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Listening to Parents' Priorities

Bill Ivey

When my school added middle grades eight years ago, we adopted the principles of This We Believe, now published by the Association for Middle Level Education. One of these principles is, "The school actively involves families in the education of their children." As a private school, we are acutely aware of the importance of family involvement.

At a parent meeting early in the year, the school counselor talks about young adolescent development and I explain how our faculty bases decisions on this research about what kids need and why. Parents are appreciative, and in many cases relieved, to hear what we have to say.

Sometimes we also hold a meeting at which parents set priorities for their kids to help guide us in our work. Parents brainstorm about all the things they hope will happen for their children as faculty members write each item on a separate sheet of paper. We then hang the pieces of paper around the room. Each parent receives five stickers to place on the signs referencing their highest priorities—such as "happiness" or "continued love of learning." Chris Toy, a former principal we engaged as a consultant, initiated the activity, and I've found it really helps set the tone for our school year.

We involve families more actively in conferences by asking students to lead them. Several parents have told me that this was the first time they'd ever enjoyed a conference!

There's an ongoing stream of information from the school to home. We send out a regular newsletter, including news from classrooms, announcements of upcoming events, and links to "thought leadership" articles from my blog. Advisors are in frequent contact, and try to share good news as well as concerns.

We also ask for and act upon feedback. Parents helped design our new standards-based progress report form, and brainstormed initial ideas for a new "Life Skills" course. Based on a parent's suggestion, we now announce the daily menu—and nutritional hints—in homeroom.

Although we're a private school, my friends and colleagues in public schools have had similar experiences, mostly positive. Of course, any program to involve and empower parents is bound to carry some risks, and we have had some missteps. Through it all, though, we do make an effort to listen to parents' concerns and ideas—even if we end up disagreeing. Of all the things we do, listening is the most important.

Bill Ivey teaches 7th grade Humanities, French, and music at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, an all-girls private boarding school in Western Massachusetts.

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