By Sam Macer, Special to CNN
Editor’s Note: Sam Macer is a PTA dad and foster parent. As the immediate past president of the Maryland PTA and the current president of the Maryland Foster Parent Association, he uses his 30 years of PTA experience to support Maryland’s foster parents as they strive to provide the youth in their care with safety, permanency, wellbeing and educational support. He was recently honored at the White House as a PTA “Champion of Change.”
(CNN) – As a PTA parent, grandparent, uncle and foster parent to over 40 children I have gained valuable experience in the area of parent engagement. I have had children who absolutely hated school and children who loved the challenge of being the best they could be. As a PTA leader, I have the opportunity to share some of my thoughts, experiences and perspectives with all parents concerning their efforts to raise and sustain academic achievement and build a strong home/school connection.
There are four basic suggestions I share with parents: Make the commitment, make a plan, determine expectations and coordinate effective parent–teacher conferences.
One of the first things I share with parents is the need to make the personal commitment to be involved and engaged the entire school year. I have never had an "easy" school year. Many times I have had to remind myself why I am engaged and why I need to stay engaged. There are many challenges to being an effective support for the children and their teachers and every once in a while I have to remind myself of my commitment. Commitment keeps you in the game. Once a parent loses commitment, things sometimes go by the wayside, the child can begin to drift through the school year and the teachers feel less supported.
Please don’t be that parent who comes to school in March to sign your child out early and when the secretary asks you for the teacher’s name, you don’t know it. Don't give the school a reason to ask, "Where have you been all year?"
Next, I always suggest that parents and caregivers lead the effort to make a basic "flexible plan" for the school year. Customize the plan according to your family’s lifestyle and the child’s educational needs. The plan needs to have goals and expectations created by the child and the family. From kindergarten to the 12th grade, everyone should know what is expected during the school year in the areas of grades, attendance, homework, behavior at school, watching TV and playing after school and other items that are relevant to the household and the processes during the week. After consultation with the teacher, part of the plan should include how the parent and teacher will communicate.
I made the mistake of not having a very basic plan during my early years of parent engagement and the children simply did not understand the expectations for their school year. As a result, we sometimes stumbled our way through.
I share with parents my personal view concerning academic expectations. The prevailing thought is that expectations should be set high. For me, this is a relative concept. Every child is different. I meet the child at his or her current educational level and make plans to raise that current level to proficiency in math and reading; we can usually build from that point.
It is not realistic to expect that the struggling child will consistently bring home A's and B's. These are expectations that could set the child up for failure. Expectations for a struggling child may be to have at least a C grade average while the parent and the teacher provide additional resources and a plan to raise the child’s level of academic performance. Expectations can be adjusted enough to challenge the student to reach the next level but not so high as to act as an unrealistic burden for a developing student.
Parent-teacher conferences can be an effective tool to support academic achievement. There are some basic considerations for having a productive conference:
• Request a parent-teacher conference each quarter. Do not wait for the general conferences coordinated by the school. The teachers usually have a very limited time to speak with each family during the general parent-teacher conference night.
• From kindergarten to the 12th grade, include the student in the conference. Parent-teacher conferences are an excellent opportunity to build and maintain the home-school connection and to introduce a young student to the idea that the teacher will be working closely with the family.
• Make certain to engage the student in the conference dialogue. For middle school and high school students who have not attended a conference it may take a special effort to get them to attend. The older students need to be there to be a part of the planning process to address any educational weaknesses and strengths. No matter what the age of the students, they feel empowered, included and accountable.
• To be better prepared, create a list of pre-conference questions and submit them to the teacher three to four days prior to the meeting. This will allow the teacher time to prepare and offer comprehensive comments to address issues and concerns.
• Parents should have knowledge of the learning expectations for the year. Make the at-home support efforts align with the learning in the classroom.
• Identify areas in need of improvement.
• Create a short-term improvement plan before the conference is over; set goals and determine follow-up efforts.
The above “universal concepts,” when applied, have helped some of the most challenging children stay in school and eventually come up to grade level. It has also helped average students feel supported and connected at home and at school. These are just some of the numerous parent engagement tools, concepts and best practices we can use as members of the educational team.
Educators encourage parents, caregivers and families to be partners in the educational process and the above suggestions helps support that partnership. I encourage you to share your best practices by offering your comments below. It is great to have high-level policies and laws in place to support parent engagement, but it is the parent, caregiver, and family who provide the grass-roots assistance needed to raise and sustain academic achievement.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sam Macer.