By Brenna R. Kelly
Many parents think educators speak a different language. Words and acronyms that roll off teachers’ tongues – PBIS, RTI, growth mindset, IEP or standards-based grading – leave parents perplexed.
Language is just one example of how educators and parents are disconnected even though they both have the same goal – to see children succeed.
To help bridge that gap, more than 40 parents and educators came together on a recent Saturday morning for ParentCamp, an unstructured conference designed to break down the barriers between home and school in hopes of improving students’ education experience.
“Parents want to be involved, they just don’t know how or where to go,” said Julia Pile, a Boone County parent who organized the event held at Beechwood Independent Schools. “A lot of times there’s a misconception that parents don’t want to be involved, but they might not know how to be involved, they might have baggage they are carrying from when they went to school, or they just don’t feel welcome.”
The first ParentCamp – an offshoot of the popular EdCamp, an unstructured conference for educators – was held in 2013 in Pennsylvania. Since then, the U.S. Department of Education has held five ParentCamps in Washington, D.C. The Beechwood camp was the second to be held in Kentucky, the first was in 2017 in Boone County.
During the camp, parents and educators hosted sessions covering more than 13 different topics, including gifted children, transitioning from middle to high school, financial literacy, cultural awareness, dyslexia and 21st century learning.
In one session, parents played education lingo bingo with Jim Detwiler, deputy superintendent of Boone County Schools. The squares on the game were labeled SBDM, PLN, STEAM, ELL, 504 Plan and other education jargon. When participants covered the square labeled standards-based grading, Detwiler explained how Boone County schools are transitioning away from a system that encourages students to accumulate points instead of mastering academic standards
“It’s based on the actual standards that students should learn. Instead of focusing on points, we are focusing on what the kids are learning,” he said. “It’s about which of the standards have you mastered and which ones do you need to continue to work on.”
Kathy Smiley said she planned to take the game back to parents at Lafayette High School (Fayette County) where her son is a student and she serves as president of the Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA).
“With the education system, everything is an acronym and a lot of parents don’t know what it means. They get frustrated and just say, ‘I’m done,’” she said. “I think the more educators can teach parents about the education system, the easier it is for parents to participate.”
Cheryl Losey, technology teacher at Beechgrove Elementary (Kenton County), hosted a session on children growing up in a digital world. Losey said she participated in ParentCamp because she’s seen how parent involvement can help both teachers and students.
Losey said she tries to get parents involved in ways beyond just volunteering for holiday parties. She has asked parents to help set up computers, set up login information and cut out laminated items. But just as important as the help, she said, is the relationships that develop.
“I want the parents in the classroom,” she said. “We’re all working toward the same goal. If you have the support of the teachers, parents and administrators, it gives the kids a better chance.”
Another way to develop positive relationships is to talk to parents when their child does something well.
“Contact the parents when good things are happening,” Losey said. “I want to make those phone calls when things are going great.”
Beechgrove teachers make two good phone calls to parents each week during their planning period. The calls make it easier to talk to parents when things aren’t going great, she said.
“It’s important to listen to the parents,” she said. “Often we think we have all the answers, but we don’t have all the answers because each child is an individual and we need to know what the parents are seeing.”
Amanda Girvin, an 8th-grade English teacher at Camp Ernst Middle School (Boone County) who hosted a session on learning styles, said some teachers can be reluctant to reach out to parents.
“They are afraid they are going to be just ripped to shreds,” she said. After negative experiences, busy teachers may not want to spend time on something that they don’t think will have a positive result.
But when teachers actually connect with parents in a positive manner, it’s always worth it, Girvin said.
“Sometimes if the teacher is the first to reach out, even in an email, and give a positive praise, it can set the tone for a good relationship,” she said. And that positive relationship can have an effect on not just one student, but the entire class.
“One child with a changed perspective or attitude can greatly impact an entire culture of learning,” Girvin said.
As the conference concluded, many of the parents told the educators that what they had learned would help them become more involved in their children’s schools – and that they now felt confident in doing so.
Jenny Price, mother of an Ockerman Middle School (Boone County) student, said she left the conference empowered to join her school’s PTSA and maybe even its site-based decision making council.
“My biggest barrier to getting involved has been myself, either my lack of willingness or being intimidated because I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “But this really provided a wealth of resources for the kind of parent engagement I want to do at my kid’s school.”
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