3 ways to increase parent engagement
Judith Culang and Linda Baker
July 20, 2016

Parent involvement is a challenge for schools across the country and Joseph Ferderbar Elementary is no exception. Our school of about 500 students is in Neshaminy School District, located 20 miles northeast of Philadelphia. The implementation of a new reading-intervention program inspired our district to revisit what parent engagement looks like in our schools. We asked ourselves: “Are we are doing enough to pull parents in?” Would creating open lines of communication and providing resources offer even the busiest parents opportunities to become more involved in their child’s education?

At JFE, we have a growing number of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Many of our students come from single-parent families struggling to make ends meet. Parents who are working long hours are less likely to have time to connect with their children on an academic level and may feel inadequately prepared to assist with school assignments. Our experience has shown that a significant number of parents may be reluctant to participate in school-related activities based on their own negative school histories. Parents of struggling learners often feel particularly frustrated and helpless as they watch their child enter a cycle of school failure that they, too, may have experienced.

The majority of struggling students will require intervention to ensure that they don’t fall even further behind their classmates. About 20% of the students at JFE spend 30 minutes a day, five days a week in small-group reading intervention. We use a “pull-out” model, so students leave the traditional classroom during independent work time and focus on mastering one to two skills per week. Not surprisingly, we see significant differences between students who spend more time practicing these skills than those who do not. For this reason, we provide reinforcement activities that can be completed at home.

Students who practice outside of school develop at an increased rate, allowing them to feel more confident and fluent when reading and writing. With the right balance of direct instruction, digital curriculum, and additional practice, 10 to 15% of students entering the intervention program at the start off the school year “graduate” by January and return to the traditional classroom.

Creating a routine

When meeting with parents, we’ve found that they desire a clear plan to help their child become more successful. We’ve discovered that small, manageable steps are most effective. We start by developing routine communication plans between parents and teachers and offer parent workshop sessions to give parents more information about what their child is learning at school and how they can support their child at home.

At the start of the school year, we hold an open house to discuss our Home-School Compact and Parent Involvement Policy. At this time, we also provide complimentary books to be used at daycare or at home, ensuring that students have easy access to reading materials while not at school. At the open house, we enroll parents in our communication app which allows direct communication via text messaging. Three times a year, we send home a newsletter which includes pictures of our students involved in literacy activities to show parents what their children are doing while in school.

Take-home folders

Weekly take-home folders have helped immensely in developing open lines of communication between the classroom and home. Every Monday, we send students home with a folder including skill words, sentences and decodable "little books.”

The folder allows parents or guardians to reinforce concepts during the week. The folder also includes a communication log, giving parents the opportunity to ask questions and celebrate their child’s accomplishments and growth. The folders have become our main source of communication between parents and teachers, helping to bridge the gap between school and home.

Parent workshops

Hands-on experience is an effective way to engage students, so we decided to take the same approach with parents. We developed a 90-minute presentation providing an overview of our intervention method. Our workshops have two goals: first, to provide parents with a better understanding of how our alphabetic system works, and second, to arm parents with strategies they can easily use at home to support their children with reading and spelling.

During parent workshops, parents actively participate in the same way their children do by marking and decoding words while practicing their phonetic skills using dry erase boards and markers. Parents have given us positive feedback about the workshop, expressing appreciation for this new style of learning. Approximately 30% of parents participated in the first round of trainings during the 2015-16 school year. After attending the workshop, parents said they had more confidence and a better understanding of how to help their children at home. They also felt more prepared to support their child’s academic progress after having a fun, engaging, and informative experience with us.

We are dedicated to empowering our parents The more we can do to support them, the more confident and able they are to improve their child’s chances of literacy success. We believe that our efforts to communicate through text messages, take home folders, and in-person workshops are effective steps for collaborating with parents. This summer, we hope to involve even more parents by adopting a new digital curriculum available on any electronic device.

Judith Culang and Linda Baker are veteran reading specialists at Joseph Ferderbar Elementary in the Neshaminy School District in Langhorne, Pa. They use Reading Horizons print and digital curriculum to create their blended-learning reading intervention program. They also use REMIND as a communication app to text with parents.

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