How to Artfully Enroll Parents in Learner-Centered Transformation

Practice   16 March 2017
By Marie Watson


Given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed—it needs to be transformed.

Ken Robinson
The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

WHY DOES A CHILD REPEAT A GRADE IN SCHOOL? Why does a child have to be a “first grader” because he is six years old? What does a parent really know about what a child is learning when scores are averaged?

These are the questions the faculty and staff at Red Bank Elementary asked ourselves when we started to question the outdated, factory model of education. Upon realizing the system was no longer effective for this generation of learners, we began looking for ways to make changes that carried significant weight. The traditional system was never built to meet the needs of every child. And, chasing change without clear goals or district and community support would have resulted in the same old, same old.

While anticipating all that would be required to recreate school was intimidating, the thought of what could possibly happen if our parents and community revolted was downright frightening! After thinking, reflecting, and taking baby steps, we realized that parents and community members were just like us. They simply needed to consider the same questions we had asked ourselves. We needed to artfully enroll them.

We started with articles in our school newsletter meant to challenge parents’ thinking about how school is traditionally designed and run. Since we didn’t know how many parents actually read the newsletter, we included a section where the parent could sign and return a slip of paper and their child would be included in a drawing for lunch with the principal. We quickly realized more parents had been reading our newsletter than we anticipated, encouraging us to continue using that medium of communication.


Yes, failures were bound to happen!

Marie Watson
Principal, Red Bank Elementary

Moving beyond the newsletter, we started to include brief presentations at school sponsored events to get parents to think about why school is structured the way it is. We asked: Why do we go to school from August to June? Did you ever have a time when you were given a grade and it included extra credit for something that had nothing to do with the learning? What does it really mean to get a “B” in math?

We didn’t provide the answers but simply asked the parents to think. It turns out, they started coming to the same realizations we did. We also tried hosting Parent Coffee Chats to involve parents in more intimate discussion, but they weren’t well attended. Yes, failures were bound to happen!

To bring the discussion directly to the students, we covered a wall in our hallway with learning progressions in each of the content areas. This allowed parents, staff, and students to see how each moment of learning is built upon the next and why there is no reason to wait for the next opportunity in learning once the foundation is set.

Furthermore, a data wall was created using assessment results. Rather than displaying the results by grade level or age, we presented a continuum from the lowest to the highest scores. The resulting display demonstrated that children were learning at different rates and were all over the continuum, regardless of age or grade level.



Student-led conferences were crucial in helping parents realize their children could truly know themselves as learners, talk about their strengths and weakness, and verbalize the next steps in their learning.

Marie Watson
Principal, Red Bank Elementary


Although the Parent Coffee Chats weren’t successful, a similar invitation was offered to our business partners to discuss the need for change in education. Our business leaders were especially interested in providing transparency of learning, creativity, opportunities for collaboration, and the ability to demonstrate learning in a variety of ways. With our wall displays up for all eyes to see, they were completely supportive and donated funds to support professional learning for our educators.

As we moved forward, bit by bit, to abandon the former ways of school, we involved students directly. Student-led conferences were crucial in helping parents realize their children could truly know themselves as learners, talk about their strengths and weakness, and verbalize the next steps in their learning.

Through this process, parents began to understand that a child may be at the beginning stages of, partially proficient with, or proficient with the learning. Making this change through the student-led conferences paved a smooth transition to burying the A-F process of averaging that all of us had experienced as students.

Just before releasing the new progress reports, parent sessions were offered, so that everyone could understand what was being provided. Out of nearly 600 students, only ONE parent made a complaint about the change, and by the end of the year, this same parent drafted a letter thanking us for providing a wonderful learning environment for her daughter. These preliminary steps led to a victory with our parents. They began to support the transformation and appreciate that every child would be met at the place of learning that is uniquely theirs.

While Red Bank Elementary has not “arrived,” we have made tremendous progress and host many visitors who want to learn about our work to begin this journey. We have kept up our courage and continue living into new visions. This journey has been one of asking questions, not knowing all of the answers, living into the answers, and finding more questions to ask.

We have come to know, by heart, the way of stepping into unknown territory with the promise in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke (1903), “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers which couldn’t be given to you now because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then…you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

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