We all talk about the need for increased parent involvement in our schools and at our school board meetings. But as any board member who has ever arrived at a meeting to see a room unexpectedly packed (and who has immediately thought “what bad thing happened?) knows, there is positive parent involvement and there is not-so-positive involvement. Getting a crowd at a contentious meeting where people have come to express their unhappiness isn’t what anyone means when they say they want more parent involvement.

The ideal type of parent participation involves parents who are informed and engaged in their children’s education, who are willing – to the extent their schedule allows – to volunteer in the schools, and who are supportive of the district and board. This doesn’t mean every parent has to agree with all board decisions – that’s an unreasonable expectation. But they need an understanding of how the school board operates and how decisions have been made.

To build this type of parental involvement it helps to have a plan for the board to reach out to the public. That plan begins with solid communication between the board and the public, and proactively engaging the parent community.

Note that much of the advice given here could also have the effect of increasing the involvement from other, non-parent community members – a stakeholder group that is also essential to the success of a well-functioning board. But for now, we will concentrate on the parent special interest group.

Maximize Information to Parents

One reason those difficult board meetings happen is when parents haven’t been adequately informed about board decisions or what’s going on in their schools. (Some decisions, of course, are inherently controversial –redistricting, closing a school, or managing budget cuts, for instance.)

Districts need to have a good communication plan so that the parents feel comfortable that they are informed on all school events. With today’s technology there are many different ways that a district can reach their parents on a variety of school programs and issues. A district needs to set up a communication protocol which not only lays out what information needs to be disseminated but also the best method for disseminating that information.

For example if something is very time-sensitive, a newsletter will not be as effective as a text message. Interestingly enough some districts are finding that text messages are more effective than emails in reaching their parents. But parents must “opt-in” to receiving text messages, or a district risks making its parent community angry.

Districts are increasingly savvy about using social media. To be certain, there are risks with social media but there is no denying it is a communication tool that can be very effective.

One school district, Newton, in Sussex County, makes it a point to use Google Docs to post not only their board meeting agenda, but any reports or supporting materials pertaining to agenda items. The Google Docs are how board members get those materials – but is also open to parents and community members. The transparency with which they conduct meetings helps build trust and a strong board-community relationship.

But an old-fashioned letter can be as effective as ever. Recently I heard a district talk about their new ways of communicating with their parents, including texting, emails and blogs. However, they also said one of the more effective methods they use is a snail-mailed newsletter.

One of the most powerful – and most frequently-used information sources for parents is the grapevine. While the grapevine isn’t known for accuracy, there is no question it exists in every district, and it is powerful. For some parents, it may even be their primary source for school information. It’s only natural for parents to turn first to other parents for questions about their child’s school. But being proactive about sending out information can help shut down the rumor mill.

In-Person Meetings

So how do districts deal with a system that does not exist in any formal way? This might be the most critical part in building the district-parent relationship. School boards and school administrators need to go directly to the parents – face-to-face.

Many successful districts schedule regular visits with their parent leaders on district issues. This meeting could be a meeting of the leaders of each school’s parent association along with the district superintendent, a board representative, and other district administrators. Some districts will also send an administrator or even a board liaison to an individual school’s PTO or home-school association meetings. This can be a valuable way of directly providing accurate information to the parents who are the opinion leaders in the community.

Unlike board meetings, which are formal and governed by the Sunshine Law and Robert’s Rules, these meetings have much more dialogue and parents can ask questions. It is a more conducive way for the district leadership to build a trusting relationship with their parents.

I remember attending one such meeting when a parent asked a question about a rumor. The superintendent was able to promptly provide accurate information, and successfully intercept a negative rumor.

Board Meeting Manners

It is important for school board member to make a good impression during a board meeting. Remember, this is probably the only time that the public gets to see the board members work together. Board members would do well to mentally switch seats for a moment, and imagine viewing the board proceedings from the public’s perspective.

I remember asking a leader with the New Jersey PTA what types of comments she heard most from parents about boards of education. Not surprisingly, many parents had a bad impression of a board that they received from attending a board meeting. While they may not have been happy with a decision the board made, it was the process that really seemed to gnaw at them.

Typical complaints were that board votes were taken with no discussion, board members occasionally rolled their eyes when someone was speaking, board members talked to each other during a public comment session and seemed not to be listening to the comments, and that while the public could make comments at a board meeting, they are unable to get many answers when they ask questions.

One person even noted that a parent group missed its opportunity to speak on an issue, because the members did not understand the procedures for the public portion of the meeting.

If you look at the meeting from the parent’s perspective, you can understand the confusion on the proceedings. Even at the formal meetings of parent groups, it is important to realize most of the discussion is two-way and anyone can talk, so it is the rare parent who has any real experience with government meetings.

Treating every meeting, especially those with public attendees, as if it were the first ever attended by some audience members, is a good practice. The board president can clearly explain to the attendees how the board process works. A standard brochure prepared by the district can explain how proceedings work, especially executive sessions. Often observers don’t understand why a board goes into closed, or executive, session, which can seem needlessly secretive. An explanation of why a board must do this can enlighten the audience.

For there to be clear communication with parents and the community, there needs to be clear internal communication between school board members and the school administration. Board members and administrators also must treat each other with courtesy and respect.

If the board members and school administration are at odds, the parents will receive a contradictory message. If a board squabbles and is petty, that conveys the wrong message about a board.

How do you know that your parent communication plan is effective? Let’s go back to that board meeting when you look out and are surprised by the crowd. If you have a good communication plan those parents may not even be there, because they would have known the why and how of a board and administration decision. If they are coming, you will know why and be able to answer their questions and provide the information they need.

School boards are grappling with complex issues today, such as more demanding curriculum standards, more rigorous assessment, and limited financial resources. Planning how to engage and inform a community’s parents is no longer optional: It is a necessity.

Ray Pinney is NJSBA director of county activities and member engagement.