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Educator: Cultivate Parent Leaders

Cultivating Parent Leaders in Your School Community


What kind of relationship do you have with the parents in your school community? Service provider/Customer? Supplier/Buyer? Adversaries?

I recently attended a webinar by the National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement on the link between parent leadership and student achievement and equity.

One of the presenters from United Parent Leaders Action Network (UPLAN) said that, when parents are involved as leaders in a school community, their relationship to schools change. “It is no longer transactional, it’s transformative.”

Think about that for a moment. What if your school could break out of the “transactional” model and become a true partnership? How would having effective parent leaders transform your school community? Transform the parents?

Every school has problems. They have problems that educators can see clearly and they have problems that parents can see clearly.  What schools need are solutions. And cutting parents out of the honest and upfront problem/solution conversations in your school will cut your chances of solving the problems in half. That’s just simple math, people!

What’s in it for schools?

Parent engagement can be tricky to define. Is it just supporting learning at home? Or is it sharing some of the decisions at the school? Is it advocating for public education on the national stage? The answer is, of course, it’s “both/and” not “either/or.”

Strong parent engagement programs help parents navigate multiple roles--supporter, advocate, decision-maker, monitor, collaborator. The line between outcomes and this type of robust parent engagement is at first, a dotted line. But over time research has confirmed what you know in your gut--parent engagement can transform school communities. Here are just a few ways:

A more positive school climate  

Better academic outcomes for students

Higher teacher retention

Increased funding

A more stable school community (As UPLAN pointed out, parents aren’t going anywhere. Build your foundation on them)

A healthier democracy! (This is not an over-promise. Check this out!)

How do we move beyond an one-dimensional parent engagement model and cultivate parent leaders?

1. Build genuine relationships. 

Parents need to know they can trust you and trust comes from personal relationships. In the beginning it may be “one family at a time work” but don't give up. There are many things you can do to build relationships. Why not start with one of these? 

Home visits. You can read more about home visits here but visiting families in their space, in their community, is one of the best ways to build relational trust.

Start a Parent Ambassador program. You probably already have parents who are comfortable in leadership roles. Ask them to accompany educators on home visits or host school meet-ups in their homes, churches or community centers. Set up a “text-buddy” for every parent in the school community. Giving parents the space and tools to create a strong support network among themselves will make them better at advocating for all students.

Host principal chats. Research shows that an administrator's attitude toward parents makes a big difference in relational trust. Don't expect teachers to be the only ones building relationships with families. (Wanna get started? I have Everything You Need To Host a Principal Chat in the Toolbox)

2. Help all parents find their voice. 

This is very closely tied with building relationships and forms a tight feedback loop. Families need to feel safe and valued in a genuine relationship before they will start to speak. Listening to them will make parents feel safe and valued. One clever way to start this loop is with the “Tellin’ Stories” project from It starts with inviting parents to tell the story of their family. They gather the stories into a community quilt which they can display in the school. Then the parents host a community walk where they help teachers and staff get to know the strengths in the neighborhood surrounding the school.

In this way you are letting parents share the things THEY know, the assets THEY bring to the table. Listen first.

And remember, this is helping ALL parents find their voice. If you are only listening to parents who come forward first, you are missing out on the voices you really need to hear. The best way to hear those voices is to help parents form strong networks. Reluctant parents usually come to a school event because a friend brought them, not just because they were invited.

3. Fill in the gaps of information.

Parents are not educators so in order to work effectively in the school space, they need some training. For example, in the Boulder Valley School District family partnership plan, they include a section on helping parents support their child’s academic success. (Read here about how and why to teach parents to read with their kids). And that’s not all. Parents need training on their rights and how to navigate the school system.

Guess what? Educators have gaps of information, too! For example, in Seattle, One America started a “Speak Your Language” Campaign to help parents feel more confident in speaking their home language with their children. What they didn’t know, is that it was important for parents that their children be recognized for their bilingualism. Parents advocated for a special seal to be added to the diploma of children who were literate in two languages--a recognition of the students’ skills and the parents’ hard work. The educators who started that initiated had no idea the parents wanted this kind of recognition.

However, be very careful here. Many schools try to start with this step. But skipping building relationships and cultivating parent voice virtually guarantees that this step will fall flat. Remember the adage, “Someone needs to know that you care before they care what you know.”

Also, If you approach this with a “you-people-need-to-get-up-to-speed” mentality, you are doing it incorrectly. Don’t set the agenda for parents. Let them tell you what they need and want. And actively solicit their ideas and expertise to help you fill in your information gaps.

4. Share the responsibility of solving problems.

Schools have problems. They have problems that educators can see clearly and they have problems that parents can see clearly.  What schools need are solutions. And cutting parents out of the honest and upfront problem/solution conversations will cut your chances of solving the problems in half. That’s just simple math, people!

Cultivating parent leaders will transform your school communities and more importantly, transform the parents to serve multiple roles as they become true partners in the education process.

Start here: Implement a specific strategy that is designed on cultivating relational trust at your school site. How about Principal Chats?

Challenge yourself: Need some more food for thought? Read these lesson learned about parent leadership from the Connecticut Commission on Children and the National Parent Leadership Institute. Think about what you know about parent leadership and how you can leverage that knowledge.

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