Transforming Family Engagement in High School

Even during a “normal” school year, engaging parents and caregivers of high school students can be challenging. As kids get older and more capable of organizing their own school and extracurricular lives, families often wonder what role they should play in their teen’s education.

Research demonstrates a clear drop off in participation: 92% of parents of K-2 students attended a parent-teacher conference, compared to only 58% of parents of high school students. Similarly, while more than half of parents of K-5 students volunteered at school, only 32% of parents of high school students did the same.

But… participation is only part of the story of what family engagement looks like during the high school years, when families’ roles shift to coach their teen and support them to be responsible young people who drive their own learning and success.   

So what actually works when it comes to engaging families of teenagers? How can we ensure that family engagement embodies the 4 I’s of transformative family engagement—inclusive, integrated, individualized and impactful—even amidst the challenges brought on by COVID-19? We spoke to two high school principals to find out.

Dr. Samuel Rontez-Williams, principal of Rayville High School (Louisiana) talked about making family engagement more inclusive and integrated

It’s important to make genuine efforts to check in on students and families and see how they’re coping right now.

Due to Rayville’s hybrid learning schedule, students don’t have classes on Fridays, which makes it a perfect opportunity for teachers to reach out to them and their families. Teachers at Rayville High focus on intentional relationship building by reaching out to families about when something positive happens in class, sending birthday messages, and doing small things that remind students and their families that they care about them as people. In addition to these check in calls, teachers also utilize these flexible Fridays to offer one on one tutoring and other supports.

By high school, students can play a role in encouraging family engagement.

Dr. Rontez-Williams relies on his students to help get their families excited about participating. The most successful events are ones where students are engaged, involved and showcased. For example, rather than offering a curriculum night, where teachers run through what students are learning, Rayville High School hosts an academic game night where teens enjoy competing and families can cheer them on. Academic game nights are a great example of family events that link to learning in school.

But what if you don’t even have reliable ways to reach parents? Immokalee High School (Florida) has more than 1,900 students, and the community is comprised of 41% migrant populations. With families moving around so much, principal Ms. Clara Calderon has developed strategies to make sure they’re doing their best to reach everyone. She emphasized that it is essential to focus on strategies that are individualized and impactful.

Offer personalized assistance. 

Immokalee High School is fortunate to have a 1:1 device program which ensures each family has a device and internet that they can use to communicate with the school. However, even if a family has a device and internet access, Ms. Calderon noted that it is not unusual for families to need help establishing an email address. A great deal of information comes out via email, so she makes it a priority to get families connected. If a family doesn’t have an email account on file, non-instructional staff will offer personalized support that is tailored to the needs of the family, instead of sending out impersonal instructions in the mail or hosting a webinar.

Establish a regular touchpoint and track who is engaging (and who isn’t).

As a way of staying connected with the community, every week Ms. Calderon sends out an e-newsletter in English, Spanish and Creole. But she doesn’t just hit the send button and hope for the best.Instead, she measures her success by running reports and identifying families who are not receiving emails. Her routine data collection informs her which families are getting the information they need and which families she needs to find other ways to connect with.

Ultimately, at the high school level, parents, teachers, administrators and students need to work together. Ms. Calderon summed it up nicely, saying “The more we see ourselves as part of the same team, the better off the child will be.”

As families and schools continue to work together, PTA is here to support. Get more tips on family engagement at the high school level in our new podcast episode, Surviving Quarantine with Your Teen.

Enhancing Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Your PTA

How do you improve your PTA’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in a meaningful way? Roger Minott Sherman Elementary PTA, in Fairfield, Conn., has a few valuable tips—they received a 2019 Jan Harp Domene Award for implementing several strategies to help their community embrace and value diverse perspectives. Discover a few of their keys to success below to get started in your community!

Make It Easier for Families to Be Involved

PTAs can diversify their membership by removing some of the barriers that prevent families from engaging. All families care about their child’s education, but some have more time and more resources to attend events and meetings. Instead of asking families to shift their schedules or miss work to attend, find ways to bring the information to them.

Sherman Elementary PTA found success by…

  • Shifting PTA meetings from midday to nighttime
  • Livestreaming PTA meetings for parents and caregivers who weren’t able attend in person
  • Providing more updates for families on the school website and via email blasts
  • Offering scholarships for PTA memberships and for admission to events and programs


Go Beyond One-Time Events About Diversity

Issues of diversity, equity and inclusion should be topics for ongoing discussion. While PTAs can begin to improve their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts with a specific event or series of events, like a multicultural night or a social justice book club, the ultimate goal should be to naturally embed these conversations and initiatives into everyday life.

Sherman Elementary PTA did just that. They began their diversity, equity and inclusion work by implementing a “Diversity Day.” The following year they expanded to hosting a “Diversity Week” and moving forward, they plan to have diversity programming throughout the year. Through this programming they will…

  • Ensure all children and their families are represented in the curriculum. Sherman Elementary PTA’s Diversity Week embedded activities related to different cultures, traditions and ethnicities throughout the curriculum, including in-class conversations, story time, art projects and more. As Sherman Elementary PTA works to expand their efforts beyond Diversity Week, they are collaborating with the librarian to ensure that children have access to diverse books all year round. They are also working to build a library display to include materials relevant to the variety of themes covered during diversity week including ability, gender, culture and more.
  • Create opportunities for cross-cultural exchange. Since their school’s student population is 86% white, it was essential to look beyond their school walls to help facilitate relationships between different races and cultures. Sherman Elementary PTA plans to establish a pen pal program with a neighboring school district to promote understanding between cultures.
  • Elevate diverse voices and stories to help the community understand new perspectives. At Sherman Elementary PTA meetings, volunteers presented on topics that were relevant to them—speaking to their own experiences around family diversity, differences in ability, and more. Moving forward, the PTA is eager to invite guests to speak at school-wide or grade-level assemblies to speak further on these and other issues.

Has your school, district or state PTA taken steps towards creating a more diverse, inclusive and equitable community? National PTA is now accepting applications for the 2020 Jan Harp Domene Diversity & Inclusion Award. Learn more and apply now!


Authored by Rebecca Bauer, National PTA Staff

What Parents Really Want: Strategies for Family-School Communication

Communication between teachers and families varies in frequency and method, from emails, texts and apps to old-fashioned notes. It can be hard to keep track of everything! Even when effective systems of communication are in place, sometimes they only include feedback about children’s academic performance and neglect to address students’ life skills. We set out to find out how families are collaborating with teachers to help children thrive socially, emotionally and academically.

Getting an inside look

Earlier this year we launched the Transformative Family Engagement & Whole Child Learning grant* and partnered with Austin Council of PTAs, Lake Washington PTSA Council and Pinellas County Council PTA to discover what family engagement strategies are working in schools today and where can we improve.

Throughout the summer, National PTA partnered with these PTAs to facilitate eight focus groups (six in English and two in Spanish) with a total of 116 participants that represented diverse socioeconomic, racial and cultural backgrounds.

Our listening sessions intentionally included an oversampling of families of color to elevate the voices of families who have not always been included in these conversations. See the chart for a complete racial demographic breakdown.

The results from these community conversations revealed a variety of findings, including three major takeaways.

1. Families want a greater focus on the whole child.

We asked participants, “What kind of adult do you want your child to be?” and families consistently responded with traits like responsibility, respect, motivation, leadership, financial literacy and social skills. The findings made it clear that parents understand there’s more to education than grades and test scores. They care about their children becoming healthy, happy adults and good citizens, and they believe schools can do a better job at helping to accomplish this.

Parents would like schools to focus more on whole child development by:

  • Emphasizing the development of research and study skills
  • Focusing on emotional intelligence, social skills and bullying prevention
  • Offering more opportunities to engage in extracurricular activities and additional recess time
  • Focusing less on standardized testing and more on curriculum and lessons that are relevant to the real world

According to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a whole-child approach to education includes a focus on children’s social-emotional, identity, academic and cognitive development, as well as their mental and physical health. Learn more about this approach in, “What is Whole Child Education?

2. Families want more intentional relationship-building.

Families believe that student-teacher relationships are important to their engagement in whole-child learning. They appreciate regular, proactive, positive and timely outreach that is specific to their child.

Beginning the relationship with a positive note or phone call home was a very effective way to build a trusting relationship. They also cited the frequency and timeliness of teachers’ communication as very important.

Families want a variety of ways to communicate with their child’s teacher. Our conversations revealed there is no “best” way for teachers to communicate with families, what really matters is establishing a personal connection. One participant praised her child’s teacher, “If my son did something good, something amazing, she emailed us immediately [to share] … so, she was very responsive, and we were very appreciative of that.”

As participants thought about teachers they have struggled to collaborate with, they cited opposite characteristics. Parents and caregivers grew frustrated when teachers only provided generic language like “everything is fine” or when they reported issues long after an event occurred. One parent shared, “After our child has gotten a D or an F [in your class] is not the time to tell us [there is an issue] …Tell us after the first test so we can be a partner with you and help you.”

3. Families want systems change to improve family engagement in whole-child learning.

Throughout the discussions, participants acknowledged how hard teachers work, how much they have on their plates, and how they cannot create these changes in family engagement and whole child learning alone. Parents and caregivers agreed that, in order to get the resources and individualized attention they want for their children, bigger system level changes need to take place.

Their ideas for enhancing the education system overall included:

  • Increasing teacher pay
  • Enhancing teacher training, particularly around cultural competence
  • Having more teachers / smaller class sizes

The PTAs in Austin, Lake Washington and Pinellas County are taking these findings their local leaders to develop action steps to strengthen family engagement in their communities. To stay up to date with their work and other news from the Center for Family Engagement, subscribe here.

*The Transformative Family Engagement & Whole Child Learning grant was made possible by the support of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Rebecca Bauer is the family engagement specialist with the Center for Family Engagement at National PTA.

Why Should You Listen to the New PTA Podcast?

From PTA flyers and permission slips to handwritten updates from your child’s teacher, every day your child comes home with notes in their backpack. How do you keep track of everything that’s going on? With limited time, it can be difficult to figure out where to invest your energy, when it comes to engaging your child’s school. That’s why we launched Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast!

Each 30-minute episode offers frank advice and ideas from researchers, parents, educators and other experts. Guiding these conversations are our hosts, LaWanda Toney, Director of Communications, and Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement, who are both mothers navigating their own parenting journeys.

The podcast answers those questions you have always been wondering but weren’t sure who to ask, like:

What questions should you be asking to make the most of your child’s Parent-Teacher Conference? We turned to Luz Santana, Executive Director of the Right Questions Institute to provide her expert opinion.

What should school discipline look like at your child’s school and what does restorative justice even mean? Former Secretary of Education John King sheds light on why so many students get suspended and where we go from here.

Is it possible to avoid wanting to tear your hair out when trying to help your child complete their homework every night? Researcher Steve Sheldon offers evidence-based tips for making the most of homework time, without the stress.

How can you possibly help your child navigate the world of hormones, crushes and frenemies now that they’ve entered middle school? We chatted with school counselor Phyllis Fagell, who will provide concrete strategies for making the most of your child’s adolescent years.

Notes from the Backpack covers all of these topics and more, providing you with the practical information you need to make the most of your child’s school experience.

So how can you learn more about this new resource and start listening? Visit PTA.org/BackpackNotes for a full list of the episodes we have released so far, and more information about the podcast. You can also listen or download on all major podcast platforms including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Leave us a review to let us know how we’re doing!

We want you hear from you on social media! Engage with other parents in conversations around the topics we discuss on the podcast and share your own thoughts, advice and parenting anecdotes on social media using #BackpackNotes.