Parents have a right to expect appropriate transparency just as schools have the right to manage the school setting safely. For independent and international schools, the role of the school in ultimately deciding what is taught in the classroom is mostly intact, but not entirely.
One Head of an international school recently wrote that parents have demanded access to school games and performances. They said they were tired of being kept out of the building for safety reasons and were opposed to wearing masks when they were allowed back onto the campus.
Fighting both school and local protocols and guidance, the parents turned to their various embassies to try to pressure the Head into filing for exemptions. When those tactics failed, the parents complained to the Ministry of Education of this country about the School and its lack of sensitivity to the needs of families to be in close daily touch with their children at school. The Head has become exasperated while pushing back against these almost constant pressures.
In one School in the US where COVID cases are relatively high, the Head recently stepped down without advance notice because the governing Board was split, and the Church Board overseeing it refused to follow her recommendations. The Head wanted to require that all staff be vaccinated and that students always wear masks in the building. She also wanted to exclude parents from entering the building at this time. About half of the parents vehemently and publicly disagreed, and several board members did not support these measures. Those parents who did agree with the Head supported her very quietly behind the scenes. Her abrupt resignation without any explanation left the community divided and temporarily leaderless. The board is frantically searching for an internal or external interim.
These “wars”, cultural, health-related, racial, vaccination and safety centered, have created havoc in many schools for heads trying to maintain a safe learning environment for students while trying to deal with teacher morale and retention issues. Many international schools continue to experience the departure of expat teachers and families. Of course, this exodus varies by region, and some areas are more popular for quality of life than others and are faring better.
Regardless of the nation, or region or type of school, issues like these have mobilized parents who are using social media to attack the school and administration in ways simply unheard of in the past. Some parents with deep pockets and PR support are even filing lawsuits to pressure schools into action or to overturn disciplinary decisions taken by administrations in accordance with school policy and protocols.
Some of this is not new. But the conditions of three pandemic years have pumped up parent engagement on a level, and with a tone and intent not seen before, including the use of new more sophisticated social media tools. WhatsApp has always been a concern for school leaders due to the confidential chat groups that parents form, often sharing emotional calls for action.
Parental engagement need not be controversial or negative, however. It need not always make boards and heads worried about dodging the next “bullet.” Schools can get ahead of controversial issues by proactively organizing their parents into parent advocate groups sometimes known as ambassador teams. Such teams not only assist in enrollment management for retention and recruitment but can serve as a proactive phalanx of support for school policy and the school’s leadership. These parents are recruited to go from passive consumers to passionate advocates and to get out in front of rumors and negative and often untrue social media campaigns about various school decisions or policies. Littleford & Associates has helped hundreds of schools organize these groups under a defined volunteer leadership reporting directly to the head. Some ambassador groups have as many as 150 to 200 such parents organized in subgroups to ensure fast, accurate engagement with parents who may be acting on false or partial information.