Richard Kessler

If I were to think of an emblematic phrase, in arts education, it might very well be: parents are key.

Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, when asked on a teleconference about what should be done to advance arts education, said: “parents really have to push for this and demand it. And our job as educators is to listen to what parents and students are telling us.”

It is easier said than done.

I will never forget the influential funder who told me told me that parents were a sinkhole, only to tell me a bit later that parents were essential. Whiplash!

Funny thing, both viewpoints are correct.

It’s important to note that we were talking about parents in urban school districts, and were focused on the issue of how parents could make the difference in an individual school and on a system-wide basis.   

Some of the challenges to working with parents:

1.    By nature, they are a moving target: each year parents enter and depart the school system as  they sequence from elementary, to middle, to high school, along with their kids.

2.    Engagement is highest at the elementary levels and declines fairly steadily through middle and high school, with a bit of a bump around 8th grade, as parents look towards high school.

3.    The arts are but one of many things that parents are concerned about.

4.    In some urban school districts, there are very low levels of parent engagement, due to barriers that can include parents who work two jobs, kids who have foster parents or are being raised by grandparents, single parent families and more, which can result in very limited participation at PTA meetings or other parent-centric school events.

5.    In many big city school districts the sheer number of parents is daunting. Take NYC for example. You have 1.1 million students and hundreds of thousands of parents in over 1600 schools; and often the families live quite a distance from the school.

6.    It is difficult to measure the effectiveness in this area of work.

At The Center for Arts Education (CAE), we’ve made long-term investments in parent engagement, through a multi-pronged approach that is based upon the principle of “informed engagement.” Essentially, it’s difficult to engage someone unless you provide them with fundamental information and support for engagement. Often but not always, information is a precursor to active engagement.

So, CAE has:

1.    An intergenerational arts learning program, Parents as Arts Partners (PAAP), where parents, together with their kids and on their own, create and experience arts at the school, with teaching artists, arts teachers, and school leadership. It is one of the most diverse arts programs of any kind in the nation, and has taken place over 1,500 times in over 450 schools since 1999. It is engages parents in the meaning of arts learning through real experience.

2.    We have a cohort of Parent Fellows, who are exemplary parent leaders that provide training for parents at PAAP partner schools and non PAAP schools. The Fellows assist us in our advocacy efforts, testifying at government hearings, building our database, speaking to the media, and more.

3.    We have published Parent Guides, with the final installment being issued this year bringing us to PreK-12. These Guides, printed in English and Spanish, and available for download in an additional seven languages, provide key information as to the rights children are accorded by the state to receive arts education, the fundamental benefits of arts education, tips on how to advocate, raise funds, and other helpful information. We have circulated hundreds of thousands of copies, but often feel that we’ve hardly made a dent.

We have had success, including an increase in the number of parents joining PTAs, an increase in fundraising activities by parents, a growing number of parents willing to advocate, PTA’s that have formed arts committee, and more.

Nevertheless, for all of the challenges noted above, the work remains difficult and evergreen. And we keep at it.

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