Effective Practices : Working with Parents

Parent Associations
Working with Parents Section 1

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1. Does your school have a Parent Association? If yes, describe its primary areas of focus or responsibility.
2. Who is a member of the Parent Association, and how do they join?
3. Does your Parent Association have a written charter/mandate/constitution that describes its role, including descriptions of its authority and responsibility? If yes, describe how this statement was developed and attach a copy of this document.
4. What are the areas where the Parent Association has decision making authority in the school? Where is authority shared with other decision making bodies/individuals?
5. Describe the leadership and operational structure of the Parent Association.
6. Describe the key elements of your school’s philosophy in relation to its Parent Association.
7. What about your school’s Parent Association is particularly effective?
8. If there were something that you could change in relation to your school’s Parent Association what would it be and why?

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Does your school have a Parent Association? If yes, describe its primary areas of focus or responsibility.
Every school that participated in this study has an active organization for parent participation in the life of the school. This organization is known either as the Parent Association or as the Parent Council. Typically the primary areas of focus for the Parent Association are support of school wide activities, parent advocacy, community building through special events, some aspects of adult education, and support for the communication between parents and teachers through the class rep network. Additional responsibilities may include the creation of festivals for the school community, all-school fundraisers, volunteer coordination for all-school events, and communication relative to whole school activities.

The Parent Association is an important informational network that is vital to the healthy life of the school. Reports come in at monthly meetings from the Board, College, administration, and other areas of the school. The information goes out to the classes via the class representatives. The perspectives of parents are brought in directly by parents or through the class reps. The Parent Association is the place where concerns around certain issues such as the timing of vacations or other school activities, parking protocol, and the like can be sounded and shared with the various decision making bodies of the school. (Several schools noted the importance of being clear that issues regarding pedagogical competency and curriculum, playground supervision, and so on are best brought elsewhere, and if brought to the Parent Association will be redirected to the appropriate organ of the school.)

The Parent Association is a way for parents to get engaged in the life of the school, giving them an opportunity to advance the social atmosphere and culture of the school. The Parent Association typically sponsors two or three all school meetings each year that foster information sharing and dialog between the parents and school leadership. In the fall this meeting might be a state of the school meeting, while later in the year a meeting might focus on the results of an annual parent survey. Late in the spring the final meeting might share information on the school’s progress on its strategic plan.

In the area of fundraising schools have found it important to identify which events are ones in which the Parent Association has discretion over how funds raised are allocated, and which events are planned into the school’s operating budget. Often times the funds raised at Parent Association organized events are not planned in the school budget, and then are used at the discretion of the Parent Association to support unexpected needs that arise during the course of the school year. One school noted that in support of its focus on adult education a portion of its fundraising proceeds was used to provide all parents with a copy of the magazine Renewal.

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Who is a member of the Parent Association, and how do they join?
In each school studied every parent is a member of the Parent Association automatically by virtue of their child’s enrollment in the school. Most schools indicated that while all meetings are open to any parent who chooses to attend, there is an expectation that the class representative(s) for each class will attend all meetings.

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Does your Parent Association have a written charter/mandate/constitution that describes its role, including descriptions of its authority and responsibility? If yes, describe how this statement was developed and attach a copy of this document.
Each of the schools studied has a written document which describes the authority and responsibility of the Parent Association. Typically these documents were developed as a result of a need to reorganize and refocus the work of the Parent Association, and to clarify the important ways in which parents can and should participate in the life of the school. (See: Parent Association Statement of Purpose and Sample Parent Association Mandate)

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What are the areas where the Parent Association has decision making authority in the school? Where is authority shared with other decision making bodies/individuals?
The Parent Association typically has a budget that it applies to its work. This budget can either be one that is funded through an allocation from the school budget and/or one that is the result of fundraising activity done by the Parent Association. The Parent Association typically makes decisions about the way certain all school events are managed, especially one or two seasonal fairs. In schools where the Parent Association is responsible for parent education the Parent Association makes decisions about outside speakers. Typically the Parent Association makes decisions about how the dollars raised through its fundraising activities will be given back to the school. However, there is an expectation that any new ideas for fundraising activities will be approved by the other leadership bodies of the school before being implemented.

The Parent Association does not make policy decisions for the school. However it frequently participates in policy making through its representatives on the school’s Board of Trustees. In most cases schools reserve a space (or two) on the Board of Trustees for a representative of the PA. This space is typically filled by the Parent Association chair, but is sometimes an individual named by the PA to assume this responsibility. Several schools also ask a representative of the Parent Association to participate in their regular management committee Meetings. The management committee is sometimes known as the ABC committee for its representation by Board, administration and College members.

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Describe the leadership and operational structure of the Parent Association.
Parent Associations typically take on one of two organizational forms, one fairly simple and the other more complex. In the more common straightforward structure the Parent Association has a chair or two co-chairs. The chair is typically selected by the Parent Association itself at a meeting in the spring. Surrounding the chair is a circle of class reps, typically one or two for each class at the school. In some cases the chair is joined by a small group of officers, a vice-president who is often the chair apparent, a treasurer, and a secretary.

One school described a far more elaborate Parent Association structure, one that reflects the very active role that parents fill in the school’s community life:

The Parent Association is led by a steering committee that includes several key individuals:

  • A governance chair who represents the parents’ interests to the BOT and attends the biweekly administrative committee meeting.
  • An early childhood representative who engages with the early childhood teachers and focuses on the needs and issues of interest for the parents of children in those grades.
  • A festival and events liaison who works with the development and festival committees of the school.
  • A communications chair who is responsible for forwarding informational emails to the class reps, who in turn forward this information to their class’ parents. The communications chair also facilitates the inclusion of information from the Parent Association in the school’s weekly newsletter.
  • A Parent Education representative who facilitates adult education through study groups. These book groups allow parents to get more deeply involved in the spirit and philosophy of Waldorf education and anthroposophy.
  • A Community Partnerships coordinator who represents a group that looks at ways in which the school can facilitate outreach into the local neighborhood. This outreach can take the form of service learning opportunities for students, as well as any kind of giving that parents might get involved in such as disaster relief. The Community Partnerships coordinator is a member of a larger group of individuals who do this kind of work in other private schools.
  • The steering committee has also recruited some at-large members. These members are typically in the early grades and have expressed a strong commitment to the school and Waldorf education. These at large members attend the steering committee meetings and frequently step into larger roles at the school as a result of their inclusion at these meetings.

Whether the leadership circle in the Parent Association is large or small, this core group meets regularly to plan the agenda for upcoming meetings of the Parent Association and to ensure that the various tasks and responsibilities undertaken by the PA are proceeding properly.

One school described a process for selecting its co-chairs and other leaders that avoids reliance on volunteerism. This approach has been successful in ensuring that high quality individuals who enjoy the trust and support of the group are identified and named: “At the point that new leaders need to be chosen each person who regularly attends the Parent Association meetings submits the names of two people that they would like to encourage and would support if named as a co-chair. The names of the people most often nominated are asked if they are willing to serve. Some individuals may decline before two candidates are found who are willing to take up this work, but this process usually allows the new leaders to be selected before the end of the school year.” One of the benefits of this approach is that leaders who might not have thought to volunteer are identified and are frequently quite successful in this new level of responsibility. It can also serve to protect the school from volunteers who seek office in order to have additional influence to advance a personal agenda.

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Describe the key elements of your school’s philosophy in relation to its Parent Association. (Editor’s Note: The following comments are quotes from schools about their individual school’s philosophy.)
The parent body is seen in Waldorf schools as an important third leg to the stool that leads the school, and the Parent Association is the place where the parents as a group are embodied. Waldorf schools are created and sustained by partnerships between teachers and parents at the school. The Parent Association is the organ of parent leadership and parent participation in the school. It is the intention of the Board, College and the administration to support the Parent Association so it can be an effective communication, organizational, and relational body of the parents.

The Parent Association is a warmth body around the school, and it is essential for the school’s incarnation. The Parent Association is a great place to identify and cultivate future school leadership roles for parents who want to be active beyond the realm of teacher and classroom support.

It is important that the Parent Association meetings provide opportunities for a healthy balance of thinking, feeling and willing. Some parents attend with a greater interest in being informed, some primarily want to meet socially with other parents beyond their classroom, and others attend because they want to engage in the volunteer work life of the school. In addition, the Parent Association is a great sounding board for parent perspectives and, when meetings are well planned and facilitated, a proper place for concerns to be aired.

It is our experience that the school’s village culture presents parents and families with ongoing opportunities to become engaged and enriched through meaningful participation that enriches the life of the school. Parent participation is an opportunity to strengthen personal relationships throughout the school in a way that strengthens our school community. We believe that the stronger and more balanced the quality of participation, the richer the school’s community life becomes. This approach stands in contrast to a common focus found in schools which emphasizes increasing the number of volunteer hours. We believe that if the volunteer experience is enriching, rewarding, then the number of hours served will not only support the life of the school, but increase the sense of belonging which builds commitment to the school. The school never requires a certain number of volunteer hours from parents.

The parent voice in a school needs an organizational structure that is complementary to the Board and College/faculty leadership. This transforms the parent voice from being one where a strong parent or two can dictate the conversation at a school into one in which the parents can speak collectively and interact effectively with the other leadership bodies of the school.

The Parent Council meeting presents a unique opportunity to get a sounding of parent sentiment and thinking on a particular topic. The Board and the faculty leadership often take advantage of this assembly to sound various themes and to check on parent perceptions. One school has used written feedback surveys since 1993 to get feedback from parents, and described its process this way:

Feedback comes from a broad range of parents, and is an important way of getting context on strategic issues that the school leadership needs to evaluate. A broadly based survey is a significant way to equalize feedback that may be coming from the vocal few. There are currently two yearly feedback forms that are administered in January - one which allows parents to write out comments and is signed by the respondent, and a second that is an anonymous “check the box” form focused on surveying parent satisfaction with various areas of the program. The anonymous form is brought into K-12 parent evenings by staff and Board members and completed that evening. It provides a 70-80% sampling of the families in the school. A summary of the yearly results is printed in the school newsletter and presented for discussion at the spring all-school meeting hosted by the Parent Association. This procedure helps to identify areas of perceived program “strengths and weaknesses” and ensures a balanced response to issues raised by Parent Association leadership, questions or concerns of individual parents, and questions that may arise in parent association work over the year.

We believe that everyone in the community has a gift to offer. We encourage participation on whatever level people are able to contribute. We want to help parents find a place that gives them joy and is sustaining for them.

The Parent Association is the glue that holds the parent community together.

We recognize that the Waldorf school is a hot pot, a place where we rub up against each other and soften each other’s rough edges. This is an opportunity for personal social development that is bigger than the particular task at hand. The Parent Association is keenly aware of this larger social purpose in its work with the members of the community.

The Parent Association recognizes the Motto of the Social Ethic, and tries to work in a way such that all members and bodies of the community are reflected. While this can be challenging during difficult times, the school always comes around to remembering the importance of working in this way.

The Parent Association is an organization that is trusted on both sides. The teachers view the Parent Association as a helper and the parent body looks at the Parent Association as a circle of trustworthy guides.

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What about your school’s Parent Association is particularly effective? (Editor’s note: The following comments are quotes from schools on what has been particularly effective for them in their individual schools.)
The Parent Council feels that it is an important part of the school. They have regular meetings, and treat these meetings and the work as an opportunity for a greater participation in the school’s community life. The Parent Council leadership knows they will be supported in this professional approach to meeting by the Board chair, a College representative, the Administrator, and members of the administrative circle who will be present at the meetings.

The Parent Association is an effective communication vehicle, and allows communication to flow from the school to the parents and for ideas and issues to flow from the parents back to the school.

The Parent Association is an important organ for social change in the school community.

The Development Director and Admissions Director go to all meetings. This allows a strong partnership with parents to develop over time. The Events Coordinator also attends. The school’s message gets out in an organic and continual way, rather than leaving parents feeling that someone attends the meeting only when they want something from the parents. The parent association work is one of partnership and collaboration.

Parent council leaders and class reps are acknowledged for their service, and are included in things like the school Christmas party for Board and faculty members, and at a yearly leadership breakfast in the fall.

The Parent Association does a wonderful job of putting on the festivals. These events are for the immediate school community and for the broader community as well, so this is an important outreach tool for the school.

The Parent Association is effective at disseminating information regarding events and encouraging attendance. They are also good at hospitality.

The Parent Association’s selection of speakers and the calendaring those presentations is well done.

The Parent Association publishes a beautiful calendar listing of events at the school each semester. This listing is distributed quite widely in the larger community.

There is a fabulous work ethic in the group, and there is a lot of vigor in the volunteerism effort at the school.

The Parent Council does a wonderful job of expressing appreciation for the teachers. They create a luncheon for the teachers each spring and use it as an opportunity to say thank you for various highlights during the year. The Council also sends birthday cards to every teacher. There is a real spirit of appreciation in the school, and this emanates from the Parent Council.

The tone of the meetings is warm and lighthearted, and people enjoy coming. There is good meeting hygiene, which makes the meeting feel like a social activity where work is accomplished rather than drudgery.

The group has excellent follow through. If a commitment is made to get something done, it happens.

The current organizational model for the Parent Association is very effective. The shared leadership structure serves the school well and prevents anyone from feeling routinely overloaded.

The shared leadership structure also means there are plenty of hands to help if something comes up that doesn’t fall cleanly in any one person’s area of responsibility, if someone is sick, or if other unusual conditions arise.

Having five or 6 personalities to hear and process all the information and decisions that come through the steering committee is helpful. This creates a shared group picture that then can ripple out into the larger community with greater clarity.

The relationship the PA steering committee has with the class reps is effective. It helps keep class reps informed, and the reps are then able to keep their parents informed. This builds healthy communication in the school.

The steering committee has parents with children of all the various ages served by the school. This cross section of age-related perspectives can be very helpful as well.

Joy is an important part of the work. Being part of an urban school lends a certain feeling to the community, and creating and sustaining opportunities for joy is an important part of the school’s personality.

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If there were something that you could change in relation to your school’s Parent Association what would it be and why? (Editor’s Note: The following comments are quotes from schools about what they would change in their own school.)
The two Parent Association positions on the Board are not always staffed, particularly when things are going well at the school. These vacancies are a missed opportunity for improved interweaving, and the school is a healthier place when they are filled.

There is always a question as to whether the PA chair should be a member of the Board. This would on the one hand provide a more explicit organizational link to the Board, but may also compromise the Parent Association Chair’s autonomy to represent parent issues and views. This is under active review.

The Parent Association is working to deepen its Anthroposophic perspective, and to build its work from a three fold perspective.

The meetings could use more form. They occasionally go on too long and are sometimes sidetracked by unscheduled items.

We continue to look for more ways to encourage volunteerism, particularly in the leadership roles of the Parent Association. The school needs a volunteer coordinator, either a paid person or a volunteer. This is not working well at present.

The Parent Association is an important body of the school, but sometimes it doesn’t feel as though it’s officially recognized. The Parent Association work is more nuanced and less bureaucratic than the work of the other leadership bodies. This work of building “social glue” needs to be recognized and celebrated as an important task at the school.

We need to make sure we aren’t asking too much of the Parent Association. We want to make sure we are using our parent resources effectively and responsibly, inviting their participation in a healthy and balanced way.

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