No fear in parent-teacher conferences


Junior high school boys walking arm in arm with their mothers wasn’t an unusual sight in the halls of Totem Junior High School last week.

The occasion wasn’t a holiday or an extracurricular activity. Instead, it was an event that traditionally strikes fear in the hearts of students and parents alike: parent-teacher conferences.

What made these conferences different was that, for the first time in the school’s history, the conferences were led entirely by the students.

“It’s probably the most phenomenal event that has ever happened districtwide, certainly at Totem,” said principal Brenda McBrayer-Knight.

Totem, along with all of Federal Way Public Schools’ elementary schools and a handful of junior high and high school grade levels, made the switch this year from traditional parent-teacher conferences to student-led conferences. Next year, administrators plan to implement student-led conferences in every school in the district.

The rationale behind the switch is simple: with this year’s seventh-grade class the first to face stringent state requirements to graduate from high school, educators hope to use conferences as a forum to ensure that students and parents understand the new standards.

In addition to earning a passing grade on the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), students will be required to submit a culminating project and a 13th-year plan to graduate from high school beginning in 2008.

If students can discuss the requirements “in a conference with their parents and share their work, they are more likely to be successful,” said Karen Dickinson, assistant director of curriculum and instruction for the district.

In preparation for the new conferences, students crafted presentations detailing the state’s Essential Academic Learning Requirements and showing how their own class work is meeting them.

“Rather than having it be just a conversation with the teacher and the parent, the student leads the conference with his/her own classroom work,” said Dickinson.

The response, educators say, has been overwhelming. Schools throughout the district have reported extremely high parent participation.

With attendance for traditional parent-teacher conferences hovering around 50 percent, administrators are excited and overjoyed by student-led conference attendance pushing 85 percent districtwide.

Twin Lakes Elementary School reported 100 percent of parents were involved in the student-led conferences.

Attendance is up because of the enthusiasm exhibited by the students, McBrayer-Knight reports.

“Parents were just so overjoyed, it seemed. It was amazing to hear the conversations kids had with their parents about state standards and goal setting,” she said.

Parents agree. In 4,516 surveys returned to the district, 90 percent of parents said the conferences had been beneficial to them and their children. Nearly 100 percent said they now have a better understanding of what is required of their child in a variety of subjects.

“Because it’s student-centered, students feel empowered and they want their parents to be there because they can share good things about what they’re doing,” said Dickinson. “It’s really a credit to our teachers that they prepared kids so well that they wanted their parents to be there.”

A less intimidating setting is another reason educators believe more parents turned out for the student-led conferences.

At Totem, parents were greeted with a variety of beverages, holiday decor and a lighted Christmas tree.

With appointments beginning at 6 a.m. and ending at 9 p.m., the Totem staff tried to accommodate the needs of parents and their schedules.

What made it worthwhile, McBrayer-Knight says, was the reaction of the students and the parents.

“Some of the parents cried because it was so moving,” she said. “There were so many touching moments that I, too, had tears in my eyes.”

Staff writer Jody Allard can be reached at 925-5565 and

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