By Jennifer Wohlleb
When Pike County Schools’ annual survey of parental involvement five years ago showed it had a problem, district leaders decided it was time to make some changes.
The surveys are done as part of the federal Title I program, which serves Pike County’s 12 elementary schools.
PHOTO: Stacey Smith (standing), Pike County Schools’ Title I district parent engagement coordinator, speaks with (from left) parent Amanda Hackney, Principal Jill Maynard and Title I teacher Suzanne Bevins, all from Southside Elementary School, during a meeting of all district elementary schools’ parental involvement committees.
“We brought in a planning committee of parents, teachers and administrators and we looked at how can we address this situation,” said Robert Osborne, the district’s director of federal programs. “The committee came up with this idea for our PAIR (Parent Attendance and Involvement = Reward) program, and from there it just blossomed into ways to get parents into our schools. We recorded that data (of parental visits) and at the end of the school year, we kind of drew a line and said, ‘OK, these schools had the best parental involvement and they were the winners.”
The winning schools, divided into large and small school categories, receive a trophy and a banner to display in their lobby, declaring them PAIR champions, as well as a check from funds donated by local businesses. The rewards have ranged from $500 to $1,500, depending on the economy.
“To be honest with you, the schools enjoyed the trophy and the banner as much they did the monetary reward,” Osborne said. “But (soliciting the monetary donation) was our way of reaching out to our community to let them know this was important. They are sent a nice certificate and thank you card for being part of our program. It really ties the program in to the community.”
Each elementary school has a monthly parent involvement meeting, which they try to tie to other activities in the school, like a Thanksgiving lunch, open house, Grandparents’ Day, or a student performance.
“They really try to have their monthly meetings when there are a lot of people there anyway,” Osborne said. “When we have a lot of parents there, let’s schedule a workshop about how you can work with your kid on math homework; they’re in the building already, so this will increase attendance at the workshops.”
Student performances are a big attraction, said Blackberry Elementary School Principal Tonya Dylan.
“We also try to schedule things at different times of day because some parents like things early in the morning, others like them right before they pick them up and some even like after school, so we offer a variety of times. It has helped,” she said.
Geary Walton, principal of Feds Creek Elementary, said making parents feel welcome has been a big part of the process.
“I think if parents feel welcome, if they feel like they are important to the day-to-day operations of the school, they’re going to be more willing to come back and more willing to be involved,” he said.
Walton said that approach is working at his school.
“In the last year-and-a-half, the thing that I’m starting to see, the parents, when they come through the door, they have a smile on their face, they’re wanting to communicate with us,” he said. “They want us to communicate with them, they want to be informed, to be a part of something with their children.”
Kimper Elementary parent and school council member Dewayne Abshire said with fewer students coming from traditional two-parent homes, it’s important to involve parents, or even grandparents or family members who are serving as guardians.
“We need to let our kids know that they need to educate themselves, get a college education so they won’t fall into the same pit that so many have fallen into,” said Abshire, who also serves on the school’s parental involvement committee.
Parent Tanya Coleman, a school council member at Miller Elementary and a parental involvement committee member, said not only are more parents coming into the schools, but they are providing a better quality of help, which translates into student achievement.
“When you feel like your parent cares, you’re kind of held to a higher standard; you’re not only held accountable at school, you’re held accountable at home,” she said. “It makes a bigger difference in their day if their parents know what they’re facing. I think as adults we forget what it’s like to be a kid and those hurdles that you have to overcome, those problems that you have every day. If you’re involved and know what’s going on, it makes a difference to your child.”
Social media has been a boon for increasing parental involvement.
“Our parents are becoming much more tech savvy, which is really good; it makes communicating so much easier,” said Feds Creek principal Walton. “We have so many ways to reach out to parents … and they’re very good about getting right back to us.”
Dylan, the Blackberry principal, said the district’s new Schoolway app has been popular with parents because it can send notices and information to their digital devices.
With the program in its fourth year, Osborne said the district has seen a steady increase in the number of parents coming through its doors. In PAIR’s first year, parental visits increased by 4,950 over the previous year, but numbers alone are not enough, so they are retooling the program.
“We need to increase it from parental involvement to parental engagement,” Osborne said. “We’re getting people into the building; now we want to train them on how to read to their kids, to do math homework with their kids, to know what websites to let their kids on at home, those types of things. We’re getting them in the building, now we’re going to engage them more.
“It’s one thing to get a parent to come for Grandparents Day or for Pancake Day or Doughnuts for Dads Day, but it’s another for a parent to be actively involved in academics. We’re bumping it up a notch.”
— November is National Parent Involvement Month
Quantity and quality parental involvement
Increasing parental involvement through programs like PAIR isn’t just something that sounds good; it has led to a measurable improvement in Pike County Schools, according to school board member Ken Biliter.
“When we have that kind of involvement, our discipline problems have decreased, our attendance has increased. The school at Phelps that won the (PAIR) award had like 98 percent attendance,” he said. “It has also cut down on bullying, it’s just cut down on discipline problems. It’s had students more interested in wanting to learn and the teachers have seen the difference.”
In addition to the intangibles parental involvement adds to the school district, the PAIR program will also create a tangible: an outdoor ball court. When Majestic Elementary closed its doors this spring and merged with Phelps Elementary, it brought with it the money it had earned for having the highest parental involvement in the district for three years running.
“What they are doing with some of the money (they won from PAIR) at Majestic, is this spring at Phelps we’re going to build an outdoor ball court and we’re going to put in a plaque in the concrete that says, ‘Donated by the PAIR program at Majestic,’” Biliter said. “The parents wanted to know what they were going to do with the money they had raised, hopefully to do things for their students at Majestic, outside so they could have some more activities. We talked to the Phelps people, put the money in escrow at a bank and this spring it’s going to be used to build the ball court. It’s kind of a ‘thank you’ for welcoming the Majestic students.”
He said the four-year-old program has been a great success, and one he believes will continue to grow.
“Now, the parents feel like they’re more a part of the schools,” Biliter said. “Before, you might say (to parents), ‘I wish you’d get more involved,’ and now the parents say, ‘Well, what else can I get involved in?’ They ask now, whereas before we wished they would get involved.”