The findings of this research provide interesting insights about how principals learn about the community, what principals feel the purpose of parent involvement is, and how principals evaluate their own work with parents and community partners.
The principals in this study described rapidly changing school communities from year to year and a demographic imperative to view parental and community needs and expectations as ever-changing. Their inquiry approach to parental involvement meant structuring both official meetings (parental council meetings, family literacy evenings) as well as smaller scale events, such as teas with the principal, organized by families themselves. Given the overarching derogatory stereotypes that circulate in urban schools regarding students’ home life, principals viewed these interactions as important ways to combat deficit frameworks in their own work. Principals also perceived these meetings as modelling a flexibility and curiosity useful for teachers and other staff.
Importantly, no principal described any concrete incentive or support that encouraged her to pursue parental involvement as a part of her daily routine. No principal could point to formal professional development offered by the district or province, nor any aspect of principals’ evaluation by supervisors that emphasized parental involvement. This absence of guidance, supervision, or mentorship caused the principals in this study to pursue parental involvement based on their own understanding of the importance of establishing trusting relationships between families and schools.
One implication for sustainability and professional development is to attempt to address the silence from districts on supporting and encouraging principals to take parental involvement—and inquiry into their own practice with parents—seriously. Although policy statements exist, a broader implementation will require professional development and some more specific articulation of how different approaches to parental involvement can have an impact on how principals are assessed and evaluated by superintendents. As long as principals are required to take this work on as a voluntary, entrepreneurial endeavor, it is unlikely to become a part of most principals’ core understanding or practice of their job. Assessment will be a controversial topic, but neglecting it will leave parental involvement policy in the realm of aspiration not systemic change (see Flessa, 2008).
Our case studies of dedicated educators resisting prevailing deficit-based perspectives about communities, making important connections beyond the walls of the school, and continuing to learn while on the job contribute to our understanding of what kinds of partnerships are possible. In this way, our work is similar to Auerbach (2010) and Pushor (2010). Part of trying to understand how to take such experiences to scale—how to make them typical in urban schools rather than exceptional—requires an examination of the policies and incentives that shape leaders’ work. In what ways are principals rewarded for taking on the work of home-school-community connections and in what ways are they discouraged from making these connections? To move parental engagement from aspiration to reality, to bring schools and communities into closer collaboration requires attending to the incentives that shape the day-to-day work of the principal. We observed a handful of principals whose inquiry-based approach to their contexts provided them with the information they needed as a starting point for connections with homes and families. Finding ways to encourage more principals to approach their work similarly would be a step in the right direction.