One goal of all great schools is to establish a good working partnership with parents. Parents are not stockholders with voice and vote on administrative decisions, but they are “stakeholders.” Their large “stake” in the school is that it operates effectively so that their investment with their children and their tuition dollars is rewarded. In this sense, they are also customers or clients, as opposed to “friends” or “family members,” who on occasion expect accommodations from us that are not in either party’s best interest. The satisfaction of customers or clients is important for an operation to prosper.
Forming partnerships with parents takes consistent effort from the school. Here are ten tips schools should follow to nurture positive relationships with parents.
Establish strong communication networks with parents from the beginning. This will help validate their decision to enroll in the school and ease anxieties that inevitably attach to such a major decision. Create a parent ambassadors program, where each current parent ambassador is the contact for five new parents in the same class, meeting at least once in the spring and once in the summer prior to the new school year. Add new parents to the mailing list for all publications and the invitation lists for all events, beginning in the spring. While not soliciting donations, send new parents the annual report in the summer indicating the strength and importance of annual giving by parents. Create a special event for new parents at the school in late spring. Information-giving and partnership-building are the themes, with brief remarks by head, board chair, parent association president, and division heads outlining the roles and goals of each segment of the organization.
Develop a “parent contract” that outlines behavior expectations. This document can highlight mutual expectations, helping parents feel empowered about their role in the lives of their children and the school. On the website of the National Association of Independent Schools, www.nais.org, samples of such contracts are available to member schools.
Encourage the faculty to see the parent, and not just the student, as a customer. In “the good old days,” meeting the needs of one’s primary customer (the student) meant that one met the needs of one’s secondary customer (the parent). Now, parent relationships require nurturing too. Patience, skill in problem-solving at the most direct level, powers of observation, and the ability to defuse anger and anxiety are all part of the professional repertoire now required and valued in skilled teachers. These skills and exigencies require the distance of a professional (as opposed to a personal) relationship with parents.
Write to the parent body regularly. You can address the issues of the moment and share the larger agenda of the board and school with the parent body. A monthly or quarterly head’s letter allows the school to reinforce the value it’s adding to students’ lives and highlight the school’s accomplishments. It also adds a personal link so that families feel more connected to the school. Particularly in these trying economic times, transparent communication is key to satisfaction and support. See a blog on the topic of “Communicating in Stressful Times” at www.nais.org/go/bassettblog.
Develop a Parent Association mechanism so that parental input can be shared. The association or committee can host occasional “town meetings” with parents, head, and board representatives.
Host small group meetings to solicit feedback. Involve a cross-section of new parents and returning parents in small breakfasts with the school head. The head can ask the group questions such as “Why did you choose the school?” “What are we doing well?” “Where do we need to improve?” The “testimonials” will build loyalty and enthusiasm among the newest members of the family. Some schools regularly survey their whole parent body to ask specific questions about satisfaction and expectations. Services such as the Independent School Survey Builder allow you to do this easily. See www.nais.org/go/surveybuilder.
Educate parents to deal with dissatisfaction directly. The first avenue of recourse should always be the person with whom they disagree (parent to teacher or coach). If the conflict cannot be resolved, it is then appropriate to move up the ladder as necessary. The final court of appeal is the head (and NOT the board).
Appoint “opinion leaders” to board committees. This helps get wider input on key issues, spread empowerment, and facilitate communications. Opinion leaders can be from the faculty, parent body, and larger community. Committees, of course, do the research and legwork on school business, reporting to the board, which makes any final decisions and policies.
Conduct a friend-raising/fund-raising campaign strategically timed to maximize participation. For instance, schedule meetings of the Parent Association at “command performance” times such as grade conference or student recitals.
Attend to the needs of parents whose children are graduating from the school. Produce letter or a brochure that outlines the predictable anxieties both parents and children will feel as they move from one comfortable setting (your school) to another (often initially more forbidding setting by virtue of newness). Host a meeting or event for these families (parents and students) describing how to manage the transition. Have recent graduates who survived the transition speak at these events. You will be able to highlight the areas where your school excels and gather information about areas that could be improved.
In short, developing a partnership with parents involves a multi-faceted approach, but continual nourishment of relationships with parents will reap great rewards. ♦
Patrick F. Bassett is president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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