It is no secret that Jewish day school parents are demanding, at times inappropriately so. Many parents are making financial sacrifices to send their children to Jewish day schools; it is natural that they want to ensure their financial investment is paying off. However, the way a parent body expresses its demands of a school may signal a lack of trust in the school leadership, leading the school’s professionals to feel insulted and their expertise undermined. Students benefit most when the adults at home and at school can establish and maintain a healthy and trusting partnership in their educational journey, supporting a school’s ability to serve its students’ holistic needs best. One way to build a healthy, trusting partnership between the school and home is to establish a parent/guardian advisory committee that meets regularly with the principal.
When I first began my principalship, I was new to town and new to the community, and my own children were much younger than my middle school students. Among the multiple challenges that come with being a first-time principal, I felt out of touch with what the parent body wanted and needed. After some negative interactions, I was beginning to view the parent community as adversaries, when as a teacher I had always viewed them as partners.
After discussing this with my head of school, we decided to assemble a parent advisory committee at the beginning of my second year. The primary goal was to help me connect with the middle school parent body and garner support for the nascent middle school program. The creation of this committee was a critical turning point in my principalship and continues to be one of my greatest assets.
A parent advisory committee is beneficial to novice principals, principals new to the school community, and principals who find their parent body is growing disgruntled after several years of demonstrated success at the student level. In many respects, the relationship and process mirror a healthy head of school-board president partnership. Presented below are steps for establishing such a committee.
Step 1: Clarify the Committee’s Purpose
The principal and head of school should agree on the purpose and goals of the parent advisory committee before creating a committee. Writing a brief “focus of the committee” statement clarifies roles for the principal, head of school, committee chair and committee members.
The language used matters. A statement such as “to advise and guide the principal” leaves too much room for interpretation about the parameters of the guidance offered. Parents might feel they have a voice about curricular decisions that are under the purview of the principal and educational team. A statement such as “to support the development, growth and success of the [principal or division]” clearly delineates the committee’s scope of work.
The committee should focus on identifying issues of concern to the parent community, with the expectation that it will exchange ideas, feedback and observation when it meets. When appropriate, the principal raises issues or trends where the parent perspective is germane to navigating the noted challenges. The principal might seek advice on the implementation of key initiatives; the process itself can build buy-in and enthusiasm within the parent body prior to rolling out an initiative.
Step 2: Clarify Expectations and Behavioral Norms
Although I was excited about collaborating with the committee, I had my reservations. Would members embrace their role or overstep in an open forum? Would members advise with only their child in mind, leaving me with a skewed perspective of what the parent community was thinking, feeling and saying? To address these concerns, my head of school supported me by establishing expectations of behavioral norms for the committee. Two examples of behavioral norms might be:
- Members are committed to engaging in and maintaining an open, respectful and confidential dialogue in partnership with the committee chair and the principal.
- Members are committed to serving as a trusted resource to the principal by providing feedback, observations and advice on key issues and initiatives.
Step 3: Choose the Chair Wisely
As with any committee or school board, the committee chair will play a critical role in the success of the committee and the success of the chair-principal partnership. In consultation with the principal and board president, the head of school designates a board member as the committee chair. A board member demonstrates a commitment to serving the school in a volunteer capacity, is well informed about the head of school’s strategic plan, and can support vertical alignment between the principal and the head of school. The chair should have a child in the division during their tenure. The duration of the chair’s tenure depends on the cultural norms of the school community. In the case of a middle school parent advisory committee, a two-year tenure works well.
Step 4: Empower the Chair and Principal as Partners
The chair and principal are co-leaders of the committee, symbolically signaling to the committee and all stakeholders that there is a strong school-home partnership. The chair and principal should meet to co-design each agenda prior to each committee meeting.
At our agenda setting meetings, the ability to preview the committee’s observations and my initial reactions and observations afforded the chair and me the opportunity to practice listening with curiosity; to practice framing to generate meaningful and respectful dialogue; to ask clarifying and probing questions; to prepare ourselves emotionally for what we anticipated might unfold during the meeting; and to maintain an open line of communication that leads to trust. Trust that we would be honest, trust that we would hear each other out, and trust that we would remain open-minded to different perspectives. The stronger the partnership between the chair and principal, the stronger the committee.
The committee meets every four to six weeks. The principal and chair co-lead the committee meetings, typically beginning with the chair and principal welcoming everyone together before the chair opens the first agenda item. General gratitude for members’ time and work is delivered together. If it turns out that the principal or chair cannot make a previously scheduled meeting, the meeting should be rescheduled. The presence of both the principal and chair is essential to maintaining a balanced partnership both symbolically and in practice.
Step 5: Diversify the Committee and Represent the Student Body
The committee should have about 10 members whose tenure caps at two or three years. Members are invited back annually to join the committee. This honors their time as volunteers and keeps the feedback fresh.
Members may be selected in several ways. In some cases, it might make sense to invite parents to apply for a position on the committee. For a novice principal, handpicking the committee members may be a wise choice. In this case, the rest of the committee is selected through a collaborative effort by the head of school, principal and chair. The committee should be diverse in composition while representing the student body’s demographic diversity. There are numerous factors to consider: country of origin, family composition, gender, neighborhood affiliation, new or returning family, political proclivities, profession, sex, socio-economic status, synagogue affiliation, race, religious denomination or observance.
Equally essential is to ensure the selected members represent the broad spectrum of the student body. Consider grade level, gender, neurodiversity, participation in academic programs and extracurriculars, and peer groups. A school functions like a small city. Though there may only be 10 members, the more diverse the committee, the better the outcomes of the work.
In addition to these criteria, select members who are thoughtful and critical. Consider inviting a vocal parent struggling to engage appropriately. This gives the parent a constructive place to channel their concerns. Bringing my most critical parents onto the committee strengthened the school-home partnership. These parents felt heard and validated, and eventually became strong supporters. Of course, an unruly parent who has no regard for respectful dialogue will detract from a collaborative working environment and should not be rewarded with a seat on the committee.
As a middle school principal, retention is always on my mind. Having fifth grade and ninth grade parents on the committee broadens a middle school principal’s connection with the parent body to the lower and high school divisions, creating space for strategic retention conversations and work. When possible, invite the school’s parent association chair to sit on the committee even if their child is not in the principal’s division. Having the parent association chair present helps with whole school communication and retention.
Step 6: Actively Listen and Share Honestly
When school leaders view parents as adversaries, there is a tendency to avoid sharing the full thinking behind the decision-making process. This widens the gap between stakeholders who should be partnering to support the child. Administrators need to keep in mind that an active and critical parent body is one who cares deeply about their children and may need help learning how to engage appropriately and respectfully with the school. This modeling begins with the parent advisory committee. As part of fostering a supportive environment for the principal and educational team, committee members should be trained and expected to help other parents reframe their concerns in a more respectful manner.
The most fruitful agendas begin with committee members sharing their “headliners” or feedback and observations first. The point is to gather information and feedback with an open mind. After the committee has been working together for a while and committee members begin sharing information freely with the principal, this first agenda item often aligns with the agenda items the principal was planning to address. If this is not happening, it may be a sign that the chair’s and principal’s partnership needs more work, or the principal needs to listen more closely.
When the opening feedback session ends, it is beneficial for the principal to summarize what they heard and check that each member felt heard. Asking probing and clarifying questions during this time is encouraged. When there are strong emotions shared during the feedback session, validate those feelings. These actions demonstrate active listening, building trust between the principal and the committee. It is a model for partnering with all parents.
The committee then determines whether it makes sense to address the issues raised in the “headliners” or continue with the agenda as planned. During committee meetings, the principal shares the rationale behind pedagogical decisions. However, this must be done authentically with the goal of helping the committee to understand better the complexity of an issue and the rationale of the educational team. When difficult questions are raised it is critical the principal answers each question directly and clearly. Doing otherwise suggests the educational team did not give enough thought to the problem, undermining the partnership’s trust.
Step 7: Invite Teacher Leaders and Administrators
Principals are accountable for everything that occurs in their division. Yet principals do not, cannot and should not know everything. Teacher leaders and administrators are the experts who comprise exceptional educational teams and spearhead initiatives. Committee meetings are a perfect opportunity for principals to invite members of their education team to present initiative rollout plans to the committee and to gather initial parent feedback prior to implementation. Previewing initiatives with the committee builds buy-in among parent body influencers early on, helping teacher leaders remain cognizant of the parent experience while serving their students. In turn, this opportunity benefits teacher leaders by broadening their capacity to work with parents at a macro level and providing them with authentic leadership training experiences.
A collaborative parent advisory committee signals to stakeholders that the principal cares about the school-home partnership. It promotes respectful dialogue, provides teacher leaders with natural leadership training and demonstrates thoughtful pedagogy. It is a worthy endeavor for anyone committed to fostering school-home partnerships built on trust, respect, appreciation and healthy dialogue.