Parents of students at Maury River Middle School will be offered more opportunities to increase their involvement in the school thanks to their participation in a survey conducted by Washington and Lee University senior Angelica Tillander.
The research was conducted through W&L's Community-Academic Research Alliance (CARA), a community-based research initiative that supports research partnerships between W&L and non-profits in the Rockbridge area.
Marisa Frey, coordinator for student service leadership and research at W&L, described CARA as looking to meet community needs, benefit the student experience and create a wider campus culture of community connection. In the case of Tillander's project, the research was requested by Paige Crawford, the NEXT coordinator who is employed by Rockbridge County Schools.
NEXT is an after-school program designed specifically for Maury River Middle School and funded for the past three years by a 21st Century federal grant that Rockbridge County Schools applied for in partnership with Washington and Lee and NEXT. The program aims to improve students' experience in school as well as students' performance across the board by offering a variety of after-school programs Monday through Thursday for sixth- to eighth-grade students. An average of 173 students participate in NEXT, and 50 W&L students volunteer as mentors to provide consistent positive role models and attention.
As successful as the NEXT program has been, Crawford wanted to find ways to engage parents more positively and proactively in activities, discover any barriers they may have to participation and solicit their ideas.
"Research shows a clear link between parental engagement and student success," said Crawford. "We believe that schools, families and communities working together can create meaningful partnerships that ultimately lead to significant gains across the board in student achievement. So we wanted to find out how we can do a better job of welcoming and engaging parents throughout the year."
Tillander's research, funded by a W&L Johnson Opportunity Grant, concluded that many parents were unaware of the NEXT activities that are designed specifically for parents.
"I found that parents are really interested in being more involved with the school and the approval rating for the NEXT program is very high. But beyond a few specific initiatives, such as the end-of-year picnic and some open houses, they didn’t know they could come and volunteer at the workshops or that there are different classes designed for parents as well as family nights," said Tillander.
Tillander's report suggests taking a multi-tiered approach to contacting parents through phone calls, e-mails and sending letters home because "you're almost guaranteed to get the information if it's coming to you from different directions."
Parents' work schedules are also among barriers to parental participation. "I didn't realize just how many barriers there are," said Tillander. "Some parents have children in elementary school, middle school and high school, yet they still want to get involved with their kids' schools. It's amazing to me."
The survey also asked for parents' suggestions on potential workshops, opportunities for volunteering and whether they had a particular skill or talent they would like to share.
Tillander's final paper combines national best practices on parental involvement in after-school programs with the results of her local research to make recommendations for parental involvement at Maury River Middle School and recruiting parent volunteers.
Tillander, a history and politics major with a minor in poverty studies, is interested in a career in education and has volunteered in local schools since she arrived at Washington and Lee. "Now that I'm a senior at W&L, I really wanted to do some kind of concrete research that would be helpful to the community and would continue to be a resource to people after I leave," she said.
The Johnson Opportunity Grants are funded as part of the Johnson Program in Leadership and Integrity and are designed to help W&L students in their chosen fields of study as well as in their future careers.