Engaging Parents in After-School Programs

As part of the Leveling Up: Parenting study, a project of the Connected Learning Research Network at the DML Research Hub, I and my fellow researchers wondered: How can we help interest-driven after-school programs better engage with parents? Though we had spent a lot of time in these spaces interviewing and observing students and their families, we realized we hadn’t systematically talked to the educators and administrators in these spaces to get their perspective on what works and what doesn’t. We’ve just finished interviewing educators and administrators at a dozen interest-based after-school enrichment programs in Orange County and Los Angeles about their successes and frustrations in communicating with and engaging parents. Though we’re still processing and coding our data, we wanted to share some great practices and patterns we found. We present some of the themes that have surfaced when talking to organizations that are doing a great job looping in parents — and some of the things they’ve tried that haven’t quite worked as planned.

Think very critically about how to structure an initial intake/engagement, the moment when a parent takes that first step through the door to enroll their child.

A youth theatre arts organization requires applicants to audition (everyone gets in, it’s all part of the learning process). On audition day, as soon as the child goes into the audition room, the parent is immediately whisked away into another meeting room for parents. Here, an administrator goes over the parent expectations, rules for conduct and attendance, things they need to purchase, and the like. Parents are given the entire schedule of the production and are asked to immediately note any conflicts on the form they will turn in right then and there. They also explain that they expect parents to participate in the production process in some small way. Parents have participated in such ways as helping publicize the productions to even sewing costumes.

A mid-size informal youth after-school program in Orange County with a long wait list has a very structured parent intake process. Parents come in, attend a meeting, review the manual, and have a tour. The staff member gives the parent an informal, friendly verbal quiz to make sure they’ve read through the manual on policies such as attendance and involvement. While this might not be every organization’s approach, it certainly signals to parents to take the rules and their children’s participation in the space very seriously.

It’s all about the brief face time when a parent picks up their child from the program.

Across the board, our interviewees told us that this is the most important opportunity for communication with parents. It’s amazing how much information is communicated and digested in this small window of time. Whether it’s organization-wide announcements or individual issues or concerns with particular students, this is when most of that communication happens. How can you maximize this valuable time?

When pick-up time approaches, set up a table with information on a new event you are promoting (or anything you wish to get parent buy-in for) that the parents must pass by. Get them to sign up, give them a flyer, and then follow up with phone calls in subsequent days. Accordingly, redundant communication is crucial. “Flyer+Face+Phone” is a common mode of purposeful redundancy. The flyer is a persistent artifact the parents can hold on to and refer to on their own time; the facetime allows them to ask any questions they have and feel a more personal investment; and the phone call is a reminder. Several organizations we spoke with are not afraid to call home with multiple reminders: a week out, the day before, and the day of, in order to maximize parent turn-out.

Parents will be more engaged and responsive if there is trust. How do you build it?

Organizations we’ve talked to say that the No. 1 way this happens is by getting to know parents personally. This can be taxing and tough, but it reaps rewards — when you need something from parents, when you have new programming aimed toward parents, or when you need to communicate about a student. What are some strategies these orgs have used?

The front desk is the front line. In many organizations, these staff members know every parent of every single child. These folks are usually the parents’ first org-facing contact. In bigger, multi-site organizations, any global parent outreach initiative is always tasked to the front-line on-site staff – it never comes from a central e-mail or office person. One administrator at a California-wide after-school programming org explained, “We’re a big organization. If I wanted to kind of get a group of parents to come to a workshop that we’re giving them, if I call them, it would mean nothing to them because they don’t know me, but they know our staff, our line staff. Really, we utilize our line staff to both build those connections, those relationships.”

In one small after-school maker space (around 60 students served), the coordinator acts as a chief information hub and greets parents at pick-up every day (see above). Some parents are so involved, they asked the program coordinators to be their children’s godparents. Both coordinators at the space include their cell phone numbers on parent-facing communication. She explained that this is partially because the community they serve may not have freedom to access a phone at their place of employment during the day: “The reason why I put my cell phone number there is because we leave late. Sometimes the parents, the only way they can communicate with you is at night when they get home. So, I don’t mind. They text me. If I’m busy, I’ll call them back, or I’ll text them back. I’ve never had a problem of anybody taking advantage of like, calling my cell phone or stuff like that.”

To Facebook or not to Facebook? One organization’s executive director went all-in, devoting his entire Facebook presence to communicating with and helping the parents and students in his community. They got to know him as a person who was on the lookout for their kids’ best interests and used the network effect to generate high parent awareness and great involvement. This is an exceptional case, however, and the ED needed to give up any Facebook privacy whatsoever to accomplish this.

As an aside — one way you know you have trust? Parents give you a cute nickname as a term-of-endearment. One participant explained that when she was worried about getting parent buy-in for taking a few students to a city council meeting, “[My students] were like, ‘No, my parents trust you.’ You know, like, they normally call me ‘The Curly Haired One’ [in Spanish]. They’re relieved that they know that when their kids do something with me, it’s good.”

Think “whole-family” in programming and recruitment.

Activate students to motivate their own parents and even other parents. One organization was compelled to provide parent education classes on topics like financial literacy and college applications as a component of their grant obligations. They asked their high school-age students to come up with a promotional strategy: they created their own fliers, set recruitment goals, and mapped their own plan. They got 60 parents to show up to the first session.

One organization has had success in Compton implementing the Family Creative Learning module from MIT’s Media Lab in evening sessions. This is a comprehensive free model of family engagement that eventually has families working together to use the STEM tools Scratch and MakeyMakey. Before they even got to computer programming, however, the organizers had parents and children work together to do a marshmallow engineering challenge, explaining STEM principles along the way. The organizer told me later that she had moms coming up to her saying even this small exercise sparked the idea of their daughters applying for STEM magnet schools, which they didn’t even consider on their radar before.

An app alone isn’t going to solve parent engagement issues.

One after-school organization decided to deploy ClassDojo in its classes as a means of parent communication and to try to increase engagement, especially around behavior issues. This didn’t work for a couple of reasons:

  • Many parents in this community didn’t have an e-mail account or, if they did, they didn’t check it often.
  • The ones who did check e-mail often were the more engaged ones, anyway.
  • Not everyone signed up for the service.

In short, there was no holistic culture of use developed around ClassDojo at this program. It was implemented as an opt-in and didn’t take advantage of the way that parents from the population they serviced organically communicated (not e-mail).

Technology can still be useful. 

Many small to mid-size after-school orgs don’t have the budget or staff to implement and maintain a large online “portal” communication service that a school or district might use. Additionally, especially for low-income populations that may not have constant home internet access or those who don’t speak English, relying too heavily on these portals may even exacerbate inequalities in parent engagement. And yet, using a no-cost, nimble, and un-intrusive tool can help in keeping parents engaged and in the loop, whether you need to simply broadcast a class cancellation or are trying to cultivate interest a new program. These come courtesy of Leslie Aaronson, strategic director for K-12 Initiatives for the National Center for Women & Information Technology and former high school computer science teacher.

Remind.com
This is a free group text message service that shields phone numbers from other users. You can set it up to be one-way (org to parent) or two-way (parent to org or even parent to parent). Parents choose whether they want to receive messages through Remind’s web portal or on its Android or Apple app or even via simple text message. Additionally, if parents view messages through the app, the messages you send will be automatically translated into the default language on the parent’s phone.

Edmodo
If you do think that a portal system for parent communication is right for your program, this is a powerful and widely-used free classroom management system. It is organized akin to a Facebook feed and has the ability to send messages to discrete groups of parents or even individual parents, provided that they have signed up.

Shutterfly (Yes, that Shutterfly)
The longstanding internet photo printing service has an under-the-radar feature that is a favorite of teachers and parent groups. It’s called “Shutterfly Share Sites,” a pre-packaged group portal page that comes with calendar, message board, picture sharing, and volunteer sign-up functionality. Says Aaronson, “[My child’s] elementary school classes use Shutterfly to keep class lists and contacts, send out newsletters from room parents and teachers and allows for easy to create volunteer forms for parents to sign up for different events. It is free, easy to use and follows the class from year to year – we just change the teacher administration so there is no new sign up every year for the parents.”

That’s all for now. We still have a lot of data to go through, but we’re curious to hear if you have any tips or ideas. Please leave them in the comments field below.

Banner image credit: UC Irvine