This is wonderful. Sounds like an ideal way to engage parents. States and districts should invest in ensuring that schools and teachers have the capacity to use this approach.
STREAMWOOD, Ill. — For years attendance was minimal at Tefft Middle School’s annual parent-teacher conferences, but the principal did not chalk up the poor response to apathetic or dysfunctional families. Instead, she blamed what she saw as the outmoded, irrelevant way the conferences were conducted.
Roughly 60 percent of the 850 students at Tefft, in this working-class suburb some 30 miles northwest of Chicago, are from low-income families. Many are immigrants, unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the tradition of parents perched in pint-size chairs, listening intently as a teacher delivers a 15-minute soliloquy on their child’s academic progress, or lack thereof.
“Five years ago, the most important person — the student — was left out of the parent-teacher conference,” Tefft’s principal, Lavonne Smiley, said. “The old conferences were such a negative thing, so we turned it around by removing all the barriers and obstacles,” including allowing students not only to attend but also to lead the gatherings instead of anxiously awaiting their parents’ return home with the teacher’s verdict on their classroom performance.
Recently, 525 parents attended parent-teacher-student conferences, Ms. Smiley said, compared with 75 parents in 2003. No appointments were needed, and everyone was welcome at the conferences this year, spread over two days that school officials called a Celebration of Learning.
Student-led conferences are gaining ground at elementary and middle schools nationwide, said Patti Kinney, an associate director for middle-level services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Virginia.
Although researchers have long hailed the benefits of such conferences — anointing students as the main stakeholders in their education, accountable for their performance during the school day and responsible for their academic future — their popularity appears to be increasing in part because of the rapidly shifting demographics at public schools nationwide. The classrooms, after all, are where a community’s changing cultural identity is often first glimpsed.
“I think we’re learning that every school has its own DNA, and there is not a prescription for conferences that works for every school,” Ms. Kinney said. “There is such an increasingly diverse population at our nation’s schools, the one-size-fits-all model conference just doesn’t work anymore.”
At some schools, not only are students on hand for conferences, but their siblings are also welcome, as are grandparents, aunts and uncles, even family friends.
When Mark Heller accepted a job as an assistant principal at the middle school in his hometown of Plano, Ill., he discovered that the community had changed a lot in the eight years he had been a teacher in Iowa. The population had nearly doubled to 10,000 residents, and 37 percent of the students at Plano Middle School were now from low-income families.
Bolstered by the success of student-led conferences at his Iowa school, Mr. Heller also realized that changing the model was not enough to accommodate families with limited English proficiency, many of whom work shifts at area factories.
The traditional parent-teacher conferences without a student present are always available by appointment, and sometimes necessary, for example, to discuss a private matter concerning a noncustodial parent, a family crisis the child is unaware of or a special education diagnosis.
Still, Mr. Heller is convinced that a true dialogue concerning a student’s academic progress is impossible without both the child and the parent engaged and present, and with the teacher on hand to share impressions and answer any questions the parents have about homework, standardized test scores, behavior and other issues.
First, Mr. Heller made sure to schedule the student-led conferences when as many children, parents and teachers could attend, which turned out to be over two days in late October.
“We looked to our community to define what time we needed to hold our conferences,” said Mr. Heller, who scheduled the first conference day from noon to 8 p.m., followed by an 8 a.m.-to-noon schedule the next day.
Mr. Heller’s staff arranged meetings for 93 percent of their 300 seventh and eighth graders, and 82 percent of the families attended the conferences. Now, the principal and his staff members are reaching out to the families who did not attend; their goal is a 100 percent rate of teacher-parent contact.
“Our veteran teachers who have been around for a while and have seen our town grow see this weird correlation,” Mr. Heller said. “It might be more difficult to get a hold of parents these days, but we are seeing more people at our student-led conferences than we ever had in the past.”
At the C. L. Jones Middle School in Minden, Neb., parental involvement has never been a problem. The principal, John Osgood, describes the rural community in south central Nebraska as tight-knit with mainly middle-class residents — the kind of place where students are apt to sit down for supper with their families every night, sharing stories of their school day at the kitchen table.
Nonetheless, Mr. Osgood is convinced that its student-led conferences, which he started 10 years ago just as they were taking root across the country, are crucial to the school’s continued success.
In 2007, a newly elected school board strongly questioned the practice’s efficacy and led a campaign to return to the traditional conferences of their own youth. But the critics were deterred after a survey that Mr. Osgood championed found that 93 percent of parents approved of conferences that included their children.
“I can remember attending the old-style conferences with my own children, some of whom had a few problems with a particular class from time to time,” Mr. Osgood recalled. “We’d get back home, and try to talk to our kids about something we heard, and it would end up with me getting angry and yelling, and the kids telling me what I heard wasn’t true. It always turned into, ‘Who’s the liar here?’ ”
That is a far different experience than Cierra Turks, 13 and a seventh grader at Tefft Middle School, shared recently with her mother, Scheree Issa. Cierra was all smiles as she started off her conference sharing the details of a typical school day with her mother.
Inside her math classroom, Cierra, an honor roll student who dreams of attending Georgetown University, used a portfolio of her assignments — homework, quizzes and even standardized test scores — to deliver a quantitative and qualitative snapshot of her progress and her goals. Above all, she had the chance to introduce her mother to her favorite teacher, Patricia Pluchrat.
“At the student-led conferences, our children are learning to be organized and capable adults someday,” Ms. Issa said. “When I was growing up, my parents went to my conference, and I waited at home, scared they would come back with some concerns. With this new kind of conference, there are no secrets.
“My daughter is learning that the teacher is not responsible for her learning. Cierra knows that she is responsible for her own success.”