By Jessica Locketz
A True Story:
Parents come to be with their children at a grade level Family Day as part of a synagogue’s religious school program. Some parents stand in the corner while their child sits at a table with other students and parents. Some parents use their cell phones while other parents listen to the introduction. Some parents do not participate in the mixer games or the art project that is designed for parents and children to do together. Some parents are not engaged in the activities. Yet they fulfilled their obligation the same as the parents who did participate; they were asked to show up, and they did.
Jewish educational leaders spend much time and energy on figuring out how to get parents out of their cars and into the building during religious school hours. The conventional wisdom is that if we can just get them in the door, they will be involved and engaged. But as we see from our Family Day parents above, just showing up is not enough.
Actually, the oft asked question, “How do we get our religious school parents in the door on Sunday mornings?” has become moot. Parents are coming in the door. It is what they do (or don’t do) once inside that necessitates a closer look at what it means to involve and engage parents.
Research in the field of general education has validated the concept that parents’ involvement in, and engagement with, children’s education is beneficial, linking it to a variety of outcomes in a child’s achievement, including improved academic performance, attendance and behavior (Kress, 2007: citing Christenson, Rounds, and Franklin). Research on supplemental religious schools has produced similar findings, noting that parent actions significantly affect their children’s religious values and self-esteem (Knoff & Smith, 1980). There are many ways for parents to be involved in their child’s education: participating in school functions and responding to school obligations, helping with schoolwork, providing encouragement, arranging for appropriate study time and space, modeling desired behavior, and actively tutoring children at home (Cotton & Wikland, 1989.) In the synagogue school, the most powerful form of parent involvement might be that of modeling commitment to Jewish living and learning.
Parents are the consummate role models, providing important cues to children about how they should act in the world. Parental attitudes are conveyed through action; what a parent does once he or she has crossed the threshold of the synagogue sends a strong message about being a part of the Jewish community.
Unfortunately, not all messages are positive ones. When parents don’t regularly participate in the synagogue programs they have signed up for, their actions imply that Judaism is not an important part of their lives. Additionally, when parents don’t continue their own Jewish learning or even inadvertently denigrate their children’s school experiences, their behavior communicates that religious school is something to be suffered through on the way to becoming B’nei Mitzvah. Sadly, this may be the religious school lesson that students learn best. It is no wonder that it becomes a struggle to engage them when the message from home is a mixed one.
Moreover, nothing will change without a long hard look at what Jewish educators ask of and expect from parents. It is time to reimagine what genuine parental involvement and engagement could look like.
Traditional opportunities have included coming to pre-planned family programs, watching children lead services, or collecting items for social action drives. Turns out parents want more. They do not want to stand in the corner; they want to feel important and relevant. A recent study of parental involvement found that those most engaged felt that they were needed by the school. In the study, parents saw areas in which they could provide their input and make a contribution towards the improvement of the school. This led to stronger involvement (read: participation), but it also led to something deeper: investment. The parents cared about the school as something that belonged to them and the Jewish community, and wanted to make it better for the good of both (Ross, 2010.)
Of course, no one size fits all when it comes to parental involvement. Synagogue leaders must honor the diversity of school parents by offering multiple opportunities for involvement that speak to individual skill sets and interests.
Taking this model of parental involvement even one step further, we can imagine what it would look like if there was no mandatory participation at all. There would be no prescribed way to be involved, only the expectation that they be involved in some way.
Not Yet a True Story:
At the start of the year, a note is sent home to parents indicating the need for their help. Accompanying the note is a list of various opportunities and options for which they are needed to sign up: setting up for the mock Seder, judging at the Purim Costume Contest, helping to plan Family Day Programs, volunteering as the crossing guard before or after school, reading books to the younger grades, selling bagels before school, organizing the challah club, leading part of the school prayer service, joining the Education committee, and so on. The list sparks conversations between parents in the home about how they will contribute to their children’s Jewish education this year. Instead of groaning about the list of required attendances, some parents even offer their own ideas in the blank lines added at the bottom of the form, which say, “Other ways you might like to offer your talents and expertise?”
This is not yet a true story in most synagogue schools today, but it certainly could be, and should be. In this way, parental involvement could be self-selecting, allowing parents to choose how they participate, and what they can contribute towards making the school program, and ultimately Jewish education, a success.
Knoff, H. & Corrine Smith (1980) The Relationship of Student Attitude Toward Religious Education and a Parent Involvement Program at a Jewish Supplementary School, Journal of Jewish Education, 48:1, 27-41
Kress, J. “Expectations, Perceptions, and Preconceptions: How Jewish Parents Talk about ‘Supplementary’ Religious Education.” in Wertheimer, J. Ed. (2007). In Family matters: Jewish education in an age of choice. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press in association with the AVI CHAI Foundation.
What does it mean to be a Jewish parent? (n.d.). Retrieved June 17, 2015, from http://www.mishpacha.org/parentintro.shtml
Cotton K. and Karen Reed Wikelund (1989). Parent Involvement in Education, School Improvement Research Series. Portland, OR: The School Improvement Program of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory under a contract with the Office of Educational Research and Improvement U.S. Department of Education. http://educationnorthwest.org/sites/default/files/parent-involvement-in-education.pdf
Brodie, Rachel and Vicky Kelman, eds. (2003) Jewish Family Education: A Casebook for the Twenty-First Century. Los Angeles, CA: Alef Design Group..
Rubin-Ross, Renee. Parent Involvement or Parent Investment? Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times: A Roundtable on Critical Challenges and Opportunities. eJewish Philanthropy, Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA). 17 May 2010: 36-38. http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=5425
Rabbi Jessica Locketz is the Associate Rabbi & Director of Education at Temple Emanuel of South Hills in Pittsburgh, PA. She was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1999. She recently returned to her alma mater as a member of the 4th cohort of the Executive Masters in Jewish Education Program and is looking forward to graduating next May.