Inside DPS: Why You Should Never Miss a Parent-Teacher Conference

I can hear it already: "Why should we have to incentivize parents to attend parent-teacher conferences?" But here's the thing: It works.
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Last week I went to my daughter's first-ever preschool parent-teacher conference, and it was an eye-opener.

I learned that she is a leader in the classroom and was given the important job recently of helping a new student learn all the tenets of her Montessori classroom. I learned that she can't yet write her name without her "name card" and she mixes capital and small letters. (I also learned that it's okay, and I shouldn't panic, because some three-year-olds can't write any letters.)

I learned she is a great rule follower, and that she also tries to enforce rules on all the other kids in her class. "So she's bossy?" I asked Mrs. Sue. "Not bossy," Mrs. Sue said kindly. "She acts more like the kindergartners. They tend to act as the policemen in the classroom." I appreciated that answer but knew I would work on quelling that "bossiness" at home.

I worried a lot before the conference because I didn't fully know how she was doing, even though I review her worksheets every night, talk to her about school and chit chat with the teacher when I can.

The bottom line is that I learned a ton about how Madeleine is doing. That parent-teacher conference also reiterated how important those meetings are. I went home with a lot of homework, as all parents should.

In Detroit Public Schools, we struggle with getting all parents to value the importance of parent-teacher conferences, even as we recently have shown gains in increasing parent engagement. I talked to one school principal who said attendance was 20 percent at a recent parent-teacher conference. 20 percent?!

I spoke to another school principal, Ronnie Sims of Brenda Scott Academy, who had a pretty darn good turnout of nearly 75 percent recently, amounting to about 635 parents. Mr. Sims used some innovative tactics to encourage parents to come to the 4 p.m. conference in October.

"One of the reasons that the participation was so high was because we had an event called "Trick or Trunk," Mr. Sims said. "This event afforded the students the chance to receive candy out of Harvest- and Halloween-decorated car trunks, including mine."

The vehicle participants were staff, parents or administration, and the best-decorated trunk received a prize. A parent won!

"The event promoted a safe way for the students to trick or treat. It was a record turnout -- standing room only," Sims said. "The students received their entry passes to the Trick or Trunk area only after the parents had a conference with the teachers."

What a great idea! And we welcome every brilliant thought to get parents involved in their children's learning.

Still, I know the criticism will flow from here. I can hear it already: "Why should we have to incentivize parents to attend parent-teacher conferences?"

But here's the thing: It worked. And it was awesome. And it got parents engaged.

As a district, we have been improving parent engagement, thanks in part to our performance-based contract with Detroit Parent Network... and the efforts of principals like Mr. Sims. In the first year of the contract, parent engagement levels increased by 37% when comparing same-month participation levels for the end of the 2009-10 school year with the current school year. And 77% of schools increased their parent involvement by 10% or above.

As administrators, we need to continue to do our part to encourage parents to be engaged in their children's learning because we know it impacts student achievement. And part of that is attending parent teacher conferences. Not just occasionally. All the time.

Simply put, you learn a heck of a lot about your child. It seems obvious, but that's not a priority for everyone. Shocking but true.

In 2010, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy even floated the idea of jailing parents who missed a certain number of parent-teacher conferences. DPS Emergency Manager Roy Roberts is meeting with Prosecutor Worthy soon to explore that concept, as well as other ways to encourage parents to attend parent-teacher conferences.

As those details are worked out at a higher level, I have a challenge for every parent reading this and for every teacher and school administrator: Do whatever it takes to raise engagement and participation in parent teacher conferences in your school. Get creative. Form a committee. Have a "Trick or Trunk" event. Steal ideas from other schools having success.

Here's why:

"Conferences allow parents to receive specific feedback on their children's progress in each of their classes," Sims said. "Many times, parents do not have the opportunity to chart their children's progress because of so many other obligations. This is the time to receive updates and information pertinent to the growth and welfare of the students. Conferences also allow teachers to provide strategies with the parents that can be used at home to aide in continuous student academic and social growth. It also makes the parent aware of their need to support the child in areas that show weakness as related by the teachers."

Right on, Mr. Sims!

Look, had I not attended my daughter's preschool conference, I wouldn't know that she was struggling to write her name without her "name card." I also would have had no idea she was considered a rule enforcer, but also a leader in her classroom. Those were invaluable things to learn and were points that I took home to both work on and celebrate.

That preschool conference took about an hour of my time for information that was truly invaluable. Time utterly well-spent.

Later on that day, I talked with my daughter about her progress. I also gave her a little incentive for doing so well -- a "congratulations" packet with stickers, fruit snacks, and some other dollar-bin items. I know that left an impression on her. The things I learned that day -- and the big hug I got in return from my little girl -- was worth a thousand hours of my time.

Try it.

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