Administrators at the school and district level are finding that inviting parents and community members to chat over brown-bag lunches gains them allies in the community and helps keep everyone informed. Included: Tips and topic ideas for brown-bag lunches.
In the same way kids get to know one another over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches brought from home, some administrators are hoping to build better relationships with parents by inviting them to brown-bag lunch chats.
Superintendents and principals are using the brown-bag forums, and some reported to Education World that the informal gatherings not only have improved relations with parents and other residents, but also given them insight into what is going on in the community.
"It's a really good public relations program," said Jim Wink, principal of Indian Woods Middle School in Overland Park, Kansas. "It lets you know what's going on and what the perceptions of the community are. Most of the parents are pretty open; this provides an opportunity to give the school side [of issues] and provide factual information."
Wink said he started the brown-bag chats 11 years ago when he was principal of another middle school. There was a feeling among parents at the time that they were not welcome in the school and he wanted to open communication. "I had no agenda -- parents were the agenda," Wink told Education World about those initial meetings. "I had nothing planned for myself or my assistant principal. It just gave us a chance to talk in a small-group setting. If parents didn't have any burning issues, we would just talk about what was going on in the schools. I used it as an opportunity to talk about test scores and our successes."
Now at Indian Woods, a 7-8 school, he holds the forums twice a month and they have drawn between one and 30 people to each meeting. "Around enrollment time, we usually have more people," Wink noted.
If attendance at the meetings hasn't been very high for a while, Wink asks parents to bring a buddy to the next chat, particularly a sixth-grade parent, so he or she can learn more about the school. "We only have them [students] for two years, so we want to get as much parent involvement as we can," he explained.
Often parents ask about what's going on in the schools or upcoming activities; if it is enrollment time, they talk about course selection. Wink also uses the chats as a chance to exercise rumor control. "If there is a rumor that there was a rash of fights or a group of suspensions, by the time the story gets home it's been blown out of proportion," he said. "This gives me the opportunity to get accurate information into the community, rather than just deal with rumors. Also, I get to know what rumors are out there."
Often parents ask Wink if he is aware of talk among students of risky behavior, such as drug use or sexual experimentation. If Wink does, he tries to share what he can or sometimes offers to investigate further. A lot of times what happens during the weekend comes back into the schools, he said. "So I use that as an arena to get the news to parents."
In the case of sexual experimentation, Wink said one year the school had some advanced eighth-grade students. A parent reported that her son came home from a party and said students were involved in oral sex. "If I'm aware of it, I can say I'm doing what I can to provide students with accurate information," said Wink. He contacted a pediatrician and nurse practitioner and asked them to speak to the student body about the potential hazards of oral sex. First the two gave the presentation to the PTA, whose members agreed students should hear it.
The doctor and nurse talked to the students about the ramifications of having oral sex -- including putting themselves at risk for 54 sexually-transmitted diseases. "If students are engaging in an activity that is not emotionally or mentally healthy, and they are not ready to handle it, I feel it is the school's responsibility to provide accurate information so they can make decisions," Wink told Education World.
For some principals, the forums are an effort to draw parents in at a critical time in students' lives. "Every ninth grader is an at-risk student," Lynn Pool, principal of the Crossland Ninth Grade Center in Granbury, Texas, told Education World. "There are lots of decisions at this point in life."
Pool holds a meeting about once a month, sometimes with a planned program. "I explain about attendance issues or a particular policy in place," she said. Attendance is a big topic of concern, because starting in ninth grade a student's attendance affects whether or not he or she earns course credit toward graduation.
While realizing it is difficult for many parents to attend a lunch-time meeting, Pool said it is worth extending the invitation. "If we get ten people, we're excited," she said. "It's hard for a number of people to come during the day, but it's another opportunity to partner. If we can ever figure out how to get parents in who have to work two jobs and are fighting to get food on the table, we will have conquered the world."
During past meetings, Pool has presented discipline data, discussed some of the issues with which staff members are struggling, and explained what the staff has done in response. She also has shared the standards and expectations of the school and talked about issues less familiar to many parents, such as cyberbullying and what is happening with teens and technology. "It's a chance for parents to ask questions," she said.
At a district level, particularly in a large district, the forums can offer parents a rare chance to meet with central administrators in a small, informal setting. The Evergreen (Washington) Public Schools superintendent John Deeder began lunch-time meetings last year to promote an ongoing dialogue with community members, said Carol Fenstermacher, the district's director of community relations. Evergreen has 35 schools. "The goal is to have a conversation with our various audiences about anything they would like to talk about, except legal or personnel matters," Fenstermacher added.
Each lunch drew about ten people in the first half of the year. While attendees have been a mix of parents, community members, and staff, elementary-school parents made up the bulk of the attendees last year, she said. That was most likely because of issues regarding the budget and concerns related to special education and kindergarten.
Deeder noted that he was pleased about the variety of topics and the how people come in really wanting to have a conversation and problem-solve in a positive manner.
Enhancing communication and building relationships with parents are among the biggest benefits of the brown-bag lunches, said Wink and Pool, because that also allows them to get a read on perceptions and issues in the community.
"It's a kind of barometer," Wink said. "You can see how the community is feeling about the school."
What helps is having people in community know what you are doing, Pool added. "It is an opportunity to share what is going on in school and an opportunity to get ideas of how to make the school better. It's a no-lose situation."
Brown bag lunches also are an easy first step to reach out to the community. "If you don't have an avenue to talk to parents on an informal basis, I would recommend it," Wink said. "You can establish a rapport with people; often people come regularly. If you know them, then they are willing to pick up the phone and call the school if something happens. I ask people to talk with me before they spread rumors. Then they can dispense accurate information and become ambassadors for the school."
In addition, getting to know parents and having them get to know the staff helps make student success a team effort. "We're developing a partnership," Pool said. "Whether it's one, ten, or 30 people attending [the meetings], it works because they go out and talk about what they heard and saw. It builds trust, which may be the foundational thing that allows everything else to happen, and ensures that everyone is on same page and doing what's best for kids."