We all know that parents[1] will show up to see their children perform. Parents will beam with pride at the elementary school play, the middle school band concert, or the high school choral concert. We shouldn’t underestimate, though, the power of the arts as a more strategic approach to long-term parental engagement.

Last Wednesday was a late night at the office for me. It was a late night because we hosted a Parent Workshop, as part of our ELLA (Early Literacy Learning through the Arts) program serving Martin Luther King Preschool Center in Richmond Public Schools. ELLA uses theater, music and movement to teach early literacy skills for Pre-K students, with an emphasis on vocabulary and reading comprehension. In addition to individual artists, we partner with area arts organizations whose artists work in the program. Our longtime partners have been Virginia Repertory Theatre and Latin Ballet of Virginia .

After a brief introduction to our organization and the ELLA program, one of our wonderful Teaching Artists, Tiffiny Gilreath, led the children through a sample lesson that included a warm-up—getting their voices and bodies ready to work (and learn), and diving into the main experience which included an imaginary trip to the Magic Story Lake, where they created sounds and rhythms of the forest.

And while the children shyly joined the circle with Ms. Tiffiny, the parents soon followed suit. They quickly let go and too, warmed up their voices, moved their hands and arms to mimic the sign language modeled by the children and Ms. Tiffiny, especially when she introduced the word “FOCUS”—part of the “toolkit” reviewed at the start of each lesson to establish expectations for classroom management.

As the experience progressed, the parents joyously journeyed with their children to the magic story lake, and together they created their own rhythms and sounds to the story. I’ve seen this happen before—where the parents dive in and fully participate—but the sheer abandon of inhibitions and risk-taking with seeming strangers was incredibly heartening and inspiring, and more impactful than I imagined it to be.

Since the beginning of the ELLA program, parental engagement has been a purposeful component. It is our belief that a healthy and active relationship between a Pre-K child’s parent and their teacher will lay the foundation for continued parental engagement throughout the course of the child’s academic career. Further, it is our belief that the arts offer a level playing field of sorts, a non-threatening environment for risk-taking and trust-building, that can play a unique role in cultivating a sense of comfort and rapport on the part of the parent. Previously negative experiences from personal schooling of the parent can be replaced by new, long-lasting, fully-engaging and empowering relationships with their child’s teacher for years to come.

A 2002 report by the National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools (affiliated with Southwest Educational Development Laboratory) affirms the impact of parental involvement in student achievement at all ages. In particular, A New Wave of Evidence cited a 1999 study by Marcon that found “…increased parent involvement and more active types of involvement were related to positive development and greater mastery of skills in all subjects.”[2]

Our approach is to host two to three parent workshops throughout the course of the year that 1) introduce parents/caregivers to our program, and 2) introduce accessible arts-based strategies for supporting literacy development (with an emphasis on vocabulary and reading comprehension) in the home. We likely will not be able to lay claim to the longitudinal impact on these children; however, we feel confident that these program components can positively contribute to increasingly effective parental engagement.

That said, there are often challenges in getting majority participation of parents/caregivers, particularly in urban settings. We recognize that after-school (early evening) events are prohibitive due to the fact that parents have multiple jobs, or are simply working to get through the evening home routines that include dinner, homework, and bedtime, often with siblings as well. While we are working with our school partners to try to eliminate all barriers to participation (including alternative times for events), I invite your feedback on this. Has your school system or community program found a particularly effective delivery method for parental engagement? Please comment below, or write to me at jstarke@rpaalliance.com.

The arts can be a compelling tool for increased, positive parental engagement. Let’s work together to find those opportunities to make our programs and—more importantly—school culture more effective. THAT could be a key step towards meaningful education



[1] For the purposes of this post, all references to parents, parental engagement or involvement is also intended to include caregivers.

[2] Henderson, Anne T. and Karen L. Mapp. (2002) A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement. https://www.sedl.org/connections/resources/evidence.pdf.