Engaging Parents Beyond the Bake Sale: Promoting Parent Leadership in Jewish Day Schools

bake-saleby Irene Lehrer Sandalow

Day school parents are putting their most prized possession, their children, into the hands of Jewish day schools. Currently, many parents are involved in their children’s schools, providing valuable services that offer important and often critical support to the functioning of day schools. Their involvement has been invaluable in supporting fundraising efforts, staffing the recycling committee – and sometimes, to perform a variety of administrative tasks that support our professionals and students and reduce costs in these economically challenging times. While we understand that this service is important – are there other roles parents might take, especially around mission, vision and goals? Rabbi Kenneth Brander, in his ELI Talk about Collaborative Leadership in a Prosumer Generation, explains: “You see our members, our families […], they believe in our organizations, they’re even attracted to our organizations, they see our organizations as a haven for themselves and for their families, but they don’t just want to be consumers. They want to be producers. They want to help shape the vision. They want to be stakeholders in our community enterprises.”

During the past two years, as part of the Parent to Parent Initiative of The Jewish Education Project, supported by UJA-Federation of New York, we have asked the questions – What is the best model for parent engagement and leadership in the 21st century? How can we tap into the full social and intellectual potential of a school’s parent body?

In tackling the question, we find it helpful to draw on the definition of terms about parent volunteers put forward by Larry Felazzo, a high school teacher and writer for a popular education blog.

  • The involved parent: one “who is generally directed towards completing tasks selected by the school staff – or the parent may be a client who receives services and information.”
  • The engaged parent: “is considered a leader or a potential leader who is integral to identifying a vision and goals. He/she encourages others to contribute their own vision to that big picture and helps perform the tasks that need to be achieved in order to reach those goals.”

We need to consider ways to create more roles for parents to be engaged in their child’s day school.

Why Engage Parents Beyond the Bake Sale?

There has been a growing movement in education to rethink family engagement. SEDL, a nonprofit education research, development, and dissemination organization, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education, recently published a report titled “Family Partners Education in A Dual Capacity-Building: Framework for Family-School Partnership.” They recommended that family engagement become an integral part of education reform efforts. While this report is especially important for low-income communities and limited-English-proficient parents, the recommendations highlight the tremendous opportunities and potential when partnering with families for student success. In their research they have found “that initiatives that take on a partnership orientation – in which student achievement and school improvement are seen as a shared responsibility, relationships of trust and respect are established between home and school, and families and school staff see each other as equal partners – create the conditions for family engagement to flourish.”

Most importantly, as we have learned through conversations with parents involved in our initiative, day school parents are interested in different kinds of volunteer opportunities. There has been great advancement in education, but parent volunteer roles today look very similar to what it was more than 50 years ago. The parents are looking for something more.

Parent engagement is beneficial for parents as it invites them to partner with their children’s schools. And it also provides real benefits for the schools.

  • Parents advocate for all the children in their school: As schools move toward engaging parents, parents tend to move beyond concern for their own child toward commitment for all children. This expanded focus can make an important difference in a school changing how parents relate to the school administration.
  • Parents go from “complainer” to “problem solver”: When we engage parents, we are able to uncover the larger issues behind the complaint. Schools should welcome critiques as an opportunity to evolve and be more in touch with the ever-changing needs and aspirations of day school parents. When schools create spaces and structures welcoming parent feedback, parents can take ownership over the problem solving process. In turn, these parents can communicate out to other parents the progress that has been made. This approach can significantly reduce the “kvetching” in the parking lots and on social media and transform it into productive conversations.
  • Engaging busy parents: In our current model of parent involvement, schools are missing out on engaging working parents. Working parents are often left out from opportunities to support their children’s school. However, let’s not assume either that stay-at-home parents are less busy than working parents. Elisheva Urbas, a day school parent leader, shared a profound insight at the recent Parent to Parent Summit: asking stay at home parents to come distribute cupcakes isn’t any more valuable a use of their talents or time than it is of parents who work outside the home. We need to show all parents, working and stay-at-home parents, that we value their time and skills.
  • Engaging all genders. A disproportionate numbers of volunteers in the PTA, fundraising committees, etc are women. The current message being sent to our children is that being a volunteer in a school is “women’s work.” We need to create a new model of parent involvement in schools that invite both men and women to support the school.
  • Promoting the value of Jewish day school education: We need more leaders to share the value of Jewish Day School education. When parents are engaged and are given the opportunity to lead, they can become the greatest proponents of Jewish day school education.

First Steps for School Professionals in Engaging Parents:

  • Get to know your parent community. Who are the parents? What are their concerns? What are their hopes and dreams for their children’s education? Using Design Thinking methodology, we can develop empathy for day school parents, uncovering their needs and aspirations. Schools can engage parents of the school to interview other parents and get a better understanding of the parent community. The mere process of asking questions and engaging different stakeholders makes a big difference in creating a culture of empowerment and buy-in. It creates an environment where all voices matter. Interviewing parents and asking their opinions can counteract the perception in some schools that there is a vocal minority that have undue influence on the school administration. Not all parents feel comfortable approaching the school administration with ideas and suggestions. It’s up to the school to take the first step.
  • Ask parents what they can offer: Creating a survey with a list of committees and opportunities from which they can choose is one way to get parent volunteers, but this method is limiting in finding out what skills, interests and expertise parents can offer. Find out what parents have to offer before creating the opportunities for engagement. Committees that existed in the past don’t necessary need to automatically exist in the current year. We love the question on Chicago Jewish Day School’s application for admission: “As a community school, we value the collaboration between school and family. Describe any knowledge/expertise that you might be able to share with our school community.” Ask this open question every year. Don’t assume because you know a parent’s profession that you know what they have to offer.
  • Engage parents in mission, vision and goals: At our last network meeting of day school parent leaders, we asked them about their ideal scenario in parent-school communication. They shared that they wanted to know more about the school’s direction including: “What are the school’s financial goals? What are their new programs and projects? What is the school doing to grow and retain students? Where do they see the school in 5 years? 10 years?” These questions reveal an interest to be engaged in big picture conversations. Parents engaged in these conversations will likely be the first ones you can rely on to champion new ideas, programs, and new directions for the school.

Pam Edelman writes in her article about “Co-Creation: The New Imperative“: “Most large companies now accept that they operate in an ecosystem. The ecosystem serves them not just in improving their supply and distribution chains, but also, more importantly, in helping to turn the outside-in perspective into practical innovation. By building collaborative relationships with creative customers, companies like Apple, Kraft Foods, and Scholastic gain actionable insights. This means that particularly knowledgeable, innovative, and dedicated customers become more involved and invested in helping to shape future outcomes. Co-creation encourages organizations and customers to work together on creative solutions to challenging problems. While this entails letting go of old paradigms, this change toward co-creation lends itself to the development of more nimble and responsive organizations.”

If we embrace voices of parent leaders, parents will be inspired and motivated to contribute their talent, resources and creativity to their school’s success. These parent leaders will be powerful agents to increase the effectiveness and impact of our Jewish day schools.

This article is written with deep gratitude to Rabbi Ed Harwitz who was the co-creator and an integral part in envisioning the concept of parent leadership in Jewish day schools.

Irene Lehrer Sandalow is the Program Manager of the Parent to Parent Initiative of The Jewish Education Project.