Education Interest Groups
Most public school districts in the United States have education interest groups comprised of interested parents and caregivers of students in the school's population. The mission of these groups can be varied but is usually to keep parents involved with school policies and affairs, provide parents with a forum to discuss school issues with other parents, and often to provide communication between the school's teachers and principal and the parent group. The most widely known of these groups is the Parent Teacher Association, or PTA.
Keywords Administrator; Agenda; By-Laws; Curriculum; Lobbying; Parent Teacher Association (PTA); Parent teacher organizations (PTO); Public Schools
Most school districts in the United States have groups of parents advocating for issues involving their schools. These groups can have formal memberships with dues, voting, and officers. They may also be more casual groups with no real funding and/or no clear mission. These groups are communities that tend to be informal networks of people with similar interests. For the most part, they don't act in any deliberate or collective manner except to meet on a regular basis and discuss school-related issues that may be affecting their children (Baum, 2003).
A core group of involved parents is an asset for any school. Like all parents, the ones who are involved with a group care about their child's school and want to feel a close connection to the school and what goes on there. For them, being directly involved in a group will fulfill that need and may make them feel that they are being proactive for their child's education (Vandrick, 1999).
For the most part, teachers and staff welcome this type of parent involvement, and they are responsive and helpful with the parent education group's efforts. They answer questions and provide information and materials the group may request. The teachers and staff know that the group will often be a strong and important vehicle for good communication between the parents and the school and will be a way to ensure those involved in the group know what is going on in the school and are able to offer their opinions if and when it is appropriate (Vandrick, 1999).
For many parents, being involved with education groups means they feel able to effect change in some of the ways their child's school may operate. Organizing like-minded parents to join them in their group is a way to ensure that certain changes are discussed and perhaps acted upon. Active parents are depended on by a school to notice and suggest change when it is needed even if some of what is suggested may end up being unreasonable or unpopular. Teachers and administrators find parent input especially worthwhile since they know parents are taking the unique knowledge of their own child's experience into consideration when thinking about effecting change in schools, and that the cooperation between parents and staff can only strengthen a school (Baum, 2003).
Some Group Dynamics
The best education groups have a diverse group of parents and caregivers all willing to contribute at group meetings. For a variety of reasons, some parents move into an area and then may just as quickly move out, changing a particular group's dynamics. In many urban areas, for example, as many as half the students of a school's population may enter and leave in a school year. This may make it difficult for parent education groups to flourish or to include everyone and their particular concerns (Baum, 2003).
Typically, middle-class parents are seen as the most stable members of an urban school group. Since they are likely to have had formal education, they will often be the ones who understand most what the students need. They will be confident enough to share their ideas at meetings and will usually not be intimidated by talking with teachers and administrators at the school. They are aware of broad education issues and how this affects their child and the school. Although there are parents in every community who fit these criteria, those parents who are also consistently involved tend to be the exception (Baum, 2003).
In general, parents of elementary school children are often the ones most involved in their child's school and in education groups. Brannon (2007) has shown that some parents tend to feel that as their children move to the middle school or junior high age, their involvement should decrease. They may feel that their child needs his or her space and that they should lay off the school meetings and let others do that type of work for awhile. However, it may be a misconception to think middle school children don't embrace their parents' involvement. Most middle and high school students need the parents' school participation and contributions more than ever (Brannon, 2007).
Education groups for parents of children in the middle school grades are valuable for everyone involved. The best ones will concentrate on the curricular resources available: websites set up by teachers, after school homework help or hotlines for help with homework, and other types of assistance students and parents may find helpful as the school work becomes more involved (Brannon, 2007). Parents can advocate for this type of information if it is not already available.
Working Together for Success
School education groups are an integral part of a community and of the culture of a school, but the groups must strive to work together with teachers, staff, and administrators to truly be an effective and successful group. In order for real change to occur, the group must work for the good of the entire school and inform the administrators of their agendas and what they are talking about at their meetings. A revitalized public sphere can't be realized through the development of small changes in pockets of the school. Instead, all parents and school staff should feel part of the broad scheme of change in schools (Vincent & Martin, 2000). That means that education interest groups are most effective when their members continue to be well informed and receive support and feedback from administrators and principals (Vandrick, 1999). Without parent and school involvement in the decision-making process, there may be certain agreements made that don't reflect the general agreement of everyone who may be involved (Vincent & Martin, 2000).
Since parent groups are typically run outside the school it is important for them to make themselves known and let those administrators and principals directly involved with their group know who they are, who is in charge, and what the group is doing. They should be open about their goals so the school and their group are able to work closely together (Englund, 2005). It is crucial to the success of the group to ensure members are apprised and updated regularly on what is going on in their children's schools, what workshops or other meetings may be scheduled or in the planning process, and what publications are available and may be helpful to the group (Vandrick, 1999). A liaison between the group and the school administration is crucial to this type of two-way communication.
When they follow their own way of doing things and don't seek to work in tandem with the school administration, some education groups are not looked on as favorably. This is typically because the group is not working closely with the school. Sometimes education groups don't fully understand a school's policies and the reasons they are in place. In these instances, the education groups may not be seen as a positive influence (Englund, 2005).
Retaining Members: Successful Meetings
To sustain current members and attract and keep new ones, education group meetings need to be well planned and well carried out. A meeting is only successful if all members and attendees perceive the time in attendance as being well spent. That means that all parents should leave the meeting feeling it is worthwhile for them to have been there. If even one meeting is not productive, some parents will decide never to return (Haviland, 2003).
Meetings need to respect parents' schedules and should take into account the diverse careers and family situations present with students' families. Some parents may work at more than one job, may work late night or early morning shifts, may tend to an elderly family member, or they may have special needs children in the home. They may also just want to ensure that their busy routine isn't...
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