Schools aim to get parents to conferences

Published 10:08 am Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Banfield Elementary second-grade teacher Sue Conway keeps her schedule flexible around parent conferences to help accommodate parents who cannot attend one of two scheduled nights. -- Eric Johnson/

Banfield Elementary second-grade teacher Sue Conway keeps her schedule flexible around parent conferences to help accommodate parents who cannot attend one of two scheduled nights. — Eric Johnson/

‘We absolutely accommodate’

Sumner Elementary is reversing a different type of attendance problem — that of its parents.

“We were seeing a great decline in being able to conference with all of our parents,” said principal Sheila Berger.

This year, Sumner changed its approach, designating one week for parent conferences where teachers were as flexible as possible with parents’ schedules. They met parents at all times of day, and dropped what they were doing if parents walked through the doors at a different time. Some paid trips to the parents’ houses, or called them on the phone.

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As a result, the school successfully held about 97 percent of its February conferences.

“It’s really trying to increase the communication that happens between teachers and parents,” Berger said.

The new conference format is the latest effort in a goal to get parents’ feet in the door, she said. Along similar lines, family event nights, which welcome children to come along and pair activities with information, have replaced more formal group parent-teacher meetings.

The conference scheduling change is not district-wide. Banfield Elementary kept to a traditional two-day format this year. The school’s most recent conferences were held from 4 to 8 p.m. Feb. 19 and 21. They did not include a daytime schedule like November’s, when a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. block was available on a student day off during the week of Thanksgiving.

“It’s hard, especially when you have two night conferences, for people who work that third shift,” said Sue Conway, second-grade teacher at Banfield.

While employers should allow time for their employees to leave work for conferences, Conway said, some parents are concerned with taking that time away from their jobs.

Parents of students at Banfield aren’t strictly limited to the two conference nights. Conway said it’s a normal practice for teachers to schedule extra meetings wherever they can. Some take place during their lunch breaks or prep time, and happen a few days prior to scheduled conferences if it works better for the parents.

“I ended up having 22 of my 22 show up,” Conway said. “We absolutely accommodate.”

Overall, Banfield had 92 percent of its conferences take place, according to principal Jeff Roland.

Conferencing efforts like the one made at Sumner have been used elsewhere in the state. Berger said she has talked to staff from other schools in different cities, some of whom have visited trailer complexes or factory shops to ensure every parent has access to a conference.

“We’re trying to appreciate all the parents have to balance on their schedules,” she said.

So far, the response from Sumner parents is positive.

“They’re just grateful that we are as dedicated as we are,” Berger said.

The school has discussed what went well about the new approach and plans to tweak the idea for next year, Berger said. Instead of a one-week period, the conferences will be set for a two-week time frame. That should prove less exhausting for teachers and give them more flexibility in their schedule.

The district’s next batch of conferences comes at the beginning of the next school year. Part of the goal at Sumner will be to accommodated drop-in conferences better. Teachers will work on arranging the day’s lesson so that a substitute can come in and keep learning going in the classroom while the teacher steps out to hold the conference.

Over at Banfield, Conway said there have not yet been any staff discussions about making way for drop-in conferences, but she thinks such a move might cause problems for a school that has about 570 students, compared to Sumner’s 280. Staffing constraints could make spur-of-the-moment fill-ins for teachers hard to accommodate.

“If you don’t have people close by to cover you, that’s difficult,” she said.

Conway said conferences play a valuable role in student success, and children are excited for parents to see their accomplishments.

“It’s huge,” she said. “It gives you a connection to the parents and it makes the child feel like what they’re doing is important … You really see the improvement in the children.”

Berger agreed on the importance of conferences.

“If nothing else, it allows a relationship of trust to be built between the parents and the teacher,” she said, adding parents need to know the school wants to help them and their children be successful. “We’re in this with them.”