Over the past five years, I’ve learned that parent engagement is more than just calling home. It is building deep, meaningful relationships with parents rooted in your mutual love for that student and commitment to their success.

When I started my first year of teaching in 2007 in Chicago, I thought I knew this. Calling parents before the first day of school? Check. Calling parents when a student gets an A? Check. Calling parents again when said student sneakily lodges a crayon down the nozzle of your Camelbak water bottle? (This was my first year of teaching, remember). Check.

Fast forward to 2011, when I began my fourth year of teaching at a public charter school in Washington, D.C. I visited the students’ homes to get to know their families. I held parent meetings to review test content. I invited parents into the classroom to observe the class.

My first year, I called parents to share a concern or celebrate a success. I was an engager of parents. That year, my students grew one grade-level in math. But by my fourth year, I had my parents engaged. Parents had the tools and resources to fully understand their students’ current performance and their end-of-year goals. As a result, my students grew more than two grade-levels in math.

I had first-hand evidence that true parent engagement was key to my students’ success.

I am not alone in this belief. Research has shown that students earn higher grades, adapt better to school, and are more likely to graduate and attend college when parent engagement is present and parent expectations are high (Barnard, 2004; Fan & Chen, 2001; Henderson & Mapp, 2002).

Parent engagement has received a lot of buzz lately. The ESEA Reauthorization in 2010 proposed Title 1 legislation that increased the budget for parent engagement from 1% to 2%, amounting to over 270 million dollars (US Department of Education, 2010). The Family Engagement and Responsibility Fund was also established in 2010 to provide resources for improving parent engagement (US Department of Education, 2010). At the state-level, Tennessee requires parent involvement in charter schools, stating schools must “afford parents substantial meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children” (Tenn. Code. Ann SS 49-13-102(a)(6)). Our own First Lady, Crissy Haslam, released a comprehensive report, “Parental Engagement in Tennessee: A report on the Impact of Meaningful Academic Partnerships” just a few weeks ago.

But there are challenges to parent engagement, particularly in low-income, urban communities. Low-income families often face challenges that affluent, middle-class families may not experience, such as long work hours, irregular shifts, and lack of quality aftercare (Newman & Chin, 2003). Parents and schools may also have different perceptions of what parent engagement means (Lawson, 2003; Barnyak & McNelly, 2009).

While we all agree that parent engagement is important to student success, how do we make sure everyone is on the same page about what parent engagement means, and how to foster it?

I believe the answer is right under our noses. I believe schools should approach parent engagement the same way great teachers approach student achievement.

Approach parent engagement strategically. Just like teachers have an end-of-year goal and long-term plan to drive student achievement, schools should have an end-of-year goal and long-term plan for parent engagement. What does parent engagement look like now? What do we want it to look like at the end of the year? How do we get there? These are questions schools should not only ask, but also commit to answering. In doing so, schools should create goals for parent engagement, such as creating attendance goals for every school event. Schools should think about how they can reach every parent, such as offering volunteer opportunities at various times and places.

Build relationships with parents. Just like teachers make the effort to learn the name of every student in the school, schools should make the effort to learn the name of every parent in the school. Schools should get to know parents and tailor volunteer opportunities to their strengths, skills, and passions. Schools should host multiple events before, during, and after school to promote face-to-face time between school leaders, teachers, and students. Schools should broaden the very definition of “parent” to include all major stakeholders in a child’s life.

Empower parents with knowledge. Just like teachers empower students with knowledge, schools should empower parents with knowledge. Schools should lead sessions on what, exactly, a high-quality school is and what it looks like. Schools should provide opportunities for parents to understand what students are learning and how they can best help them at home. Schools should provide supplemental educational services to parents, like GED preparation courses and parenting classes.

The bottom line is this: To ensure our students achieve at the highest levels, we must be more than engagers of parents. We must get our parents engaged. Schools must approach parent engagement strategically, build relationships, and empower parents with knowledge.


Barnard, W. M. (2004). Parent involvement in elementary school and educational attainment.Children and Youth Services Review, 26(1), 39-62.

Barnyak, N. & McNelly, T. (2009). An urban school district’s parental involvement: A study of teachers’ and administrators’ beliefs and practices. The School Community Journal, 19(1), 33-58.

Fan, X., & Chen, M. (2001). Parental involvement and students’ academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 13(1), 1-22.

Henderson, A., & Mapp, K. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL).

Lawson, M. (2003). School-family relations in context: Parent and teacher perceptions of parent involvement. Urban Education, 38(1), 77-133.

Newman, K. & Chin, M. (2003). High stakes: Time poverty, testing, and the children of the working poor. Qualitative Sociology, 26(1), 3-34.

U.S. Department of Education (2010). Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, ESEA Blueprint for Reform, Washington, D.C.