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The Evolution of Parent-School Engagement

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During the '90s Hilary Clinton popularized the African proverb "it takes a village to raise a child." Today, that phrase has increasing relevance for schools committed to improving learning outcomes for children. How schools improve the way they engage parents in their children's learning and more broadly, in the life of the school community must be a key indicator to student and school success. We need to look beyond the roles of parents on school boards and fundraising committees and consider how we engage them more fully in the school and teaching experience.

Parental engagement has emerged as the new benchmark to forecast children's educational outcomes. Dr Joyce Epstein's research from Johns Hopkins University concludes that "(f)amily participation in education is twice as predictive of student's academic success as family socioeconomic status."

There is growing interest and evidence in this area across all western developed nations. The CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Professor Geoff Masters echoed the sentiment of researchers in both the U.S. and U.K. when he outlined the common features of schools achieving outstanding student outcomes. These features included the recognition of the importance of all stakeholders and the belief amongst all members of the community of their ability to contribute and high levels of parent and community involvement.

Whilst this notion of genuine parent engagement may appear simple and hardly revolutionary, it requires a major shift in the traditional perception of western schooling.

In our world, children are generally at school for 15-20 percent of their time. And despite this we have a strong cultural concept that a child's education begins with the 9:00 a.m. school bell and concludes at 3:00 p.m. each day. Many western schools have an intrinsic culture of isolation. Parents drop children off in the morning, pick them up in the afternoon and maybe attend a formal meeting with the teacher once or twice a year along with a school concert. When compared to early childhood environments, there is very little interaction between schools, parents and the local community.

Teachers and school management, despite best efforts, find that the systems that govern our school environments have become increasingly territorial, insular and reactive. This makes it difficult to explore innovative and essential new projects or programs to engage parents in school life, and in the learning and development of the student body.

It has resulted in an education system that is private and secret. Where parents would not even consider the value and importance of sitting in on a class or two, let alone providing some of their own experience and expertise. Where teachers are bogged down with curriculum and their priorities lay solely with churning through the required content for the year.

Yet, imagine what a school environment could be like if parents spent time in the classroom, engaged with students in areas of their own expertise and provided a learning alternative where they, as part of the village provided for each and every child's learning and development. A model of engagement that is built on communication and transparency and extends beyond the rhetoric contained in vision and mission statements.

Like many other aspects of education today, technology offers a place to begin this process.

An Australian team have developed a tool that facilitates school-parent communication well beyond the school newsletter and asks both schools and parents to rethink how they might share information about students, but beyond that, how the village can work together to raise that child.

The MySchoolsApp developed personalized smartphone applications for schools that act as modern and convenient link between the home and school learning environment. The apps empower parents to take a more active and informed role in their child's education and the broader school community.

What is important, is that the team is being driven not by the desire to solve a communication problem, but to provide an initial step in the issue of parents involvement and engagement in their children's education and the life of the school.

MySchoolsApp allows parents to keep up to date with news, newsletters, a detailed calendar of events, administration and class blogs. It also lays down a new way for schools to be transparent and responsive in engaging with parents and the broader school community. This could be seen as a way to keep parents up to date with what is happening, but the MySchoolsApp actually asks that it be a point to begin -- not end. With the increasing access to smartphones, iPads and tablets, the app has the ability reach over 90 percent of households.

Many participating schools have noted an increased parental engagement at a classroom, leadership and social capital level. The app represents a shift in the perception of responsibility of education from solely on the shoulders of schools, to a joint partnership. And, is driven by the words of highly regarded Australian educational researcher, Dr Don Edgar: "(t)he purpose of a school is to help a family educate a child."

This post was co-authored with Pat Naughtin a teacher, education and community development researcher and founder of MySchoolsApp.