St. Vrain schools are exploring new methods in Parent/Teacher Conferences

Parent-teacher conferences are looking much different these days.

Five of the district’s schools, Indian Peaks, Columbine and Northridge Elementary schools, Longs Peak Middle School and Timberline PK-8, are rolling out supportive, community-oriented “Classroom Conferences” to rave reviews, replacing those awkward one-to-one meetings.

Title 1 schools, which have 40 percent or more of their students from low-income households, receive supplementary government funding to enhance their instructional programs.

The new conference model, which consists of three classroom-based and one traditional conference per year, is designed to encourage parental engagement with their children’s education and is adapted from the Academic Parent Teacher Team model developed at Arizona State University about ten years ago.

“Our Title 1 schools have been working with the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition to build parent leadership and partnerships to support student achievement,” Lorynda Sampson, Northridge Elementary School principal, explained.

District educators were exposed to this model through the coalition and first made site visits to the Mapleton School District near Denver, which has also implemented classroom conferences. 

“Many parents who come from low socioeconomic or speak a different language are afraid to come to school and this helps to eradicate the fear or the hesitancy,” Lorynda Sampson, Northridge Elementary School principal, said.

Sampson said that about 75 percent of families at Title 1 schools are second-language learners speaking very little English, if any.

“We help parents learn along with their kids sometimes,” she said.

“When working with students in poverty, there is an equity piece here – making sure that regardless of their home situation and level of support, that they are able to have doors open to them and opportunities no matter how they come to us,” Brendon Schwirtz, Associate Principal, Timberline PK-8, said.

Conferences open with icebreakers designed to build trust and connection among the parents.

“We want to make it an inviting and a meaningful experience,” Schwirtz said. “It is not just about rethinking conferences, it is about really developing those relationships.”

“It takes a village,” Sampson said. “We are all in this together. We are a community working on a common goal for the good of our kids.”

What makes the classroom conferences unique is the use of a comparative tool – a bar graph showing each child’s progress relative to others in the class. The data, which is anonymized, covers ten skill areas of reading and math.

“Report cards can be a little bit abstract in terms of how that child is actually doing,” Schwirtz said, “A little bit general.”

Parents are taught educational activities they can do with their kids and may receive free resources and tools such as flash cards.

“Sometimes skills exist in the home, sometimes they do not. We want parents to have very tangible ways to help. We target high leverage areas that can really help our students grow,” Schwirtz said.

Schools are in the process of fine-tuning the number of classroom and individual conferences per year as they receive feedback. While classroom conferences have been enthusiastically received, there have been some requests for additional one-on-one time, Patrick Kilcullen, priority programs coordinator, said.