An Innovative Model for Parent-Teacher Partnerships

An Innovative Model for Parent-Teacher Partnerships

Maria Paredes, the Director of Community Education at Creighton School District in Arizona, has developed a new model for parent engagement that is attracting national attention and resulting in positive outcomes in her district.

The model, called the Academic Parent Teacher Team (APTT), replaces the traditional parent-teacher conference with three group meetings throughout the year, where teachers meet at once with all parents in their classroom. Each parent is provided with a folder of their child’s performance indicators. Teachers then provide an in-depth coaching session on how to interpret this data based on overall classroom performance, school benchmarks, and state standards. Parents are provided with strategies and tools to help support learning at home. And together, parents and teachers set goals for their students, individually and as a class.

Paredes began the model as a pilot with 12 participating teachers. Today, 79 classrooms in all nine schools in the Creighton district use the model. Parent attendance for APTT meetings averages 92 percent.

The Department interviewed Paredes to find out more about how APTT can be used as part of a school turnaround strategy.

Department of Education (ED): Why is the APTT model well-suited for improving parent engagement in low-income communities?

Maria Paredes (MP): Let’s take my district, Creighton School District, as an example. This is a low-income, high-immigrant area. I did a survey of education levels among our parents, and found that 65% of parents have education levels of 8th grade or less. What that means is that these parents have very limited knowledge of how the system works, what’s expected of them.

So, what I set out to do with APTT is to take what teachers implicitly want, desire, and need – and make these things explicit to parents. APTT creates team meetings where teachers explicitly say, here is the classroom data, here is your own child’s data. This is where we need to be to be on grade level, to be above grade level. Now the parent has a better window into the child’s learning needs. The teachers set goals for the classroom and give parents access to concrete ways of helping their children that’s beyond checking homework. 

Now, parents know that there’s an academic goal they’re personally accountable for; there’s support at the school if their child needs it; and they have materials from school to make this happen. Parents who have a deep desire to see their children succeed now have the control. This is something you don’t think about with college educated parents, because they can read between the lines, and they have the frame of reference to figure out what’s going on in the classroom.

APTT probably won’t work for 100 percent of your students and their parents. But if you have about 75 percent of your parents responding, you’re still going to see scores go through the roof!

ED: How did you get your teachers to adopt APTT? What are some strategies to get their buy-in, especially given that teachers in turnaround schools will be asked to do many things differently?

MP: I think the most important part of APTT is helping your teachers understand the model, and be comfortable using it – because at first, they won’t be comfortable.

At Creighton, I invited 12 dedicated teachers to try out APTT. They are all very capable teachers, but they were uncomfortable with certain parts of the model. For example, teachers are very uncomfortable with sharing whole class data (even though it’s aggregated, with no names attached) with their parents. What this tells you is that there’s a problem in our culture, as educators. We have a culture of not letting people understand the facts, the truth. We’ve said whole-class data is nobody’s business except for teachers themselves. Teachers have to get willing to get past that fear and embarrassment of sharing this data.

Another thing that makes teachers uncomfortable is being in front of all the parents at once. They said to me, “I’m uncomfortable with just one parent – how can I get in front of all the parents?” I told them that the parents are going to love them, because the relationship is going to be different. The teachers’ job is now to coach parents to better support their children. They’re all part of a team.

I told the teachers, “let’s just try it, get past the first meeting, and see what happens. If parents have a real negative reaction to the meeting, we will change it.”

At the first meeting, the teachers saw how excited, grateful, happy, and committed the parents were – and they were sold.  After the teachers had their second meeting, in the winter of 2009, they shared their classroom assessment data with the rest of the school. The data showed their students to be at higher achievement levels compared to other students in comparative grade levels. Teachers talked about how their workload had decreased, because students were coming into school more prepared, having not only done their homework but having studied the material. This helped more teachers adopt the model.

I attended all of the team meetings last year, and I haven’t seen a negative reaction yet. I’m not saying that there may not be a parent or teacher dissatisfied with APTT. But it’s really hard to argue with facts, information, resources, and support. It’s planted hope among our teaching staff, and in the community.

ED: Have you had challenges with parents who may not speak English very well, or with parents who are unable to attend these meetings?

MP: We provide translations for the team meetings. So our meetings are available in both English and Spanish, or more languages if necessary.

It’s the same with materials parents take home – we translate as much of the materials as possible. We also encourage parents to help other parents. This has resulted in many parents forming relationships with one another, where a family invites another family over three times a week for an hour so the kids are doing work and they’re being supported together.

Sometimes language is not what really matters – what the child needs is the encouragement, the support, and the structure at home. Academic goals make a big difference. Time for studying – separate from doing homework – makes a difference. We’re opening up all of this for parents, and giving them the broader concept to understand this. Parents will find a way to do something they perceive is their job. They were just never asked to do things before.

At Creighton, we never had a problem getting parents to conferences. We normally have had a high rate of attendance. But, APTT is new, and we want parents to be comfortable with this model. So, each teacher personally invites the family to team meetings with a letter. Parent liaisons then call the family members individually. This has helped to bring parents in.

For schools that have trouble getting parents to attend, you have to invest in helping parents understand that something new is happening. Get it on your school’s marquee. Do outreach everywhere. Ask parents who are involved to get other parents involved. You have to really do a public campaign, to change the way you have been communicating with parents.

ED: What is the biggest challenge in scaling your model from one school to multiple schools?

MP: What I’ve found to be challenging is that most districts don’t have anyone whose sole responsibility is to produce meaningful parent engagement. So, often times, the district has been making do with very general, unfocused meetings and events. It’s an adjustment for these districts when I suggest cutting the number of events, especially those that aren’t directly related to their child’s student achievement. We need to change the culture, of what’s expected of parents, of what’s acceptable in the quality of information we deliver to parents, and the structure of how you deliver this information – this is what’s most challenging.

Schools have moved to taking on 100 percent of the responsibility of student learning and achievement. With APTT, we’re moving towards sharing that responsibility with parents, shifting our mentality. At the same time, the school must be willing to provide parents with the right information, updates, tutoring services, coaching, and other support – it’ll be hard for parents to say no this.

I think having a high-level, focused parent person in the district – and if it’s a big district, maybe more than one person – will help very much. It’s a full time job. I train parent liaisons at every school and provide professional development on family engagement for teachers and administrators. Improvement requires a continuous conversation, followed by proof in the form of data. I help teachers analyze what’s happening – before APTT, after APTT – and help them communicate this information to parents.  The person [focused on parent engagement] should be high-level, and help create high expectations for parent engagement not just within the district, but among parents.

ED: Do you have any other advice for turnaround districts or schools that may be interested in adopting APTT as a model for parent engagement?

MP: The leadership must understand that parent involvement is a shared responsibility between schools and parents.

The very first step in building this new shared responsibility, and in sustaining it, is for leadership to undergo training, to read and discuss the literature. You truly have to understand parent involvement. What’s happened so far is that we’ve all gone to school, and we've heard and said that “parent involvement is key to student progress and learning.” But, we were never required to have an in-depth understanding of what the world is like for low-income families. It’s about turning everything that’s implicit explicit for these families. That’s the big switch.

For example, a lot of districts are doing a great job in having data and assessments online, but that won’t necessarily help a majority of our parents. You must give the data meaning on the personal level, and context within which parents can understand the data. That has to be done through a coaching and mentoring process – having information online is not enough.

The beauty of [APTT] is that you’re not asking teachers to do more than creating community in his or her classroom. You’re asking the teacher to make sure everyone in their classroom – students and parents – have information they need to make different choices, meet academic demands, and raise expectations of students and teachers. When you think of it as a classroom community, it’s not as overwhelming.

You can also watch an informative video on APTT here on youtube.