School administrators and teachers understand that to make positive changes in educational outcomes, they must work in partnership with parents. What is the key to forming those successful partnerships? According to parent activist and educator Samuel Radford, it is something that sounds simple enough but is incredibly hard to do: authentically listen to how parents want their children to be educated.
Radford was the featured presenter at the Hartford Foundation’s Fall 2018 Colloquium and led an interactive and lively discussion on the major obstacles to partnering with parents and what can be done to overcome them. True listening requires focus, along with the ability to allow a person to finish one’s thoughts and consider what they have said. He guided educators, administrators, parents and nonprofit staff from seven Greater Hartford communities through a series of exercises to bring home how people tend not to listen, to make assumptions, to neither know nor carry out current policy, and not to think outside the box.
All of Radford’s ideas come from more than 20 years working as a parent leader, community activist and national consultant on issues related to education and parent and community partnerships. Radford called upon his own struggles trying to improve struggling public schools in Buffalo, New York to provide concrete examples of both cautionary tales and success stories.
Radford asked school district staff and parents from Bloomfield, East Hartford, Hartford, Manchester, Vernon, Windsor and Windsor Locks to describe some of their successes and challenges in their partnership efforts. Many districts shared how hard it can be to reach beyond a core group of active parents to engage the broader school community. Other districts discussed finding success by instituting a teacher home visiting program, student-led parent-teacher conferences and providing additional resources to train and support parent leaders.
There were a number of other success factors. Continuing to listen to parents will help build trust and expand a district’s reach into the community through word of mouth, often the most effective means of promoting your work. He also shared how Buffalo successfully transformed contentious relationships when parent groups and the school district administration began working on solutions, instead of focusing on grievances. School districts need a clear vision of what they wish to accomplish with their partnership work and share that vision with parents and community members so everyone can collectively come up with ideas to achieve it.
At the end of the session, Radford led the group in some entertaining but informative exercises to illustrate the importance of reading thoroughly, the difference between actively listening versus simply hearing the words people speak, and how each person’s perspective can be different without being wrong.