by Renee Rubin Ross, PhD

It is a cliché in education, and in Jewish education as well, that we’d like to get parents more involved. We’d like to see more parents volunteering for our schools, more parents fundraising for our schools, more parents standing behind, and with, the important work that our schools are doing.

But what factors actually contribute to parent involvement? I attempted to answer this question in my dissertation research, exploring parents’ involvement in three elementary schools, a Jewish day school, a Catholic school, and independent “secular” private school, in a large Northeastern urban area. Through observations and interviews with parents, administrators, and teachers, I looked at how parents were involved at each school and how they explained their motivations for involvement, experience of involvement, and perception of the school.

Not surprisingly parents at each school described their motivations for involvement and experience of involvement differently. At College Prep, an independent (not religious) private school, some parents reported wanting to help and improve the school, but many of the most involved parents told me that “people here are busy” and that they were disappointed with the lack of parent participation at school events or grade-level dinners. In contrast, at Jewish Day, a medium-sized Jewish day school affiliated with the Conservative movement, the most involved parents explained their involvement as, “we just saw a need.” This “seeing a need” led them to contribute their time to the school in a number of ways: serving on the education committee, hosting admissions events, expanding the reach of the Parents’ Association, or even restructuring administrative systems.

There are a number of implications to the deceptively simple explanation that, “we just saw a need.” On one level, seeing a need may be a result of individual temperament or past experience: Some people do not see needs, rather, they walk right by them. Some communities, or schools, are able to draw on more people who perceive organizational needs and are willing and open to addressing them. In that sense, having the ability to see where one might be needed is significant.

But I would argue that “seeing a need” has another component as well. The school did need parents’ help, and parents could see this. Jewish Day did not run perfectly: Parents were aware of curricular and administrative weaknesses. But contrary to what we might expect, those weaknesses did not push parents away from the school. It was the opposite. Parents saw areas that demanded improvement, and these became areas in which they could provide their input and make a contribution. All of this led to not just involvement (e.g. participation), but rather, something deeper, investment: they 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.

There is one more fact that must be mentioned: not only did parents perceive the needs of school, they also described how the school community supported their needs as families: they described celebrating Jewish holidays with other Jewish Day families, finding support in times of illness or difficulty, and knowing that they could rely on other parents to help them with the everyday, ongoing challenges of parenting.

So, what do we learn from this? One question we might ask is, how do our schools and Jewish organizations communicate their need for involvement and participation? For example, does communication between school and parent focus mostly on establishing rules and administrative procedures, or does it engage parents with the school’s mission over time? Ongoing communication about how a school is a learning, growing organization has the potential to show parents areas in which the school needs them to continue growing and developing.

And just as important, what are our schools and educational institutions offering, or building, in order to create parent investment? When parents enroll their child in a Jewish day school or a congregational school, they are embarking on a multi-year relationship with the school or congregation. So then, in addition to feeling good about their children’s education, what benefits do parents receive from this relationship? At the Jewish and Catholic schools in my study, parents felt invested not only because the schools provided an excellent educational experience for their children, but also because they themselves were supported by the school community. To that end, parent perceived that strengthening the school was a way to strengthen the community.

This series looks at “Jewish education in challenging times.” Indeed, our schools and communal organizations are encountering some previously uncharted challenges. My research suggests two levers for creating greater parent participation in Jewish schools. First, a school could focus more openly on how it is learning, growing organization, and how parents can join and support the school on this journey. And second, the school should pay no less attention to communication mechanisms, rituals and traditions that might create a community that supports families, thereby encouraging families to feel invested in the school.

Renee Rubin Ross is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.

This post is from the series Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times.