Redefining K-8 School Community Engagement

December 16, 2019

It Takes a "Modern" Village

I love Catholic education! Even though the numbers may be showing that enrollment in Catholic schools is declining, I believe now, more than ever, families desire faith-based learning environments.  A key component of this environment is the school community, made up of parents, extended family, faculty, clergy, parishioners, and local community members.

YES!  It takes this type of village to educate our children and prepare them for adulthood.  

Years and years ago, this village concept consisted of families tightly located geographically, centered around the church, with typically one parent working and one parent staying involved with their child’s education and other activities.  The “modern village” looks quite different.  Families are more geographically dispersed; some families belong to the affiliated church and some don’t; and most families have both parents working full time.  

Engaging parents in the 21st century is difficult.  While the research shows the benefits of parent involvement is indisputable, how do schools attempt to increase parent engagement in more meaningful ways?

Catholic School Parent Groups

Most, if not all, Catholic K-8 schools use parent groups to help engage the community. These parent groups take on many names, Parent Teacher Organization (“PTO”), Home and School Association (“HSA”), Parent-Teacher Councils ("PTC"), and others. Go to any school website and look up the parent group information and you will see a common theme --- building community engagement through increase parent volunteerism.    

The primary duties of the parent groups are typically twofold --- fundraising and volunteerism. So basically, the two primary ways the parent groups engage the community is to ask them for money and for time to work at volunteer events.  Then, many schools have “hours quotas” for volunteerism and bill those families who do not meet the quota --- a classic negative reinforcement technique.  

I recently met with a number of PTO Presidents from various K-8 Catholic schools in the Washington DC metropolitan area.  While this is a very small subset and concentrated in one geographic region, I surmise the results would translate to other schools.   After soliciting requests for topics of utmost concern for them, more than half of them identified increased parent engagement as their primary focus. 

Much of the dialog from that meeting revolved around the need to engage parents differently, not just engaging more.  Our discussion led to topics that broke down across three main categories: (1) the definition of engagement, (2) the incentive structure of volunteering, and (3) the process for managing school volunteering.  

While I love our Catholic identity and traditions, I do think our methods for how we “engage” our community needs updated, or “reimagined.”  Let’s explore how we can accomplish the above three items.

Let's Redefine Engagement

21st century parents are typically dual income and are busy. Their primary asset, time, is at a premium. Many of the schools I’ve spoken with say the same thing, “80 percent of the volunteering is performed by 20 percent of the people.”  Well, that’s probably going to be true in most organizations.  The primary reason is that ~99 percent of your volunteering needs requires time;therefore, there is a smaller sub-set of your community that can provide such time.  Also, people choose where to spend their time based on interest and value they can add.  Why are we asking a computer science parent to come in to sell raffle tickets, or a marketing expert to clean-up after an event.  I’m not saying those things don’t need accomplished, but I am saying that there could be other ways to engage those individuals who haven’t normally participated.

Volunteerism doesn’t just have to equate to time.  It can equate to intellectual capital, advice, equipment, information, a well-time social media post, data,and much, much more. Schools need more of our help than just the traditionally time spent on events.  Private schooling is a competitive business.  Catholic schools cannot just rely on the church patronage as their sole source of enrollment.  Schools need to a plan, a message, marketing channels, social media strategies, technology integration, capital plans, and more.  

Do schools really know the backgrounds,skills, and talents of their parent community? If you did, there may be opportunities to tap into the intellectual capital of your community to accomplish many of these important items.  And, YES, this is parental engagement.  

As a school and Parent Group, think beyond just service hours, event helpers, raffle ticket sellers and such.  Add other “strategic tasks” such as marketing reviews, social media posts, technology support, connections to local business sponsors, and advice on capital plans. Match your needs with the skill sets and interests of your parent community.  This will create a synergistic relationship that benefits both parties, and more importantly, the success of the children.

Hours Quotas?  Really?

I won’t even waste time going overall the research supporting a move from negative reinforcement to positive.  I don’t think schools want to spend time tracking compliance hours, sending bills to busy, dual-income families, and dealing with the backlash of those communications.  While schools are spending this time tracking non-participants and haggling over bills, very little time is spend appreciating and recognizing the tremendous efforts of those that go above-and-beyond year-after-year.  

We need to think more proactively about the highest and best use of the precious assets of our school community and use more modern positive reinforcement techniques towards inspiring engagement.  There’s been a great deal of research that supports gaming theory as a legitimate incentive model for influencing behavior.  There’s even been one that focused on how gaming could be used by non-profit organizations to promote volunteerism (Fu,Ya Chiang, "The Game of Life: Designing a Gamification System to Increase Current Volunteer Participation and Retention in Volunteer-based Nonprofit Organizations" (2011)).  The results show that using certain aspects of gaming, like points and role identities and status levels, combined with encouragement and focus on the types of parent engagement that provides the most value to the school can increase involvement.

In summary, stop using hours as the measurement of volunteering.  Perhaps use points or credits that reflect not only hours, but other strategic tasks as we identified above.  No more quotas!  Focus on encouraging, recognizing, and appreciating volunteers.  Identify opportunities to tap into the interest levels of your volunteers.  Do more to strike their interest without forcing quotas.

Simplify Your Process

While the process of volunteering may seem simple --- a sub-set of folks create volunteering events, overall community can sign-up for those events, and the volunteers are then typically required to report their volunteer hours to school or parent group leader (see image below)---it can fraught with manual processes and lots and lots of emails.  Most schools have hundreds of events across school, classroom, and year-long positions. The sheer volume of events makes this process more complex.

Many parents may complain that they don’t really have one place to see all events to determine if they can go.  They have to cull through many emails to getto the right link for the right event.  Also, almost all schools require parents to track and submit their own hours.  This can be difficult to get anyone to submit information after the fact.  This reason they track their own hours is because most people use Sign-up Genius for event creation, which is a generic tool not designed specifically for such purposes.  Therefore, schools then employ a separate tool for hours tracking.  Not to mention that catholic school have requirements for volunteering with kids that needs to be tracked offline.  This is crazy!

Ideally, the process would include the following:

  • An environment that is secure and centralized where only your school community can access;
  • An automated process for creating events, assigning points to roles, and identifying volunteering eligibility criteria;
  • One place that is visible only to the school community showing all events and roles available for volunteering at the school;
  • A family dashboard showing all accumulated points;
  •  An ability for school leaders to see community engagement levels and to promote events as needed or target communications to certain families.


Catholic schools and Parent Group leaders seek to increase overall community engagement.  To accomplish this, schools need to first redefine its philosophy around what constitutes “engagement” by going beyond the tradition measure of hours and into tapping the intellectual capital of the parents.  Second, the school should dump any negative reinforcement policies and focus on positive reinforcement with emphasis on encouragement, recognition, and appreciation.  This could even incorporate gamification techniques to accomplish.  And lastly, redesign your process to accommodate the new philosophy and employ technology wisely to enable this process.

Jeff Sant

My name is Jeff and I'm a software entrepreneur and specialist in educational technology. I love reading and writing about innovations in education, especially faith-based education. I believe our kids need faith and that learning environments cannot devoid themselves of faith. Also, I believe faith-based schools could improve dramatically by adopting some business-oriented methodologies that could help them better market, communicate, and become more efficient.

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