The sun rises over Main Street in Lula, Ga.
Photo: David Goldman/AP
Photo: David Goldman/AP

Opinion: If schools want to build bonds with rural parents, first build trust

Christopher D. Holmes is an educational administration and policy doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia. His research interests include the impact and application of Title I, a federal education funding program that targets schools with large concentrations of low-income students. 

In this guest column, Holmes addresses the need for schools in poor, rural communities to build bonds and trust with the families they serve. 

By Christopher D. Holmes

The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act discussed promoting “parent involvement” in Title I schools. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law in 2015, talks about fostering “parent engagement.”

There is a difference.

When parents are “involved,” the focus is on what local agencies need to do for parents as customers. Parent “engagement” shifts the emphasis to what needs to transpire with parents in collaboration. Engagement requires parent interactions in regular, two-way, meaningful communication about student learning and outcomes. 

Much of the research and expectations regarding parent-school interactions draws on middle and upper-class parent behaviors and looks at urban and suburban areas. We have fewer insights into parents in rural schools, of which there are many in Georgia. Georgia has 185 school districts, with 126, about 68%, being both rural and poor. 

Christopher D. Holmes

Under ESSA, these rural districts are expected to build a new type of relationship with parents, so the parents become part of school-based decisions related to topics such as attendance, discipline, dress code, course offerings, incentives, activities, and funding allocations. 

The state’s blueprint for parent engagement aligns to the mindsets of middle and upper-class policy-making parents, who may be unaware of the challenges and cultures in rural, poor environments. 

To meet the goals of parent and family engagement policy in ESSA, educators must abandon their own middle-class mindsets and cultivate relationships that value and consider the cultures in rural communities. 

There are many factors that hinder parents from being involved with schools, including inflexible work schedules, feelings of intimidation, lack of familiarity with school culture, limited school vocabulary, negative schooling experiences, miscommunication, inaccessibility to information, lack of familiarity with school policy, limited feeling of responsibility, and a belief that schools know what is best for students.

Rural families are more loyal to the community than the schools that serve them. That’s because the parents are familiar and comfortable with the standards of rural communities as they were likely born in the area. They develop strong social ties with other parents who share their rural culture, background and experiences. 

Schools are unable to break through and benefit from these cultural norms and deep community ties because staff turnover is too frequent, and teachers and leaders may not have grown up in the area. This makes it unlikely that school personnel will establish the deep and trusting relationships needed to engage rural parents.

With the many responsibilities that schools and districts now have in meeting and offering an appropriate public education to the state’s poor students, parents are vital. Parents can support and provide the additional “wraparound” assistance to guarantee that students are prepared, motivated, and supported as learners. Helping parents understand the factors that bolster academic success could aid in closing the achievement gap among Title I schools. 

By better relating to rural students, schools can deliver real and relevant instruction, make connections, and spark student curiosity. ESSA provides schools with autonomy to develop and implement unique programming that specifically focuses on the needs of their student population. Rural schools no longer have to stick to tradition or historical approaches of engagement. 

When rural schools develop new and innovative strategies that gain them access to the communities they serve, parents will positively respond, and we will witness a change in parent behaviors that produce school-home alliances for rural districts across the state.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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