The following post about parental roles in education is written with consideration of some of the history and context of Ontario’s framework of regulations and policies (hence lengthy!), but I think that other districts will still find something relevant to their own parent engagement planning.

Children go to schools.  Children have parents/guardians/family.  The connection is clear.  Or is it?

There seems to be so much debate about what the parent role in education should look like.  There are many organizations attempting to define it, analyze it, and/or provide resources to support it.  There is certainly no shortage of resources to implement programs and outreach.

I often hear and read a lot of referencing in regards to parents as “school council parents” and “parents” and “hard to engage” parents, etc.,  like they are very separate and distinct, or need to be considered differently.  And the discussions continue about the difference between parent involvement and engagement.

I often wonder if it would be clearer if we used the word advocacy more — without it being a negative term.  Sometimes parents advocate for their child; sometimes they advocate for their child’s peers; sometimes it will be for their school or their community or district.  Sometimes they will need someone else to advocate for their child or family.  Sometimes advocacy will bring about good broader outcomes in education because it started with one child/one parent.  Sometimes advocacy will involve a number of education partners working together on common goals.

There is also the concern that parents vary in their ability to advocate and access resources, information, and to have a voice in education.

In Ontario, school councils were not established to have only the voices of just the members/attendees at the meeting to be heard.  It was clearly structured and outlined in regulation that parent membership was to be elected by the parent community, and it was the intention that each parent, staff, and student member, as well as the council as a whole, would have and take the responsibility to communicate, consult and bring forward the “general” views of who they represented. Their role has always been advisory in nature to the administration or school board.

From the regulation 621/00 (23): “A school council shall consult with parents of pupils enrolled in the school about matters under consideration by the council.”  Here is an example of the objectives stated in board policy for school councils in my district:

  • To focus on successful learning
  • To plan for school growth
  • To establish effective communication within the school community
  • To establish effective approaches to consultative and
    collaborative strategies between home, school and community
  • To increase participation of parents/guardians in the education of
    their children

Prior to 2006, some broader district or board level parent groups established independently and autonomously.  It was suggested in the Ministry school council guidebook that school councils could benefit in networking with other school councils in their district to increase their learning about local and provincial directions in education.  Other parent organizations also exist in Ontario so a lot of parent information and outreach has originated from such organized structures.

In 2006, the Ontario Ministry mandated school boards to establish board level Parent Involvement Committees (PICs), regardless of what was currently in place (or not) in terms of a broader, representative parent group.  In 2010, the Ministry released a policy document which outlined their vision of parent engagement.  This included that parents would “have opportunities to be involved, and also have a full range of choices about how to be involved, in the educational community to support student success.”  This document also outlined actions plans for school, board, and Ministry levels.  Further regulations regarding the PIC’s mandate and membership requirements were released in 2010.  Boards have gone through various processes, adjustments to meet requirements, and the process is expected to be done and in adherence with the Ministry regulations by Nov. 15 of 2011 – which is the date of this post.

Although the regulations are not completely specific in this area, policy documents suggest that PICs are to ensure outreach to the broader parent community, work with school councils, and represent the diversity of their district in its membership in order to help identify barriers to parental support of their children’s education.  By specific regulation, these committees require a parent majority, but also a senior administrator and trustee.  Additional staff and community members are optional.

Ontario also released a policy document, “Ontario’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy” in 2009 that had impact and implication for many aspects of education (classroom and school practices, curriculum, etc.).  It also reiterated the expectation that both school councils and PICs would ensure diverse representation in their membership and establish inclusive outreach to all parents and community voices.

But I think many questions remain.  Is this outreach happening in a consistent way across the province? Is this expectation reasonable on the structures set up?  Who is supporting the broader outreach and ensuring equitable access to education initiatives and information – at school and district levels?  Have all the policies and mandates made it happen?  Why has such extensive legislation and policy development been necessary in order to increase parent participation and bring voices “to the table”?  What are the barriers to do this effectively?  I spoke to some of this in a previous, “Parent involvement takes time, do we have it?”

But are we missing some key elements in all this?  I often wonder if building trust and positive relationships are what can move mountains more than mandates and policies for parent participation?  How can we shift the focus to that? Can we in the current model of education? Who is responsible to create the space for positive parent participation – regardless of what we call it and where it happens, and where the “right” parents are needed?  Are we clear what parents want and do we help them become aware of opportunities?  Are the limitations to influence both ways understood?

While we need to very concerned about the voices that may be missed, can we work with “what we get” and value that?  Is there value in keeping the already engaged and/or informed parents engaged in order to outreach and connect to the perspectives of other less engaged parents?  Even if the engaged are few, can they be helpful to ensure the outreach happens and how can it be supported?  Are parents who care about the broader community context being empowered and entrusted with that leadership?

Can all parents be supported and be the “right” parents in the various roles they choose and manage to take on?  It is sad to me when I hear parents feeling bad that they aren’t doing ‘x’, or feeling bad or embarrassed that they are doing ‘y’ or doing too much of ‘x’, or reluctant to ask questions and convey their concerns.

And if it is determined or decided that working and connecting through organized parent structures is not effective enough, what other avenues for inclusive outreach and invitation can and will be taken that are considerate of all parents?  Can educators and administrators plan this effectively without an avenue to parent input and perspective?  How can we partner with all different parents to bring about positive and progressive changes in education?  We may have struggled with this for many years, but to what extent can technology offer some solutions in this area to help overcome some barriers to parent participation, as well as change in education to support students?

And yet, I feel I haven’t addressed all the questions and gray areas.  I hope others will share what is working and what is not.  Thank you for reading!