June 19, 2018
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Education commissioner must engage communities

By virginia mott

Maine’s new commissioner of education has an important role to play in strengthening relationships among families, schools and communities. It’s perhaps the most cost-effective investment we can make in our children’s education.

Research shows the strong relationship between family and community engagement in school and student achievement. Regardless of a student’s socioeconomic background, when the family and community are involved the student does better academically.

The landscape of future employment is changing. Years ago, students with only a high school diploma could count on jobs in manufacturing and labor. Those jobs have become scarce. Increasingly, employment depends on postsecondary training and technical skills. To be prepared for future educational requirements, whether technical or college-bound, it’s essential to maximize students’ early educational careers, so all our children reach their academic potential. Doing that requires all of us to be involved and working together.

Some schools are wonderfully welcoming and supportive of parents and community involvement. Teachers, administrators and families at these schools have established strong school, home and community relationships. To help everyone get on board, professional development about ways to engage parents in schools must be available and should be part of the curriculum for pre-service teachers.

School boards and administrators can help by establishing appropriate, supportive policies and making sure their schools are actively engaging parents and community members. It’s important to assess the district policies and practices through the parents’ eyes. The Department of Education can play an important role by developing and offering training, so individual school administrative units don’t need to invent their own wheels.

Parents should be offered opportunities, too, to increase their knowledge of ways they can be engaged in their children’s education. The best ways to support a student’s learning vary among children and among families, change as a child grows, and differ among teachers, schools and communities.

It takes people aware of the needs and prepared to respond to them. That requires communication, education and, above all, participation.

There are organizations within Maine advocating for the strengthening of family, school and community partnerships, including Maine Parent Teacher Association and Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education.

National PTA offers six standards for family-school partnerships: 1) Welcome all families into the school as active, valued and connected participants; 2) Engage in regular, two-way, meaningful communication; 3) Support student success — with continuous collaboration between school and home, and by providing families and staff regular opportunities to strengthen their knowledge and skills to collaborate effectively; 4) Involve and empower everyone involved to speak up for every child, so that all children have fair and equal opportunities to learn and succeed, because in a perfect world all children would arrive at school well-rested, well-fed, clean, secure in the knowledge they are loved, and knowing without a doubt that their family values education, but it’s not a perfect world, and; 5) Share power between families and school staff as equal partners when making decisions that affect children and families, and work together to advance the educational program; and 6) Connect students to civic opportunities in their community.

Maine’s business community knows the value of a solid education. Businesspeople are joining together with people representing education and child development from birth through higher education as partners in the Prepare Maine initiative of the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education. MCEE is bringing people together to share ideas and increase understanding in order to “build a more effective education system, one that gives all of us the knowledge and skills we need to meet future challenges” and “to equip all Mainers with the knowledge and skills they need for success in college, career, citizenship and life.” An important aspect of the coalition’s work is engaging families and communities with their schools.

The National PTA standards are well thought out, but knowledgeable and committed people are needed to make them reality. MCEE is moving forward to engage members of the community in supporting education. All of these efforts can be strengthened by the education commissioner’s voice and action. It’s vitally important that the commissioner of education do what he or she can to enable and encourage the partnerships among schools, homes and communities.

Virginia Mott of Lakeville is the legislative chair of the Maine Parent Teacher Association.

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