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17 Strategies You May Not Have Tried to Build a Vibrant School Community

Written by Zareena Zaidi

Take a moment to think about the community at your school. How inclusive is it? Does it encompass all of your school staff and students? Does it also include all of your parents — or just those who reach out and make a big effort to be involved? Do parents interact with each other? Do they feel connected to the school?

Schools with high parent involvement and a strong school community have a shared understanding of needs and values, driving a more positive school climate that has a lasting impact on student success and overall staff satisfaction.

Hosting parent-teacher conferences and Back-to-School nights are a great starting point for parent engagement. However, in order to truly foster a thriving and involved community, you must consciously promote a culture of parent engagement and put strategies and systems in place to safeguard it. School community is about establishing two-way connection between schools and parents. It’s about building trusted relationships, giving parents a sense of belonging to the school, and cultivating the feeling that the school and all its stakeholders are one big family.

1. “All Hands” Communication

Empower all staff members — administrators, office staff and teachers — to communicate directly with parents. When people from all levels of the school system personally interact with parents, they will feel connected to the school or district as a whole, rather than their child’s particular classroom. This also adds humanity to the seemingly big impersonal school — parents feel more personally attached if they see a human behind the communication!







At the beginning of the school year, ask each staff member to write one post on a topic they find interesting and that parents would find relevant. Some topics may include how kids learn in their class, how they teach, technology use, etc. Throughout the school year, feature these entries on a regular basis along with their picture and name (Inspired by Crane Country Day School).

2. No Parent Left Behind

It’s important to make sure you are reaching and communicating with at least one parent or guardian from every family, regardless of socioeconomic status and language barriers.

Try to reach parents where they are, in the language they prefer, and if possible — at the time they want. If your parent community doesn’t read emails, sending a long email newsletter is not effective. Instead, you may want to try shorter, more timely messages via text or app.

Have a bilingual “parent coordinator” to help ease communication & engage English Language Learner parents in the school’s community.

 

Aim to reach 100% of your families in the way they prefer. At Back-To-School night and Parent-Teacher Conferences, ask parents if they are receiving communication from school. If they aren’t, correct their contact information in the school’s records.



3. Interact With Parents IRL

Face-to-face interaction is priceless for fostering empathy and a sense of belonging, so make sure to meet and talk with parents In Real Life! Parents will feel more comfortable reaching out to the school and will know that their participation is welcome.

If possible, conduct “home-visits” with new families (especially kindergarten parents!) to show your effort in getting to know them. This effort makes parents feel that you care — about them and their kids. Showing that you care is vital to cultivating a strong community. It lays a foundation of appreciation and trust, which are core pillars in sustaining a strong community.

Teachers can open up their classrooms before or after the school day for meet & greets with parents who drop off & pick up their kids.

 

Each week, give teachers the time to call one family to share a positive update about their kid, as well as personally invite them to any upcoming school events. In middle & high school this can be a bit more challenging. Start by splitting students into different groups, perhaps by period. Then assign one teacher to each group, and have teachers call just the families of their respective groups.


4. Host Events With an Informal Spin

Hosting events is a super powerful tool — not only do you show your face and strengthen the school’s relationship with each parent, but you provide a space for parents to network, bond with each other, and build a sense of community centered around the school and their kids.

Events with a more informal spin might include themed events, such as: a Harvest Carnival, a Hot Chocolate Holiday Sing, Grandparents Day, International Day, a staff vs. parents dodgeball tournament, a celebration of other cultures’ holidays (such as the Dia de los Muertos celebration at Monterey Peninsula Unified School District’s MLK School of the Arts) and more!



Host a “Heritage Festival” to celebrate the diversity of your community at your school, like Harrington Elementary School in Massachusetts did. Encourage families to bring appetizers from their own countries. If you’re feeling ambitious, include activities and performances from cultures that represent your student community, maybe even see if you can get parents to volunteer!

 


5. Target Your Events

Parents want to go to events that are relevant to them and their kids. Remember when you are hosting an event that for most parents, the draw of an event is to meet the staff or other families, or to learn about something that is relevant to their child. The better you facilitate this, the more successful your event will be.


Invite teachers, students and parents to events that bring people together around a common interest, some examples include: events for athletic teams or theater groups, art showcases, and various informational sessions such as an evening talk about pursuing liberal arts colleges.

6. Make Time for Mingling

Encourage parent mingling by carving out time dedicated specifically for networking whenever you can. If you have many parents in one place — take advantage! Networking between parents is a great asset in building school community. Each parent can have a direct relationship with their school, but their connection and relationships with other parents are an essential factor in cultivating a sense of community.


Designate networking time on the agenda before, after or as an “intermission” break period at every school event.

 

Target events to bring together parents around a common interest, for instance: sports teams, art programs, pursuing arts colleges, etc.


7. Provide Plenty of Direct Opportunities for Parents To Be Involved

Rather than passively sitting back and waiting for parents to involve themselves, make sure parents feel welcome and empowered to participate! Broadcast when help is needed and provide plenty of direct opportunities for parents to be involved.

Many parents want to be involved and see how their kids interact. However, they may not know how to help teachers, or if their help and participation is even wanted. Furthermore, new parents often don’t know what is customary at the school or how to reach out. That’s why it’s so crucial to establish a warm and inviting atmosphere, and to keep parents in the know by providing specific opportunities and tasks that parents can help with.


Invite parents to help out in the classroom. Even if they are just sharpening pencils, it gives them the opportunity to observe what is happening in the classroom and feel connected.

 

For High Schools: Large student populations and independent (& sometimes angsty) teens make it tricky for high schools to involve parents. Try having parents help the school outside of the classroom — as lunch cart volunteers or school dance chaperones. Also invite parents to help in (often underfunded) extracurricular activities — this way parents can also be involved in something their kid is passionate about, and they can see their kid interact with others at school.


8. Be Present — Cheer the Kids On!

Make yourself seen and support your kids by being present at as many events as possible. When you are visible, you become more approachable and trustworthy — to both students and parents. It once again shows that you care, which is so vital to weaving a tight-knit community. This is especially true for new administrators, as being present builds rapport and makes people familiar with your face and comfortable with your presence.

Interact with students and parents in a casual way. Every now and then, serve students in the cafeteria or open doors at morning drop off. As an administrator, you help set the tone and  culture at your school. Showing your face and making yourself available for student & family interaction will go a long way in setting a trusting, welcoming environment at your school.


How many school events did you attend this year outside of school hours? Think of theater programs, band competitions, athletic games, art shows, choir performances and more. Give yourself a pat on the back for each one!

9. Make Parents Your Super Sidekick

Instagram post supersidekick parent

Extend the learning day by providing parents with tools to continue the conversation of their kids’ education at home. Direct two-way communication is great because 1) parents feel like their voice is being heard 2) You better understand your parent population and can tailor their involvement based on their situation. When parents feel like their voice is heard, they will be more invested. When the parents are invested, it sends a subconscious message to students that school is important and should be taken seriously.

Even though parents may not be able to make it to a school meeting, they can greatly impact their child’s learning and attitude towards learning by the way they approach school at home. Always remind parents that they can have a great positive impact on their child’s education, and empower them with the tools and attitude they need to do so.


Give parents questions they can ask their kid about the school day on the drive home or during dinner.

10. Support Your Parent Organization

Show your PTA love as it’s a huge gateway into the parent population and thus critical to forming a strong school community. Your PTA is your go-to-panel for everything parents. They perform the same functions as your school’s leadership, but from the parents’ point of view.

By empowering your PTA to communicate directly with all parents and hold social events, you foster trust towards school and cultivate positive parent-school relations. It’s a way to easily scale up your community-building efforts.

11. Get All Staff on the Same Page

Include “community-building” and parent engagement in your school’s core values and reiterate it to your staff members in every meeting. Make sure there is solid, open communication between all staff and establish common goals to work towards. Shared goals and core values help shape individual interactions, which help shape school culture.


An easy way to remind staff members of core values is to print and frame each value separately and display all prominently in the staff room.

 

Host quick weekly meetings with all staff to open up an inclusive space to communicate issues and establish shared goals. Encourage everyone to discuss their progress towards the school’s goals, or thoughts regarding the core values.


Santa Barbara Unified School District decided to provide a space for principals who don’t usually see or interact the chance to meet in person and open a conduit for communication, improving a sense of community across the district.

Instagram post principals breakfast

12. Put Yourself in Parents’ Shoes. Often.

Provide quality service by always keeping in mind who you serve (the students & by extension their parents) and placing yourself in their shoes. Make sure you establish a “Families First” culture that truly welcomes parents. Your school’s culture has a massive influence on the interactions between staff, parents, and all stakeholders in the kids’ education.


When making important decisions, think about it from a parent’s perspective — how will this impact them and their child?


13. Make the Front Office About the Kids

You’re all there for the kids. The parents are there for their kid(s), the school and all its staff are there for the kids, and your front office should reflect that.


You are likely already doing this, but do it more. Decorate your office with your students in mind — showcase student artwork and post pictures of school events with the students. Rotate it regularly if possible. Kids (& their families) will be so proud if their work or face is displayed in the school office!

 


Instagram post principals breakfast
Instagram post principals breakfast

14. Include Parents in the Decision-Making Process

Make sure parents are able to voice their opinion and share their ideas. When they feel they can make an impact, they will be more involved and engaged and will be personally attached to the school. Involving parents adds a valuable perspective to your decision-making process, by bringing in multiple perspectives, you’ll likely make decisions that benefit the kids and put new ideas into place that future parents-to-be will probably be more on board for.


Host “town hall meetings” & invite parents to participate.

Instagram post decisions

15. Let Parents Do Your Marketing

Parents trust other parents, so take advantage and give parents a platform to share how much they love your school (and why!). Not only could it entice other parents to potentially move their kids to your school, but it helps build rapport among the parents already at your school, and it constantly reminds your community why your school rocks! Once parents hear why other parents love your school, it may inspire them to share as well, or at least think about why they appreciate your school.


In every meeting, have a parent talk about what they like about the school.

 

Include parent testimonials in various marketing areas such as your website or newsletters.


16. Are Your Efforts Working?

When you track and measure parent engagement, you not only fulfill LCAP/state requirements, but you are able to see what is and isn’t working, and from there you can work to improve your outreach and engagement. Also, when you ask parents (and perhaps students) for their feedback, they feel that you value their opinion, which builds trust and appreciation.


Conduct polls & surveys to get feedback. For example, you can ask participants to rate how applicable the following statements are for them with claims like “I believe I can talk to the school about things that are bothering me.”

 

Look at reports provided by your communication platform to see how your community is engaing with the information provided.


17. Build Relationships With Local Businesses & Non-Profits

When you involve the greater community, you widen your school’s community past the staff, students and parents into the community at large. You also gain local advocates for your school.


Collaborate with local businesses & non profits to go on local field trips, bring in experts to talk to students about their work, etc.

One district bridged the homework gap by collaborating with local cafes, bookstores, and other businesses to allow students to use their wifi for free.

Instagram post decisions

Incorporating the local community not only benefits students as in the example above, but can also bring the greater community together around a common cause, and build a sense of rapport for the school within your city, like in the case below. Compton Unified’s Centennial High School “Walk For A Cure” event is one of the largest in the Compton community, and they even got a City Council member to promote and cohost it!

Instagram post decisions

All these tips may seem overwhelming, but take it piece by piece. See which tips are most relevant to your situation, or use these as inspiration for new ideas! Implementing just one new strategy can help cultivate your school’s community little by little. Just remember to be persistent and always show parents that you care!

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