School Talk

My Friend Beth Hawkins is So Right About This No-Brainer

Beth Hawkins: Journalist, Mom, and my friend

Schools talk a lot about the importance of family engagement. Maybe it’s time to reassess what that means. I have never interviewed a parent – or for that matter a teenager – who could not articulate a vision for what they want for their child. Maybe that is precisely the discussion engagement needs to start with.                        -Beth Hawkins

I recently had the honor of writing about parent engagement for the education news site The 74. My basic premise is that relationships are far more important than money when it comes to reaching parents in meaningful ways that they can understand and appreciate. And that’s a good thing since the 1 percent required under our federal education law to go towards parent engagement in our Title I schools only amounts to $160,000 or 1 percent of the $16 billion total Title I dollars. Oh, and that one percent has to be divided up between all the Title I schools in the country.

It’s approximately $160 million for the whole country — or a few dollars per low-income parent. So it’s good news that parent engagement is about the relationships that develop between schools, teachers, and parents and not about the mighty dollar. I’ve lived it as a teacher. I’ve experienced it as a parent. I’ve seen it as an advocate.

Luckily, it doesn’t take a lot of money to build better relationships. It does take a lot of hard work. And common sense. And empathy.

Parents, like all people, want to feel noticed and want to know that you care. And as trite as this may sound, it’s the key to increasing — and sustaining — parent energy and engagement in school. And while this desire to be noticed and cared for is universal, it is uniquely crucial with low-income parents because they are the ones who most often feel ignored and dismissed at the schoolhouse gate. They are often seen as the squeaky wheel, but they are rarely the one that gets the grease, largely because they aren’t a constituency that wields power and influence or breeds fear in decision makers.

But leave it to my good pal and mom of two Beth Hawkins (who actually happens to be a writer for The 74) to help me see that there is one major idea that I left out of the piece and now wish I had included. In a fantastic piece at her own blog, Beth talks about the failure of the Minneapolis Public Schools to respond to declining enrollment by doing what seems like pretty common sense: asking parents why they chose to leave.

Do you want to know what happens when you pull your child out of Minneapolis Public Schools?

Nothing. That’s what happens.

No first-week phone call from the school office or the enrollment center. No social worker wondering if things are okay. Not so much as a multiple-choice survey asking what prompted you to leave.

The bus cards continue to come. And good luck stopping the robo-calls, which are hardwired to survive death and taxes.

No, the vacuum you’re left with is to be filled only by your imagination. Which, if your departure involved any degree of tension between family and school, is likely to be a pretty shamey blamey place.

I’ve experienced this and it’s remarkable. No one in any position of power says, What could we do to change this situation for the better?

Ding, ding, ding. Beth is so right and having lived this myself in my tiny state of Rhode Island, I’m annoyed at myself for forgetting to mention this in my piece about parent engagement. One surefire way to engage parents is to ask them what isn’t working and listen to their answers. Duh.

In 2012, I decided to pull two of my sons out of our neighborhood school. The youngest was not school aged yet but he is now a third grader and he has not attended our neighborhood school (which I should mention was just named a Blue Ribbon School this past year!) I had just finished up a two year term on our elected school committee and quite remarkably, no one from the district ever inquired about why I had chosen to leave the school that I can practically throw a rock to from my house. I did send emails to our Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent—unsolicited—to explain the decision but I never received any call, email, or survey to fill out that would shed light on what it was that prompted me to pull the plug on my neighborhood school. Maybe they thought they knew. Maybe they didn’t care.

I have spoken with lots of other parents who have left my district and other districts in my state and neighboring states and the story is always the same. Nobody asked. Nobody cared.

Beth has heard the same where she lives in Minnesota. Unlike mine, her experience has been mostly connected to fellow parents of children with special needs.

To be clear, this isn’t just my problem. Over the years I’ve spent as an education reporter I’ve heard, over and over, what is at its core a remarkably similar story. In it, a child whose needs are big, messy or inconvenient is accused of failing to fit the profile of the student a school is equipped to serve.

So it seems that all departures, regardless of the level of student need, are totally ignored.

Well, ignored until the talk turns to the money. And Beth nails that sordid truth with these two simple sentences:

Kids leaving translates to dollars lost. There’s an urgent desire to get those dollars back. But seemingly zero interest in the reasons for the departure.

And while Beth is talking about Minneapolis Public Schools in her piece, her characterization and remedy for improvement could be applied to every single district that is facing declining enrollment and feeling frustrated—even wronged—by it.

So if we’re going to blame the budgetary bloodletting on enrollment declines and the loss of state and federal revenue that means, how is it we have zero interest in why families are leaving? How hard would it be to take last year’s roster and contact those who don’t appear to be coming back?

And on a separate but not totally unrelated note, we also have way too many districts who fail to conduct exit interviews when staff choose to leave and head off to work in other schools in other places. Don’t we want to know why they left? Don’t we want to know what, if anything, we could have done to keep them, especially if they were excellent at their jobs and their departure is a huge loss to the school and the district?

With the almost constant chatter about “best practices,” you’d think that more districts who say they strive for excellence might actually want to know why families (and staff) decided to seek out greener educational pastures.

So, thank you Beth Hawkins for sharing your own story and shining a light on a “worst practice” that plagues far too many districts, large and small, and is worthy of a much larger (and louder!) conversation. You have definitely gotten us started.


Hey readers! Does your district ask parents why they’ve chosen to leave? If so, how do they do it? We are always looking for good ideas that can make schools better for kids and families.

Beth Hawkins is The 74’s Senior Writer & National Correspondent. She has covered education since 2000, writing about K-12 schools for Minnesota’s nonprofit public policy news site, MinnPost, followed by a recent stint as Education Post’s writer-in-residence. Her work has garnered numerous national and regional awards, including recognitions from the Education Writers Association and the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists’ Page One awards. (Beyond the websites mentioned above, Hawkins’ stories have appeared in More, Mother Jones, the Atlantic, U.S. News & World Report, Edutopia, EducationNext, the Hechinger Report and numerous other outlets) She cut her reportorial teeth during the Central American conflicts of the 1980s. She also writes frequently at her blog:

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