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Strengthening Parent Associations

A recent client said that his School’s Parents’ Association operates as a separate nonprofit entity with its own charter and elects its officers and cabinet without consulting with the Board or Head. Yet every year, a new Parents’ Association President sits at the same table with the Board.

His very direct questions were: How many schools have parent associations and what is their role? How many have a separate charter? How many have voting or observation rights at board meetings? How are their officers chosen?

The vast majority of independent and international schools have parent associations. Most parent association representatives do NOT have board observation rights and this Consultant knows of none with voting rights.

Parent associations are useful channels for parent interest, activity, volunteerism and some forms of information. Usually small groups from a very few nationalities run them in the international realm. In those settings, the Americans usually take the lead and dominate in voice, presence and volunteering.

Two key roles of parent associations are to provide volunteer support when needed and to sponsor community building activities, some of which are also major fund raisers. It is in a third area where problems can arise: some parent associations see their role as assisting the flow of communications among parents and the school administration and board and may also see their job as filtering, interpreting and then attempting to address parent concerns.

In this last potential communications role, schools face their greatest challenge. Most school heads do not have a voice, and some do not care to exercise one in the choice of the leader of a parents’ association. Thus, if that individual has a significant personal, narrow issue and also sits at the board table, real problems may occur.

This Consultant is not in favor of parent association representatives sitting at the board table, but if that practice already exists, and it is impractical to change it, then their leaders should serve for two years, rather than one. They are still non-voting observing members, but a two year term makes the individual far more likely to be knowledgeable and helpful. A one year term is too short to allow any PA leader to be effective in participating in board deliberations.

A publicly acknowledged role for parent associations to assist in the flow of communications can result in separating the administration from the parents. This can lead to senior management relying solely on the interpretation of parent opinion as filtered through the parents’ association executive or leadership group. That group may or may not be conveying fairly and accurately what a diverse group of parents is saying or thinking.

It is far more effective and safe for school heads to ask the PTA/PA to host grade level coffees in the parents’ homes (preferably those of middle income means) in the evening, not at school or during the day. If the get-together is crowded, so much the better as it makes for a more intimate and helpful dialogue.

The head, the division head, a board member or two, and the teachers from that grade should attend. The sessions might run from 7:30 to 9:00pm with the first half hour being an event update from the head, division head and teachers. The head should lead a question and answer period during the last hour. The one firm rule is that no individual teacher or staff member is discussed or mentioned by name. Otherwise teachers will be unwilling to attend.

These sessions, especially if held in the fall, and for “transition” grades such as Pre K, K, 5, 6, 9 and 12, can be a powerful tool for the head to get to know the parents; for parents to have a voice and feel connected to the administration; for teachers to feel appreciated; and for the board to be aware of the range of issues and challenges that the administration must manage.

Some schools have created parent association structures which are the go-between between the administration and the parent body. Those parent groups should receive formal training annually just as boards do. Littleford & Associates has done this worldwide and this training can be crucial in helping to clarify parental roles and identify future leaders.

John Littleford
Senior Partner