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Parent Power: 4 Ways to Transform Parents into Forces for Change in Schools

The research is clear: Engaged parents contribute to a stronger student learning environment.

When school districts emphasize parent engagement through stronger communication, they not only build trust, they also create a culture of support for parents and students.

But engagement is only half the battle, write venture philanthropists and education advocates Alex Cortez and Yordanos Eyoel in a recent commentary for The 74. Empowerment is the real difference maker.

While engaged parents play an important role in supporting student achievement, empowered parents have the ability to affect real change in their districts. Unfortunately, too few parents ever feel that sense of empowerment, say Cortez and Eyoel.

At the heart of this empowerment gap is a lack of something called “actionable demand.”

School communities are chock-full of “latent demand,” the care and concern every parent and community member inherently feels about their children’s schools. But actionable demand—explained as the political or economic power to make real change—is much harder to come by.

This is especially true in socioeconomically or economically challenged school communities.

Disadvantaged families, Cortez and Eyoel write, are often unaware of the potential power they have to influence a school district’s policies and strategies.

Community partners and advocacy groups have important roles to play in empowering parents, write Cortez and Eyoel. But school districts can and should do more to help parents contribute to the decisions that take place in their community.

Cortez and Eyoel outline four forms of leverage parents have to affect change in schools. Consider using one or each of these to empower parents in your community.

1. The power of partnership

“The ground floor for parents as agents of change is exercising their power as co-educators of their children,” write Cortez and Eyoel. This goes back to the idea that when parents are involved in their children’s learning, students tend to perform better. But parents can play a much more vital role in district strategy—one that goes beyond academic support. That partnership relies on the ability to foster open and honest conversations between parents and school leaders.

2. The power of choice

As school choice expands, parents and families have more power than ever to choose what schools children attend. Facing shrinking enrollments, several major public school districts have realized that to stay vital, they must embrace choice, and place a stronger emphasis on engagement and customer experience, inside the classroom and out, in their schools.

3. The power of organizing

Cortez and Eyoel point out that more parents are empowered through collective action:

“Changing the system requires organizing collective voice. There are always competing interests in any political system, and collective voice allows parents to be competitive.”

No matter the issue—whether it’s changes to special education programming or improvements to student safety—parents are discovering the collective power to advocate for improvements in their schools. Districts should embrace this power by engaging with parent groups, listening to their concerns, and working with them to create viable solutions.

4. The power of the ballot

Perhaps the oldest and most important power that parents have is the power to vote for local elected officials who have direct control over school district operations, or for bonds and levies to improve school facilities. School board members, of course, have the power to hire and fire school leaders. When parents are dissatisfied with school leadership, voting for or against school board members or improvements is one way to steer the community in a new direction. The key for school leaders is to understand parent concerns and address them before they spiral into something else.

How do you empower parents to make positive change in your district? What steps are you taking to ensure that parents’ voices are heard? Tell us in the comments.