William J. Acton, Senior Partner at Advancement Partners
One thing every family has in common: they are all crunched for time. So what does an effective parent relations program look like in 2022?
Over the next couple of blogs, we want to explore the relationship between school parents and the school itself. The relationship today's parents have with their children's Catholic school is not easy to categorize or describe. As many families as there are enrolled in schools across the country…that's how many different types of family relationships with, and connection to, a school that there are. There is no one size fits all approach to building a parent relations program. People are just too different!
While it's dangerous to generalize, it is safe to say that from an emotional point of view, current parents are the most likely constituency group to support a school. Parents are closest to what is happening in the school today. They know best the difference the school mission makes in the lives of the young people. Of course, many of these parents are not in a position to give much – time or money. Most are in the phase of life where they are facing economic challenges – high school and college tuitions being foremost on the list. And not every family is happy about their child's experience. Some are very involved in the school, perhaps too involved. Others are "drop off and drive away" parents – not connected and not looking to be. Some families enroll their children from a public grammar school and are thus new to Catholic school traditions. Some come from across the street, others from miles away. Schools may have legacy families with deep local roots, alongside families new to the local community as well as the school. There is enormous family diversity, in most schools – at least in terms of educational experience and expectations.
One thing every family has in common, though: they are all crunched for time. Between work, family and social commitments, there is no time for the traditional school volunteering that Catholic schools relied on for generations. How does a school host an on-campus auction when it can't recruit volunteers? Or run a Dad's Club golf outing when all the dads and moms are busy working, driving the carpool and racing kids around town for games and activities after and before school?
An outstanding Catholic high school I work with struggles finding parent volunteers to work in the stadium snack shop at home football, baseball and lacrosse games. The folks who run their athletic booster club don't like it when I tell them those kinds of parent don't exist anymore. Parents today don't have time to work (for free) at the snack shop. That's hard for the boosters to swallow when the snack shop revenue is built into the athletic budget. But let's all get real – we can't fund our future on hot dogs and Nutty Buddys. That's a topic for next month's blog.
So what does an effective parent relations program look like in 2022?? If parents are strapped for time and cash…if they aren't feeling super-connected to our mission, and maybe don't really want to be…if their expectations are that our school be "just like it was" when they were a student 30 years ago…what do we do?
It starts, we believe, with two important elements:
It's easy to forget that parents look at their child's educational experience from a different angle than those within the school do. Each parent/family brings a different set of expectations, but all share the same hope: that the school will deliver the best high school experience for their child. For some, that could mean Catholic faith and values. It also could mean football or band. For many these days it means safety. Academic excellence is often assumed and demanded, but that word excellence is a squishy one, isn't it?
Lots of families are looking right past high school to college when they first enroll. For some, that means participating in an engineering program. For others it means getting an athletic or academic scholarship to college. There are so many varied expectations, and each family brings those expectations along with their tuition payments.
Parents view themselves as school customers. Schools should treat them as customers. More importantly, they should treat them as partners.
Before the first day of school…help new parents better understand what it means to be a parent in the school. Help them understand the critical role they play in their child's school experience as well as the role the school plays. Many schools hold parent orientation sessions at the beginning of the school year, but often the content of these sessions is school-centered, not parent-centered. For families that are new to the school – and that is most of the incoming freshman families – they need to learn what we call the school's "secret handshake." That's what the parent orientation session needs to be about. Too many schools use it as a time to talk about things like dress codes, cafeteria cards, athletics, etc. Most of that kind of content is better placed elsewhere – online or in a handbook.
What parents want to know – and need to know – is, How does this thing work with us as partners? What's our role? What's the school's role?
So spend time the summer before school starts hosting coffee and conversations with new families where parents learn that secret handshake. Be transparent: show them the financial model the board uses to run the school, including the "gap" between what you charge in tuition and what is the real cost of teaching each student. Show them how the school closes that gap – and the role parents play. Show them the ways parents can get involved – if they want to. If you have a parents' club or events that count on volunteer support or purely social events to build parent community…share all of this before the very first day of school. Share cherished traditions and history. Let them see any vision the school has for "big things" to come, especially things that could happen over the next four years.
And then, after sharing the big picture and allowing for questions, ask them to take with them a “parent partnership” contract. The contract can simply outline, among other things, the way they can partner with the school. For example, if the "gap" between tuition and real cost is $1,500, let them check off on the contract ways they may wish to help close that gap – by supporting the annual fund or attending the auction or, yes, volunteering in the snack shop. Parents need to be acknowledged for their role in the partnership! And if volunteering in the snack shop or participating in other fundraising activities isn't really helping the school's operations or sustaining its mission, then it's time to rethink those activities. The parents no doubt see those things as helping. And perhaps they'd rather give to the athletic boosters than give to the annual fund. They only have one wallet, after all.
There's more to all of this, and in next month's blog we will explore ways to build and then strengthen these partnerships in ways that make sense. It’s best to start by looking at the school from each parent's point of view. And be open to change along the way.
Posted on: March 22, 2022