Most independent and international schools have parent associations/auxiliaries, and the vast majority of these do not have separate legal status from the host school. In the United States, independent school parent associations are almost always under the umbrella of the school’s 501(c)3 status. However, even without being a separate legal entity, a parent association can be either a powerful advocate for the mission in a healthy and supportive way OR a thorn in the side of the administration if its core purpose is to be a liaison between the parent body and school management.
Parent associations historically grew out of parent volunteerism—especially in the forms of serving as room parents for elementary and middle school grades and supporting and organizing fund raisers/auctions/festivals and events to generate fun, community spirit and raise money to give back to the school. In the first role, volunteers work closely with teachers and division heads. In the second role, they partner with the school’s development/ communications office to raise additional funding for teacher support/materials and sometimes for larger causes such as facility improvements.
However, when the association ties fundraising to a requirement that the school leadership meet certain goals, that gives it a degree of power and influence. Some might argue “rightfully so.” Others might argue “inappropriate”.
Recently, some parent associations have become more adversarial rather than supportive. The reason? During the pandemic, parents were denied access to many campus sites to interact with teachers and students for one to two years. Often the associations became informal gatherings of disgruntled parents who began to organize formally to press school administrations for specific personnel, structural or curricular changes. In doing so, these associations claimed to be communicating parent feedback that either the school was not receiving or was receiving but not “hearing.” In these circumstances, the normal professional/cordial head alliance with the parent association president can become frayed and at times, the associations have battled with school boards and management over issues arising from the parents.
Heads understandably take pride in having a close relationship with the parent/client. However, in more stressful times, and as parents have become more actively engaged in a range of cultural, social/political and health issues, parents have demanded town meetings, more direct contact with boards and have even circulated petitions. There are several ways to prevent the school/parent association relationship from becoming damaged. In some schools there is a parent association officer such as the president serving formally on the board. We do not recommend this because this person often sees him or herself solely as the parent representative on the board. Rather it is wise to have the president of the association report regularly at board meetings but not remain as a sitting member of the board. In some schools where the parent association does have formal board representation, then it is best to have the association president serve at least a two-year term. Otherwise, there is no training/orientation time that allows that individual to see the bigger governance picture rather than the more immediate narrow parent view.
Many parents believe that the role of the board is to represent parent interests. That is not true, or only partially true, even when boards of international schools are parent-elected. Boards must represent first and foremost the mission (which includes the roles of governance and strategic planning); conduct fiscal oversight; and hire, evaluate and if necessary, fire the head.
Boards that represent only current parents are forgetting the legacy of their past, their history, their alumni and are ignoring the future generations of parents, faculty, students, and communities. In other words, boards made up entirely of present parents, especially elected parents, and even more so those with parent reps as voting members of the board, tend mainly to think in terms of the short terms needs of the current parent body.
To ensure a healthy relationship with parent associations, schools should:
1. Conduct regular annual governance training sessions for the officers/cabinet of parent associations and make these sessions positive, constructive, and concrete to show how a partnership can work most successfully for both school and parents.
2. Ensure that the head of school relationship with the president and vice president of these associations is a healthy one and that the association, as a matter of course, consults with the head before new officers are elected. The head cannot have a veto over the selection of the association president but to choose a person who is in open conflict with the head/board/school is to invite a dysfunctional relationship.
3. Urge parent associations to work collaboratively with school management in the parent/school relationship. An example would be to hold evening parent meetings in the fall by grade level (NEVER “town meetings”), and the parent association may sponsor these sessions, find the locations and organize the invitations. Themeetings preferably are held in parents’ homes where all can sit comfortably, even on the floor when the numbers warrant. The head is present with the relevant division head and two teachers and perhaps two board members. These sessions provide effective ways for the head to get to know the parents and their views, in a setting that is intimate and structured, and the parent association takes credit for organizing them.
The head’s role in these meetings is to take 30 minutes for his or her team to talk about, for example, 5th grade activities this year and then to allow 60 minutes of Q and A. The meeting ends on time as preannounced. One rule for these meetings: no one person or name can be criticized. Both sides are right, and both are wrong. Heads must be more honest and boards should listen, offer advice where warranted but allow the head to do his or her job.
If confronted with a question or criticism, the head may respond: “Thank you, that is new information, we will look into it”; or “Thank you, we are working on that and here is an update”; or “Thank you, but we believe that concern is unfounded and untrue and here is why.” The head is not defensive and uses the meeting to learn people’s names, build bridges and avoid having parents bypass the administration by going to other parents or to the board. The goal is to encourage parents to use the appropriate channels of communication.
Parent associations can be a part of an information system to advocate passionately for the school in the marketplace and to counter misinformation, “fake news” and rumors which can harm a school unless challenged. Parent/school partnerships can be constructive, powerful, and even essential. However, to ensure that this partnership is healthy, schools need to be proactive in guiding the association in terms of structure, goals and protocols. In the world of governance, we talk about “channels and boundaries” and those words can be applied equally to parent associations as well as to governing boards of schools.