by California State PTA Family Engagement Commission Consultant, Kathleen Fay
Families want to be heard by their school community. PTA leaders can help make that happen by hosting listening sessions to provide families with an authentic opportunity to offer their ideas on how schools can better meet their needs. If your PTA is planning for a listening session consider the following:
WHO: For our purposes the term families is defined as anyone who cares for the children, which can include parents, grandparents, other family members including older siblings, neighbors and community members who care about and for the children. You can decide if you want to include students. Remember when inviting families to include everyone possible to join in. You’ll benefit if you are able to run logistics for the gatherings and convey the input received to school administrators.
WHAT: Encourage everyone to offer their ideas, suggestions, input, unanswered questions, feedback, hopes, wishes, needs, and priorities concerning the education of their children and to reflect on their lives as members of the school community.
WHEN: Consider holding at least one daytime and one nighttime session during the first half of the school year so that input can be incorporated into the annual budget planning process. Adding a weekend option can also boost participation. Allow a window of a couple of hours for ideas to spark other ideas and for people to come and go as needed to join in on their own schedule. You know your community best, so choose the times that work best locally.
WHERE: In person or virtual. Consider holding these listening sessions at school (library, multipurpose room, auditorium, gymnasium) or in a location convenient to the local community (park recreation room, community hall, senior center, local library, church meeting room). Meet families where they live!
WHY: School districts are required to seek parent input when making decisions for their schools and to promote family participation in education programs for all students. But too often, schools rely on limited-response surveys and comments from only a few parents to do this. It is appropriate for PTAs to help give voice to the needs of the entire parent community, with diverse representation and the opportunity to freely state opinions…for EVERY child.
HOW: You might use the established state priority areas as categories for families’ input. That way, the information you gather will align with the way your school district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) is structured. A simple way to do this is to prepare large sheets of paper or poster boards that you post around the room with these headings:
- Basic Services: Teachers, instructional materials, facilities (plus library, counselors, school nurse)
- State Standards: Academic content, standards for student performance across the curriculum (including PE, Career Tech Ed, Arts)
- Parent and Family Engagement: Relationships between staff and families, partnerships focused on student outcomes, parent involvement in decision-making.
- Student Achievement: Statewide assessments, English learner progress, college and career readiness
- Student Engagement: Attendance, graduation (plus mental health, support systems, homeless and foster youth)
- School Climate: Suspension/expulsion, safety, school connectedness, school culture
- Course Access: Availability of a broad course of study for all students, instructional supports, inclusive practices, equity
- Student Outcomes: Indicators of student performance in each of the subject areas
Your participants can move around the room and write down any comments or recommendations they have in each category. Those who agree with something already listed can just add a tally mark (like this: |||| |||). To highlight priorities, do a second round and have each participant put a star next to their top three to five suggestions. This can be adapted to a virtual format–there are many options.
Encourage participants to note the school’s particular strengths as well as needed areas of improvement. You might want to have sticky notes on hand if people want to add longer comments. Encourage conversations around the room to help everyone hone in on what’s important.
A few additional tips to ensure a successful event:
- Serve refreshments
- Bring lots of pens
- Model a positive, relaxed attitude
When you’re done, take photos of each poster and then roll or stack them up to take with you. Summarize the results and submit the input to your school principal and to the district’s LCAP Advisory Committee for further consideration. Share what you learned in your next newsletter, and let parents know how to offer additional input.
Watch for recommendations from your PTA listening sessions to be reflected in some aspects of your next LCAP update!