Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Listening to Parents: Responding to their Concerns

Yesterday evening, I attended a "listening session" for local elected officials sponsored by Mayor Kleis as part of St. Cloud's listening week. Only a few citizens attended, but we listened to them, and the seven or so elected officials answered questions and gave their opinions. One of the citizens present asked if we were disappointed at how few citizens come out to participate in sessions like this. It is true, that in recent years, fewer and fewer citizens, and especially parents with children, seem to have time to become involved in community dialog events, or to participate in PTA or other similar activities.

And yet, it's really important for those of us who are serving that we have opportunities to engage the people that we serve. When we hear from citizens, especially parents with children in our schools, we gain a valuable perspective. So we need to work really hard on providing listening and engagement opportunities.

In March this year, the District sent out a parent/guardian "climate survey," that asked all parents to provide input on a number of questions. We sent out nearly 7,000 surveys. Of course, we have less parents than students, because some of our families have multiple children in the same school. About twenty three percent of the surveys were returned--that is, 1569 surveys. You can never be sure, whether the people who return surveys are parents who are more satisfied, or less satisfied, or fairly representative of the total population of parents. Parents who return surveys tend to be more engaged in their childrens' education. A smaller percentage of minority families respond than white families. Over 80 percent of the surveys are returned by Mom's. (What a surprise).

Responders overwhelmingly (at or above the 90% level) said that they feel that their child is safe at school, that when they contact their school, they receive a receptive and helpful response, that their child is safe going to and from school, that they know how their child is progressing at school, and that teachers show respect for their child. In the eighty to ninety percent range, responders told us that they feel that their schools are doing a good job of preparing children for their future, that their school is performing well academically, and that they would recommend their school to other parents. To tell you the truth, as a parent who was always pretty demanding of my childrens' schools, I think that this is a pretty good result. I would expect some parents in any school system to feel that their schools should do more to challenge their children. And, in any school, there are going to be children who aren't doing well, and some of their parents are going to be disappointed. It's possible also, that the parents of kids who aren't doing well, are more likely not to complete a survey in the first place.

These surveys are only one window on reality. But they provide us valuable information. One thing in the survey really stands out for me. In almost every area of the survey, the vast majority of responders, usually in the 80 plus or 90 plus percent range, responded positively to the quality of their own school and their children's experience. Parents are mostly satisfied with their child's bus service (which is pretty remarkable considering the challenges inherent in providing quality services to all students). Most parents feel that their schools provide adequate technology.

But 54 percent of respondents answered yes to the question: I would like more support in Math to help my child's learning at home and 45 percent of respondents answered yes to the question I would like more support in Reading to help my child's learning at home. Now when you get a strong response like that, it tells you that you had better do something to address those requests.

We have people telling us lots of positive things about their children's experience. The fact that they are willing also to raise concerns in these specific areas provides reassurance and validation that they are willing to tell us when they aren't satisfied, or when they expect more from us than we are providing. And, it tells us too, that these are not complainers. They are positive when they feel positive, but they tell us when they need more from their schools. We have about half of parents telling us clearly that they would like more support in Math and Reading.

These parents believe, as do I, that education is a partnership that involves parental support in the home for math and reading. The are telling us, half of our respondents, that they would really like to do their job at home better, but they need help. When you do a survey like this, by golly, its really important that you do something to address concerns. As a board member, its not my place to figure out what is the best way to address these concerns. I don't know if these are high school parents, elementary parents, or all of the above. I'm not sure what specifically these parents are asking for in the way of support, and it may be that it differs from parent to parent. But it is my job as a Board member to make sure that our leadership is following up on these concerns. I want to know that next year, when we do these surveys, that parents don't toss them in the wastebasket, because we failed to respond to their concerns. The best way that you can encourage more parents to become involved and more parents to send back their surveys is to make those surveys count, by addressing the concerns that are raised.

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