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Engaging With Your Child’s School: Q&A with Larry Ferlazzo

November 2, 2009
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Schools share a symbiotic relationship with parents and homes. They co-exist in an ecosystem wherein, in broad terms, all interests are aligned to achieve a unified goal – the intellectual and emotional well-being of children. No system succeeds without sustained interaction and collaboration between all stakeholders. Schooling, with its 3 key stakeholders – students, parents and school (teachers+administrators) – is no exception. That said, parents are de facto enablers and custodians of their wards’ interests and onus falls on them to kick the fly-wheel of collaboration. They cannot rely on the system to draw them in or on existing processes and protocol to foster closer collaboration; they must reach out and take the initiative to engage with their kids’ schools.

Building Parent Engagement in SchoolsAuthored by Larry Ferlazzo and Lorie Hammond, Building Parent Engagement in Schools is written for teachers and administrators to help them work with parents as partners to improve student achievement. The book illustrates simple steps that can be used for engaging any community. It also contains a comprehensive list of web and other resources on topics such as home visits, school community gardens, school & community organizing, and many more. It is written in an informal, story-telling style which makes it an easy read for anyone interested in this subject.

In the following Q&A, Larry Ferlazzo responds to SmartBean’s questions on his book, and also why and how parents should work with their kids’ schools.

SmartBean: In your book Building Parent Engagement in Schools, you make a distinction between parental involvement and parental engagement. Why is parental engagement more beneficial?

Larry Ferlazzo: The word “involvement” is defined in the dictionary as “to enfold or envelop.”  On the other hand, “engagement” means to “interlock with, to mesh.”  It’s a question of parents being “clients” or “partners.”

Parent engagement is focused on schools developing trusting, reciprocal relationships with families; spending a lot of time listening (schools need to lead with their ears and not their mouths); and helping families respond to problems (and, even more importantly, develop a sense of self confidence that they can change them) that lay outside the schoolhouse doors (like family literacy, neighborhood safety, health and nutrition).

Other kinds of more traditional parent involvement are also beneficial to students.  However, research has shown that parent engagement efforts particularly help increase student achievement.

Our book highlights the latest research on parent/school connections, and shares in-depth stories on four specific parent engagement strategies that schools have used successfully — parent/teacher home visits; a family literacy project where schools provide computers and home internet access; school-based community gardens; and community organizing, where schools work with other neighborhood institutions and groups to respond to broader community concerns.

SmartBean: Why do you think it is critical for parents to be engaged in their kids’ schools?

Larry Ferlazzo: Research shows that just about any kind of participation by parents in schools helps increase their child’s academic achievement.  In addition, for schools that embrace an “engagement” strategy, being connected to schools provides an opportunity to parents to connect with others who might share similar economic, social, and safety issues that are creating stress in their lives.  Those connections can lead to collective action to effectively improve their lives.

SmartBean: How are some of the ways kids benefit from their parents’ involvement/engagement in their classrooms and schools?

Larry Ferlazzo: As I mentioned, the research shows that it leads to increased student achievement.  In addition, I’d like to recount a specific experience that might better respond to this question.

In one of my home visits to families, I learned that the father in a recent immigrant family repaired Hmong flutes as his profession (the Hmong are refugees from Laos).  Even though he could not speak English, he agreed to come to my high school ESL class and teach students to play the instrument.  It was an incredible lesson, and we used it for days as an opportunity to write, speak, and listen and read English.  More importantly, it clearly enhanced the pride and self-confidence felt by both the father and his student son.  Shortly afterward, the father became a leader in developing our school’s program of providing computers and home internet access to immigrant families, which was recognized by the International Reading Association as the best example of using technology to teach reading in the world.

SmartBean: What steps can parents take to be involved/engaged in their kids’ schools if there are no inbound requests from the school or teacher(s)?

Larry Ferlazzo: Parents can take the initiative themselves and begin talking with the administrators and teachers at their schools about parent engagement.  I think many schools want to deepen their connections to parents, but just don’t know how. One of the attractive elements of engagement for schools is that it tends to be driven by parent energy, not school energy.   Parents will be more invested in making things happen if they are listened to and taken seriously.  Parents can also give school staff copies of our book :)

Larry Ferlazzo is an English and Social Studies teacher. Prior to becoming a teacher he spent 20 years as a community organizer assisting families improve their communities. He has won numerous awards including the Leadership for a Changing World from the Ford Foundation and the International Reading Association Presidential Award for Reading and Technology. He writes a blog for ELL teachers and also has a website for students.
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