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Volume 28, Number 5
September/October 2012

Six Ways Schools Can Build Relationships with Families


As educators gear up for the beginning of another school year, the time is ripe to develop new relationships. Teachers, of course, understand the importance of building relationships with their students in the classroom to enhance learning, but it is also important to build relationships with parents and families. Often parents are disconnected from schools for a variety of reasons, so administrators and teachers can and should make efforts to create a welcoming community. Here are a few practices and programs to consider as the school year begins.

1. Language Learning Resource Programs for all Parents and Families
For many reasons, it can be helpful for families to acquire another language that can assist them in supporting their children with their schoolwork. Parents and families whose first language is not English should be encouraged to maintain their first language and to acquire—that is, add—a second language (English) if this is the prevailing language of instruction in a school. But why not also offer ways for English-speaking parents to learn another language as well? Providing opportunities for parents and families to learn English, Spanish, Arabic, French, Chinese, and other languages, particularly those represented in a school community, can help those in the community build relationships and engage in language acquisition at the same time.

2. Parenting Workshops
Parents may not be aware of how to support their children in a school culture. Sometimes they do not understand all that is expected of them in helping their children achieve social and academic success. Some parents, for instance, see their role primarily as an economic, not an educational, resource, and they need to be encouraged to become an educational resource as well.

Parents can truly benefit from workshops that empower them to be active participants in their children’s education. Just as teachers or entire schools might provide a list of expectations to students at the beginning of the academic year, and then remind them repeatedly throughout the year, it is a good idea to also make expectations and needs from parents explicit. It is important that parents have a voice in designing parenting workshops. They should not be told how to parent; these workshops should focus instead on teaching strategies parents can use to assist their children in building their cognitive, social, and emotional capacity, and they should also provide information on what schools need from parents in order for students to succeed.

3. Schoolwide Book Reading
One great way to build community is to adopt a schoolwide yearly reading selection that showcases some aspect of the school’s mission or theme for the year. Students, teachers, parents, and staff can all participate, and teachers can incorporate the reading selection into the curriculum. Schools that have a theme for the year can choose a book that expands on the theme. The book can be used as a springboard to discuss different points of view on a particular topic. Parents can even be invited to the school to participate in roundtable discussions about the book. Some books that focus on serious issues in society with real implications for life in schools that might be used to for schoolwide discussions include Where We Stand: Class Matters by Bell Hooks, A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League by Ron Suskind, and Race Matters by Cornel West.
4. Diversity-Related Theme for the Semester or Year
Similarly, imagine the conversations and collaborations that would arise if every school selected a theme that the entire community explored over the course of the school year. Possible themes include opportunity, diversity, integrity, community service, poverty, resilience, tenacity, and injustice. Teachers could incorporate the theme into the curriculum, and the entire community could spend the year building common knowledge related to the theme. Students could even participate in selecting the theme, with the student body voting on, say, the top three choices.

Parents, of course, should be involved and informed about the theme, and community members (such as professional athletes, community organizers, business executives, or entrepreneurs) might be invited into the school to talk about their experiences related to a particular theme.

I know a principal in Tennessee who selects a theme that is used throughout the school and the curriculum during each academic year. Themes range from courage to honesty, and those in the community are invited to explore the year’s theme. A book is selected for summer reading that addresses the theme, and in some instances the author is invited to the school community at the beginning of the year to set the stage for how the theme might be explored and incorporated into the fabric of the school’s curriculum, practices, and experiences.

5. Schoolwide Movies

Here is a fun and easy way for an entire community to come together to address issues of importance to a school or district. Schools can sponsor periodic movie nights for parents, teachers, students, and community members. If selected carefully, the films can provide curriculum connections that help empower students to grapple with complex matters, which can then assist them in building knowledge, skills, and mind-sets transferable to other areas of their work and lives.

The choice of the right movie is critical to building community. For instance, there are many teacher-centered movies that portray white teachers as “saviors” of students of color, students in poverty, or students whose first language is not English. As such, I encourage movie selections that are balanced in perspective and that paint marginalized people in a light of success, not just in roles of servitude or need. Here are a few examples of movies that could spark constructive discussions: Boys in the Hood, Crash, The Blindside, Remember the Titans, Something New, Finding Forester, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, and Good Will Hunting.

6. A Community-Centered Dinner
There’s nothing like food to bring people together. Schools can host periodic dinners that bring parents, other family members and community members together with teachers, staff, administrators, and students. It’s important to include extended family, because older siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles may serve as surrogate parents and support systems to students. Each school can have its own unique approach to the dinner. In Tennessee, one school actually has a formal dinner annually, while another holds an annual fish fry. Both events draw standing-room-only crowds. Food, perhaps, is the draw, but the goal is for parents and educators to talk to each other in a relaxed environment. The mere act of breaking bread together can tear down barriers and lead to productive discussions about supporting students in school.

Indeed, building relationships and partnerships with family and community is an important aspect of helping students learn and develop. I have discovered in my own work that these partnerships and relationships are developed and sustained on purpose, not by accident. The practices and suggestions above may prove helpful to schools serious about bridging gaps between families/communities and school.

HEL SubscribeH. Richard Milner IV is an associate professor of education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There (Harvard Education Press, 2010).