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Parents Are Key: Will We Ever Make Good on the Notion?

For this past year’s Grantmakers in the Arts Conference, a few people were asked to write short think pieces to accompany GIA’s arts education pre-conference. The following is the piece that I wrote about parent engagement:

I’ve been hearing about the power of parents in education since I started as a teaching artist in 1985, and in 2009 you still hear it all the time, at meetings, conferences, in reports, etc. It’s one of the proverbial “legs of the table.” Certainly, we have from time-to-time witnessed engaged parents advocating with school and district leaders and elected officials; raising money for the arts; creating arts councils within their PTA’s; and more.

As the arts education field has matured and while the challenges to the goal of a quality arts education for all students have become more complex and dynamic, increasingly we are thinking about how parent engagement can be taken to the next level. It’s the right thought as we cannot do the job on our own.

That being said, you have to wonder: can we build that parent army that many of us have dreamed of? Can we build that army of parents, who are well informed, skilled, organized, with a structure that is sustained from year-to-year, making the difference in the individual school and as a collective, throughout a school district or region?

Or is it an really illusory?

I do wonder whether this field of arts education will ever be able to mount the effort necessary to harness this parent power we are all so sure about. Until then, it’s really just a premise, a bold vision for expanding arts education advocacy to a putative natural constituency.
Somehow, in the moment, it always sounds so simple. That’s right, parents are key. It just rolls off the tongue. It’s a bit like solar power. We know it’s out there. We know it has tremendous potential, even if the sun doesn’t always shine. However, it just doesn’t seem to get off the ground really. Not withstanding a neat solar powered radio here and there. Is it the same for parent engagement?

So, what is it exactly that’s holding us back? Well, first off, there’s a constituency issue that is rarely discussed. I believe it’s extremely difficult to be successful in such work unless the parents are to a large degree your natural constituency. But think about it, for your average bear arts and arts education organization, who is the constituency? The organization and its audience? The teaching artists? The schools? The students? The parents? While I hate to appear to reductive when it comes to audiences, I think it’s an deeply important question to pursue.

When organizations advocate for arts education in the schools, who is their constituency? Well, if it’s a service organization, it’s their membership. Who is their membership? Orchestras? Opera companies? Arts organizations? Artists? Funders? Making the leap to advocating on behalf of families, which is the most direct pathway to parents, is indeed more complicated than one might expect. And, while there are exceptions that prove the rule, the arts and arts education fields have been slow to develop relationships with organizations that have parents, teachers, or children as their true and natural constituents. When one looks through the lens of genuine advocacy, it’s impossible to dodge this issue. A case in point: I have seen this issue haunt us, as school district and other government officials have sometimes reduced by arts and arts education organizations as self dealing.

The work requires significant organization capacities: you’ve got to have a staff and an enterprise that is skilled in organizing. You’ve got to have all sorts of structures in place, including key pieces of information/data, goals, trainers and training programs, and the necessary mechanisms to support all of this. You have to provide various entry points for those who want to join in when it’s time to send an email, all the way up the chain to those who are willing to march if necessary. In and of itself, it’s a major undertaking in terms of developing the knowledge base of very busy people with divergent interests, backgrounds, and cultures, even if, presumably, they are united by a common interest in the success and well being of their children and the role the arts play in this regard success.

Of course, let’s not forget, you have to have funders, and a board that can support and help provide resources in this area.

You must be able to reach parents directly, and unfortunately, it’s not as simple as partnering with the local PTA. In some cities, such as New York, there is no city-wide PTA, although yes, most schools have functioning PTAs. You may very well have to go school-by-school. All of this raises the very big question of exactly how to you structure your communications with parents.
If all of the above weren’t enough, let’s add the true rocket fuel to the mix: parent mobility. Parents, grandparents, guardians, etc., and their movement from one school to another, compounded by moving upwards through grades, through school groupings such as elementary, middle, and high school, all underscored by the long understood trend of parent engagement declining fairly steadily from its highpoint in the early primary all the way to where it bottoms out in the high school grades.

So, even if you can muster all the capacity necessary to “build an army of parent advocates,” the issue of sustainability is truly profound when confronted with the issue of parent, student, teacher, and administrator mobility.

This is all quite a bit to take on for arts and arts education organizations, as this arena is ultimately much more akin to political work than the delivery of arts education services: it is about organizing people. And, of course, the larger the school district(s), the taller the order.

So, what am I saying exactly? Well obviously, that moving from scattered success with parents as advocates to the next stage is just plain difficult. Am I saying that it can’t be done? Nope, not at all. I do think that we need to get real and recognize the significant hurdles to the dream, many of which I’ve noted, some of which I’ve surely missed, for without an honest assessment of the challenges, we will never stand a chance of being successful.

And, when the conversation turns to why we still have so far to go after all the work of the past twenty or so years, I think it is important to focus on the key areas we have yet to really develop, for which parent engagement is a prime example.

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