One perk of volunteering in a parent group is the increased opportunities to interact with the school principal—whether it’s to coordinate dates for the spring carnival or to determine urgent funding needs. Yet while parent group leaders often get to know the principal on a first-name basis, the majority of school parents rarely interact with her, unless it’s to discuss a problem. PTOs can play an important role in facilitating dialogue between the principal and school parents. The key element that you can provide is access.
Make a Time To Talk
Stonegate Elementary School PTA in Irvine, Calif., hosts “Hawk Talk” chats (named for the school’s mascot) at the end of its monthly general PTA meetings. “This is a time for our principal to share information and the parents get time to ask questions,” explains PTA president Michelle Williams, adding that two of the monthly meetings are scheduled in the evenings and the principal, Harmony Hager, tries to attend these as well.
An additional incentive for parents? Food provided by the PTA’s hospitality committee. “For the morning meetings they will have breakfast items, and it is different each month,” Williams says. During the 2014-15 school year, the evening meetings included a full dinner.
The Hawk Talks have facilitated an open dialogue, Williams says. In recent years, neighborhood development resulted in school overcrowding and student displacement. “As these issues and their effects occur, we have been able to use Hawk Talk for the principal to share and discuss the situation and solutions,” Williams says. “They definitely build a sense of community since everyone knows what is happening. I actually had a parent thank me at the last meeting for having the opportunity to hear exactly what is happening from the school leaders.”
Dana Wozny, the president at Navy Elementary PTO in Fairfax, Va., suggests getting the word out early and frequently that the principal will be speaking at a certain event. It’s also important to keep the principal in the loop on a weekly or bimonthly basis, she says. Navy Elementary PTO offers a principal’s coffee at the beginning of the school year, where principal Jon Coch addresses general topics of interest (overcrowding and county issues are popular) and stays around and talks to all the parents. The PTO also hosts a new parent orientation, similar in format to the principal’s coffee, for new families to get to know the principal and the administration.
Takeaway: Adding a principal’s forum at your regular meetings helps parents stay informed and just might give you a spike in attendance. Add food as an incentive. You don’t have to provide elaborate spreads at every meeting; a platter of home-baked cookies or coffee at breakfast should be enough to draw additional participants.
Always Invite the Principal
Not every parent can attend meetings, but PTO-sponsored events, especially those that have strong student attendance, are a great opportunity for parents to meet the school principal in an informal setting. Stephanie Binckes, president of the Patton Elementary PTA in Garden Grove, Calif., is delighted that the school principal, Jennifer Carter, is an essential part of practically every fun PTA activity. Carter attends the annual ice cream social, carnival, family fun nights, and more.
“When she shows up to an event, she is constantly mingling and interacting with parents and students,” Binckes says, adding that the principal sets the tone for a school. “If parents don’t feel comfortable approaching her, imagine how students must feel! Parents need to feel that they can approach the principal no matter the circumstances, and the principal needs to be in touch with how parents are feeling.”
Binckes reminds parent group members that easy dialogue between the principal and the parent body is in turn built on the back of open communication between the group and the principal. “Our communication with each other is critical, because that keeps her from being caught by surprise, and it also enables her to discuss our plans with parents,” Binckes says.
She advises tailoring the principal interactions to the needs of individual schools. For example, since Patton Elementary is huge, with more than 1,000 students, she would like the PTA to offer smaller, more intimate settings for new parents to mingle with the principal. “I envision a few coffee mornings for new kindergarten parents and for transfer students,” she says.
Takeaway: Ask the principal to be present at PTO events, and invite him to say a few words to those gathered. Seeing the principal in a relaxed setting creates a positive image for the entire school body and makes him seem more accessible.
Provide Important Information
Betsy Mullen has a different kind of challenge: trying to get increased participation from high school parents. While parent groups at the elementary school level enjoy commitment and a fair attendance at school events, that enthusiasm unfortunately tends to fade away over the years. The solution sounds simple: Find out what the parents want to see the parent group do. Mullen, the cochair of the PAC at Walpole (Mass.) High School, says that the group, with help from principal Stephen Imbusch, sent out a survey to parents. The overwhelming response was that parents want more information.
The PAC hosts many talks and seminars related to college admissions and standardized testing at its monthly meetings, both topics that are of special appeal to parents who are understandably worried about the process. The principal is part of these discussions and is available for any questions directly related to school matters, such as the grading system or homework policy. Mullen says parents also appreciate meeting the chairs of the various departments (math and athletics are especially popular) at the monthly PAC meetings. “A parent might not pick up the phone and call the principal, but this provides a low-impact and neutral territory, a place to have a casual conversation,” Mullen says.
Even better, the forum has also helped the administration figure out what parents are looking for from the school. The school’s guidance director told Mullen that a PAC event helped her better understand how to help families with the college admissions process.
Takeaway: At all stages of school, find out what parents want. Whether through fun events or informational seminars, the trick is to give them and the principal a common ground on which to communicate.
Originally posted in 2015 and updated regularly.