents can collaborate with teachers. Parents can also collaborate with each other,” Paredes said. “We can keep everybody in the know on what’s happening in the classroom.”
At Tubman, teachers and parents recently got together as the school year was about to end. It was their third and final meeting before the summer. The school, in Columbia Heights, had 542 students this academic year. Most qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. School officials estimate that more than 60 percent of the parents are not native English speakers.
In a kindergarten classroom, parents sat in small chairs around short tables designed for 5-year-olds. Each had a green folder with their child’s name. Most of the materials in the folder were translated into Spanish.
With help from an interpreter, teacher Sarah Zick recapped what parents and children had worked all year to accomplish: By the end of the school year, the children should be able to identify 75 “sight” words, a foundation they need to learn to read. Examples of these words: “the,” “like” and “under.”
On a projector, Zick showed a bar graph with data for each child. (Students were identified only by number.) In their green folders, each parent had the same graph with a number highlighted, the one identifying their child.
Student No. 2 started the school year knowing fewer than 10 sight words. By the end of the year, the child was able to identify 100 words. Of Zick’s 18 students, six had met the 75-word goal. All had shown progress.
“My daughter has grown a lot,” Aurora Graciano told the group of parents. “She went from knowing six words to, now, she is reading me bedtime stories.”
It was a team effort to reach that achievement, Zick told the room. Zick teaches the students reading, math and social skills at school. Parents continue that work at home.
At all three of these parent-teacher conferences, teachers showed games and other activities parents can do at home, or even while waiting for a bus. The games were tailored to help the children meet academic goals — in this case, to get them to learn sight words.
Earlier, teachers had equipped parents with flashcards to quiz their children. In the last meeting before summer, parents received a gallon-size plastic bag with a writing journal, along with a set of number flashcards. The goal is to avoid any backsliding in academic progress.
“We are working on it at school, but we can’t make progress without working on it at home,” Zick said. “They really fly when they are getting it from both places — when they are reading every day at school and they are reading at home, and it clicks and comes together.”
Tubman has done this parent-teacher engagement, which starts with a home visit in the summer, for four years. The Flamboyan Foundation has helped install the APTT model in 30 D.C. schools, including five public charter schools.
This parent-teacher engagement model works best at the elementary and middle school levels, educators say. Some middle schools also have student-led conferences, a variation on the idea. Next school year, six more middle schools, including three in the D.C. Public Schools system, will adopt the student-led model.
But D.C. school officials and others say APTT or student-led conferences can’t be imposed on schools. It’s not as simple as retooling a meeting.
For successful parent-teacher collaboration, schools need teachers who are willing to visit students at home in the summer. That is critical for creating an open line of communication between teachers and parents.
Teachers must carve out time to plan for these meetings. Principals have to be willing to pay for materials and coaches who help train the teachers on how to lead these meetings.
At Tubman, this model even affects hiring.
“When we hire teachers, we explain that we do home visits, and we do things differently for our parent-teacher conferences,” Principal Amanda Delebar said. “This is required, and if you aren’t interested in that, that’s okay, but we tell you upfront.”
Educators at Tubman think the extra work pays off. Standardized test scores have not increased dramatically. Fewer than 20 percent of students met math or reading standards on city PARCC tests in 2016.
But there has been progress, according to Delebar. Students are making gains in math and reading comprehension. Parent participation in conferences and other events has gone from about a quarter to more than 90 percent. Teachers say parents are unafraid to reach out with questions.
Judith Cruz’s son Alejandro is in Zick’s kindergarten class. She said her interaction with Zick is a departure from the meetings she had with her oldest son’s teachers.
“I was told how he was behaving and progressing, but I left the school the same way I came in because I didn’t know how to help him at home,” Cruz said.
For Alejandro, that’s not the case. Cruz knows how to help her son learn his sight words and recognize numbers. When he started the school year, Alejandro didn’t know any English. With his teacher’s instruction and the reinforcement of those lessons at home, he now knows more than 30 of his sight words.
“I was used to only going to the school if there was a major problem,” she said. “Now, I feel confident in communicating with the teacher, and I know how I can contribute to my child’s academic development.”