Parental engagement

The parenting conundrum in Jewish day schools

Time is precious and there are no do-overs when it comes to a child’s growth and development

 A principal’s perspective

During the 2020-21 school year, many of our Jewish day schools and yeshivot were blessed with an amazing cadre of Limudei Kodesh (Judaic studies) and Limudei Chol (general studies) faculty who were able to seamlessly and successful transform and pivot their roles, expectations and teaching repertoires in order to adjust and accommodate the internal and external academic as well as social/emotional needs of our students. While doing so, we learned a great deal – especially about how children learn via remote platform technology, the bandwidth of parents and the impact of social distancing on student behavior. But above all, we learned how flexible, resilient and how passionately committed our faculty and institutions are; and, that with the proper mission and vision-driven professional leadership, we can collectively overcome challenges as never before imaginable. To be sure, when looking back in retrospect at 2020, we have much to celebrate and so much to be proud about.

As day school leadership begin to plan for the coming school year, there are a variety of exigencies which must move up the food chain of priorities. One of them relates to how our Jewish day schools – irrespective of philosophy, engage and involve parents in the ongoing education of their children.

Today, one of the single most significant challenges facing our Jewish day schools and yeshivot relates to parental engagement and involvement.  Although this day school reality has existed for decades, irrespective of pandemic or other societal conditions, our experiences this past year only magnified the enormity of this challenge as well as the imperative for improvement. With lockdowns, social distancing restrictions, remote learning requirements, and personal loss, any parental involvement that may have existed prior to the pandemic, have in part dissipated.

From a historical perspective, a parent’s involvement in the schooling of their children is probably one of the most critical concerns facing the field of education today. This reality in our Jewish day schools is no exception. To be sure, the overall state of affairs in our schools regarding parental involvement is beginning to create a variety of concerns which impact negatively on students, their families and the schools they attend.

The lack of parental involvement may be the result of a variety of factors, including the time-starved nature of today’s young parents, competing familial responsibilities and interests, family size, the number of siblings living at home and a growing feeling of parental complacency and apathy. All of these factors are exacerbated by the lack of clear and enforceable school policies, poor to non-existent parenting skills and a school culture which may not always demand or require parent involvement and accountability. Of course there are always exceptions, but unfortunately, they are rare and infrequent.

Throughout my career, I have witnessed a growing number of parents who lack understanding, interest or perspective regarding their children’s schooling. In fact, although it may sound like an exaggeration, a growing number of young parents have unfortunately relegated their entire educational responsibility (as parents) for educating their children, exclusively to the school – irrespective of whether it be in Judaic or general studies. As a result, their children have very little parental academic support or reinforcement at home. This sad reality impacts negatively on the academic, social and emotional wellbeing of our students. To be sure, research in general education strongly points to the critical imperative of parental involvement in a child’s school experience as the single key factor or determinant in that child’s success in school.

As we know, there are always exceptions to this reality, including parents who are well informed and engaged and those who take a very serious and proactive role in their children’s schooling and academic progress. In these cases, it is incumbent upon the professional leadership of the school (head of school and/or principal) to help parents ensure a proper balance and a level of engagement which is meaningful, inspiring and purposeful.

In select cases, a parent may be totally disengaged until the school raises a red flag regarding their child’s learning deficit or a social/emotional concern manifesting itself in the classroom. Once these concerns are shared with parents, most will pivot to a more engaged and attentive posture. But, then it becomes imperative for the school administration to provide those parents with forward-thinking professional advice, counsel and a clear sense of direction and positivity. This guidance should be offered in addition to helping parents formulate an effective learning plan and/or special accommodation program for the student (a topic for a separate post). 

Of-course, there will always be those parents who will respond defensively, with blame-game excuses or denial; and those parents who will find fault with either the school or the  teacher for their child’s deficit or behavior. This is especially the case when parents are not informed about their child’s disposition earlier in the year. 

One of the many ways of minimizing these parent responses is by ensuring that faculty are in continuous contact with parents through well-documented, clear and timely communication. This may require more than a review of scheduled report cards or progress reports. The mantra here needs to be “no surprises.” Parents must not and should not be the last to be informed about their child’s cognitive or social/emotional disposition. As soon as a teacher observes a student’s learning difficulty, it is imperative that the parent (in consultation with the principal, department head) be informed and engaged in problem solving on behalf of the child.

Another rule of thumb is that the faculty and administration must exhibit patience and understanding; and, above all, no defensive posturing. Remember, parents are viewed as “consumers” or “customers” and should be treated as such. But, school professional leadership also needs to remind parents that as “consumers” and “customers,” schools have a “no return policy.” Time is precious and there are no do-overs when it comes to a child’s growth and development. As educational leaders we must be steadfast and resolute in guiding parents to identify and engage the best approaches and resources possible for the child, irrespective of a parent’s misplaced, misguided or misdirected frustration, concern or upset. 

In the final analysis, our day schools and yeshivot must do everything possible in order to encourage and inspire parents to become involved as true partners in their children’s schooling.  This challenge will require time, energy and resources. But above all, it must require a school philosophy and value proposition which views parent involvement and engagement as a top school priority.

The following is a series of suggested strategies and initiatives which day school and yeshiva leadership may consider in order to encourage and improve parent involvement and engagement:

Suggested Strategies and Initiatives:

  • All faculty should be required to participate in professional development trainings relating to best practices in parent engagement; 
  • All faculty should be required to have parent check-in advisories with each parent at least once a month in order to help parents monitor the academic, social and emotional health of their child. These check-in conversations may take place via face-to-face meetings, zoom or telephone; and should become part of the teachers contractual responsibly; 
  • All parents must attend mandatory orientation sessions prior to the start of the school year as well as special mandatory onboarding seminars or workshops offered to new parents;
  • All parents must sign a contractual agreement regarding their commitment and obligation to adhere to all school policies and protocols; 
  • The school should offer parents a series of classes, workshops or seminars detailing and describing ways in which parents can monitor student progress and growth;
  • Effective communication requires a two-way flow of information. As such, each parent in the school must have 24 hour on-line access to their child’s records and academic progress reports;
  • Parents and students should  have access to “home review study centers” which are operated remotely by the school in order to assist parents and student in the home assignments;
  • Parents should be invited to visit their child’s classroom several times a year in order to experience the classroom teaching learning experience in real time;
  • Parents should be invited to participate in “Coffee & Bagels” sessions with the principal; “How Are We Doing” breakfasts with the Head of School;  and any other public forum with the administration that would afford parents the opportunity to more fully understand the nature and scope of the school’s programs, initiatives and accomplishments;
  • Parents should be offered the opportunity to provide ongoing constructive feedback to the school administration through parent satisfaction surveys and feedback sessions. Exit interviews are also essential for parents whose children are leaving the school – whether they leave prior to or after graduation;
  • The Administration must hold all faculty responsible and accountable for ongoing academic related communication with parents.This requirement should be included in a teacher’s contract and annual performance assessment; 
  • Parents should be encouraged to  volunteer to serve school committees and workgroups; and
  • Parent engagement and involvement in the school’s activities as well as in the ongoing progress of students should be included in the school’s Strategic Plan, its philosophy and or its Mission/Vision Statement.

In the belief that people support what they help to create, schools should invite parents to help inform the school about the myriad of ways in which the school can enhance, encourage and celebrate their participation. As such, parent engagement must become the sine qua non for effective schooling and it is incumbent upon the administration to ensure that this is realized. 

The manner in which schools engage parents will necessarily dictate the nature and scope of that participation and its impact on student learning. 

In the final analysis, parents will become just as essential as the personnel who are hired to teach their children. It is this collaborative partnership that will help guarantee the growth and development of the student from an academic, social and emotional perspective. 

There are no alternatives and there are no substitutes for parental involvement in their child’s educational experience. It’s an investment in a parent’s most valued and precious commodity – their children

Dr. Chaim Botwinick is principal of the Hebrew Academy, Margate FL; organizational consultant and executive coach. He is co-founder of LEV Consulting Associates specializing in Leadership Development and Strategic Planning; and, has served in a variety of senior Jewish educational leadership posts on the local, national and international levels. 

Dr. Botwinick is author of Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness, Brown Books, 2011.