Getting Involved: Parents Making a Difference

Encouraging parents to become involved in school life delivers benefits for everyone involved. We look at examples from across the Independent school sector.

As he stood before the gathering of parents, the father’s emotion was felt by all in the room.

He had a personal story to tell about the unexpected power of parents getting involved in school life.

It began when his wife came home after cleaning duties at Overnewton Anglican Community College, the school their boys attended. Her work was part of the school’s requirement that parents provide a minimum number of hours of service. Until now, she had carried the load.

That was about to change.  ‘I’ve done my stuff,’ she told him. ‘Now it’s your turn.’

A CEO, he protested that he was too busy. But his wife insisted, and he too started cleaning at the school, setting him on a path that would lead to him heading the Parents’ and Friends’ group, and eventually, chairing the school board.

The impact of that involvement was much more than filling official positions.

‘Because I was forced to do this, it actually forced me to have a very different relationship with my boys than I would ever have had,’ he told the group. ‘I had to be getting out of my office, I had to be going home, I had to be involved in their school.

‘It gave me a completely different level of connection.’

James Laussen, Principal at Overnewton Anglican Community College for the last 16 years, was in the room to hear the father speak. He relates the story as an example of why the school’s service scheme – known as the Family Involvement Program – works, often in surprising ways.

‘Over time, what we’ve discovered is that if you’re a parent who’s got a particular set of values where you are prepared to physically give your time to your child’s school, by and large your children have those values as well. It brings it into the school,’ he says.

‘So we have some truly delightful children in our school as a result of the sort of parent who is attracted to this school.’

Parental involvement can be the lifeblood of school life, helping build a school community but also enhancing the relationship between parents and their children.

In many cases, it is the result of encouragement and initiative – schools asking for support and parents stepping up to volunteer time and effort.

Yet within the Independent School community, there are other models that seek to formalise the involvement of parents.

At Overnewton Anglican Community College, the parental service scheme began when the school opened in 1987 as a low-fee Anglican school in Keilor. Initially, the scheme was designed to keep the school’s salary bill down.

Over the years, the scheme has evolved, but in essence, it is the parents who maintain the school’s upkeep.

Only three full-time maintenance staff look after the school’s 10 hectare campus at Keilor, and a seven hectare site at Taylor’s Lakes.   Parents do the rest: every four weeks, 60 to 80 parents attend working bees.

The program has been modernised over the years. When Overnewton Anglican Community College opened as a low-fee school, parents were required to complete 18 hours of school involvement a term.

This year, in recognition that the school is now a mid-range fee school, the requirement is now 12 hours a term, reducing to 8 hours for a family who has been in the school for more than 10 years.

Families cannot opt out, and for those who don’t contribute the hours, there are consequences. ‘It does mean that I have had some very difficult conversations with families where I’ve said ultimately you’re not contributing, even though we’ve chased after you and after you. You’re kid is no longer in the school.’

Mr Laussen says that he has been thanked by parents who are doing the right thing. ‘We’re doing what we’re meant to be doing,’ they tell him. ‘If people don’t, they shouldn’t be part of our community.’

The Principal says that the system would only work when a school was opening, or every parent in a school was happy to take it on. ‘You couldn’t possibly bring it into a school if you didn’t have full support of the community for doing it,’ Mr Laussen says.

Mr Laussen has spoken with other schools, including Erasmus School in Hawthorn when it was refining its own approach.

Erasmus School, now in its 21st year, has the Pledge Service System, which had its beginnings in the foundation of the school when many parents undertook the tasks that helped the school operate.

At Erasmus, parents can either choose to pay full fees or pledge a certain amount of service time over the year to reduce fees – up to one day per child. The school reports that 65 per cent of parents participate in the system.

Families nominate how many hours they would like to pledge, and tasks include kitchen work, laundry, maintenance and gardening.

Like Overnewton, the school sees the positives that flow. For example, children see their parents as role models. Parents enjoy the skill-building and teamwork involved, as well as forming lasting friendships.

The school has recorded some of the reactions of parents to their involvement.

‘I love it. It’s the atmosphere. It helps us connect better,’ one parent said.

Another told of being able to talk to other parents on the same job about aspects of parenting. ‘It’s so helpful hearing real life examples of what I need to look out for.’

Mr Laussen tells a similar story at Overnewton Anglican Community College. On a working bee, a father was talking about some problems he was having with his Year 7 daughter. ‘Gosh, I’ve been through that,’ another father chimed in. ‘This is how you deal with it.’

‘There was this informal sharing of parenting that happened over a shovel at a working bee,’ Mr Laussen says.

At Fitzroy Community School, parental involvement is more organic and spontaneous: helping cooking lunch, making costumes for the play, helping with reading or maths, coaching sport.

‘Pretty much every day, there’s a parent helper doing something,’ the school’s Principal Timothy Berryman says.

Parents can attend the school’s shared lunch each day, and on Wednesday, it is entirely prepared by parents, with a roster operating.

The involvement of parents, Mr Berryman says, ‘adds to so much of what most schools do.’

Underpinning the different approaches is the idea that parental involvement extends well beyond the school gate, delivering benefits to school communities, parents and students.

‘I often say to new families, we’re not the school where you come in on day one and sign us a cheque and say, “Here’s my child. Pick you up in Year 12”,’  Mr Laussen says.

‘You’re here every single step along the way.’

Main photo: Parents at Overnewton Anglican Community College