Parent Engagement for Nonprofit Organizations: Better Input for Better Outcomes.

Time and again at Aspire Toledo, we hear the same refrain: If parents aren’t engaged in a program, the program simply cannot achieve its intended outcomes. Teachers, administrators and students tell us that parent engagement is integral to the success of any youth-based program. That’s why Aspire Toledo has made Parent Engagement a key secondary indicator in our Program Assessment Tool.

Parents and caregivers are always an essential part of a child’s life. Every child who comes into your program brings their home life along with them. If the messages children hear at home do not coincide with the messages you’re trying to convey, chances are your efforts will leave the children’s minds when they leave your program.

But what does effective Parent Engagement really look like? And how can Parent Engagement be integrated into your nonprofit organization’s program?

Definition of Parent Engagement

The idea of Parent Engagement seems straightforward enough; parents become active partners in the program, reinforcing the ideas being presented and encouraging their children to incorporate the program’s teachings into their daily lives. But within that overall concept, there are three distinct levels in which parents can take part.

The most basic level is Parent Involvement, in which parents feel that they are invited to participate in a program beyond simply dropping their children off and picking them up again. At the Parent Engagement level, parents are generally more heavily invested in the success of the program. They are more likely to be an active part of the program and offer more feedback throughout the process.

As Marian Brannon, Strengthening Families Coordinator for Lucas County, puts it, “The difference between Parent Engagement and Parent Involvement is sort of like a sausage and egg breakfast sandwich—the chicken is involved, but the pig is engaged.”

Ultimately, parents may actually move into more of a Parent Leadership role, in which they participate in the decision-making process and share a true stake in the success of the program. Not every parent will emerge as a leader, and those who do may only do so as a result of active encouragement on the part of the organization.

Five Steps to Encouraging Parent Engagement

The pyramid seen above only tells part of the story—true Parent Engagement happens in an environment that is designed to support it. The best way to foster that environment is to begin planning for it from Day 1. Ideally, an organization starts thinking about the roles parents can play during the initial planning of the program, while the grants are still being written and the program is still in its earliest development stages.

If you are trying to boost Parent Engagement within an existing program, the good news is that it’s never too late—but as we stated above, it’s always crucial.

Here are a few practical tips that can help boost Parent Engagement:

  1. Talk to the parents. Simply asking parents what they’re looking for in a program can go a long way. Parents are often not accustomed to having an opportunity to express their opinions. And by contacting parents to discuss every aspect of their lives—beyond just the specifics of the program—can create a sense of trust that leads to increased engagement.
  2. Create a welcoming atmosphere. The physical environment is very important, and it includes creating a space for parents to feel they belong. The relationships you build are just as important. Train your staff to engage parents with a positive outlook—and live by the mantra “Relationships over rules.”
  3. Speak the parents’ language. This is both a literal and a metaphorical tip. Does your audience speak Spanish or Arabic? Bring translators into the process at the outset—not as an afterthought. In addition, understand where parents are coming from and create materials they can immediately understand.
  4. Assume good intentions. If a parent is late for an appointment, start your interaction with the idea that she made an honest effort to get there on time. If the parent is reluctant to commit her time, assume it has more to do with her busy schedule rather than any lack of interest in her child.
  5. Look for passionate parents. Any parent who expresses an extra interest in your program—even those whose interest may seem negative—can be encouraged to take on a greater role within the program. Encourage their passions while at the same time directing them toward the places within the program where they can do the most good.

Parent Engagement: Part of the Aspire Toledo Model

Parent Engagement is an essential component of the Aspire Toledo model, in which we seek to create a cradle-to-career support structure for children and families in Lucas County that will prepare them for success in life. To learn more about Aspire Toledo’s work throughout the community, sign up for our newsletter today.

 The information provided in this post come from an Aspire Toledo Network panel discussion presented on August 30, 2017. Participants included Michelle Klinger, Executive Director of Partners in Education; Sandra Johnson, Lucas County Early Head Start Family and Community Engagement Coordinator; Marian Brannon, Strengthening Families Coordinator for Lucas County; Amy Allen, Toledo Public Schools Transformation Leader; and Kelly Kaiser, Baby University.

Network News: Aspire Gathers Data on Measurements

In late July, Aspire held two joint sessions with members of the kindergarten readiness and the graduation networks to discuss metrics and measurements. The sessions were facilitated by Lean Six Sigma experts from O-I, Saundra Farah and Bob Harman. Approximately 30 people from 15 organizations attended (see list below). A third and final session will be held on Thursday, June 30. We encourage you to attend to ensure that your voice is heard.

The point of the sessions was/is to find out what programs and organizations in Lucas County feel we should or could be measuring and what we/they are already measuring. The ultimate goal is to identify which secondary measures would best indicate whether we are on the track to improve our primary measures and outcomes.

We started with a review of the overall objectives:

Outcome Children enter school ready to learn Youth graduate from high school prepared for the next step
Primary measure KRA Scores 4 year graduation rate
Secondary measures In discussion In discussion


The point of identifying secondary measures is that it will take years to see sustainable improvement in the primary measures, but there are other things that could serve as indicators of change. For instance, a consistent increase in attendance rates in grades 10 through 12 would likely result in larger numbers of students who graduate.

The first question participants responded to was what we called the “Blue Sky” question – “What could or should we be measuring to better understand what’s happening?” Network members wrote their ideas on sticky notes and placed them on flip charts for the appropriate are: Kindergarten Readiness / Youth Development / High School Graduation.

The second question was “What are you currently measuring?” We discovered that many programs, especially in the early childhood area, measure many different things. We did not attempt in these sessions to determine whether the data they were collecting would be considered good and replicable data, nor whether it was actionable. That will be done later with the help of experts.

The third topic we discussed were concerns/hopes and fears related to Aspire’s quest for data and measurement. We appreciated the openness with which participants shared their concerns, and we will do our best going forward to better explain what we are and are not trying to do.

All of the responses will be captured in a report and shared with network members and outside experts, who will help us determine which of the measures are appropriate, replicable and meaningful. Our hope is to have these measures determined by the fall so that we can pilot them with certain programs.

Organizations that participated in the measurement sessions:

  • YMCA and JCC of Greater Toledo
  • Harbor Behavioral Health
  • YWCA of Northwest Ohio
  • Toledo Lucas County Public Library
  • YWCA of Northwest Ohio
  • Grace Community Center
  • United Way of Greater Toledo
  • Center for Nonprofit Resources
  • Brightside Academy
  • Toledo Public Schools
  • Mosaic Ministries
  • Legal Aid of Western Ohio
  • Center for Hope Family Services
  • Child Support Enforcement
  • Acumen Research and Evaluation, LLC


IMG_6991 IMG_6973 IMG_6969 IMG_6968IMG_6995 IMG_6991 IMG_6950

Ohio Four Year High School Graduation Rates

Network News: Joint Kindergarten and Graduation Network Invitation

Aspire to host several joint network conversations to gather input on quality measures on June 24, June 27 and June 30, 2016.

Following is the invitation sent to network participants:

Aspire has been working with many of you to help determine the root causes of why two-thirds of our children enter Kindergarten unprepared and why nearly one third of our youth do not graduate high school.

We have learned a lot through our conversations with all off you, and with parents and students.

Our next step is to use this input to create a tool that will help our service providers and other stakeholders determine how effective their programs are in improving those statistics. The tool, which will be called a program quality report, is intended to drive accountability and results in each of the programs, and to provide transparency to the larger community.

Using your input, we will decide how we measure the effectiveness of similar programs. For instance, after school programs might report on the improvement in reading scores of children from the start of the year until the end. If we see, therefore, that Program A has improved reading scores by 10 percent and Program B only by 5 percent, Program B will surely want to know what it can do differently to achieve Program A’s results. The objective is to provide all programs the opportunity to deliver the best outcomes, which will drive systemic change. The objective is NOT to shut down Program B because its scores were lower.

Together we must decide what benchmarks we will be using, what secondary measures will be considered — i.e. Improved ninth grade graduation rates may signal improved high school graduation rates – and what quality indicators will be considered.

We have asked Bob Harman, Black Belt and LSS expert from O-I, to facilitate these sessions to be sure we effectively gather all the information you have. Specifically, we would like you to tell us the following about your current programs and measurements:

  • What benchmarks are you using?
  • What data do you already collect?
  • Is there data you’d like to collect but cannot?
  • What are the secondary measures you believe are relevant?
  • How can we measure quality?

Please attend and make sure we understand all that we can about your programs and what you are measuring. If you cannot attend the meeting, please call Kristen Kania or send her your program measurements via email.

Thank you for your attention and response.  We look forward to seeing you at our event.


Aspire Hosts GradNation Event For Parents in East Toledo

In April, Aspire hosted a community summit at the East Toledo Family Center to gather information from parents and caregivers in the Waite community about high school participation and attendance.  Some 100 people attended the event, participating in facilitated round table discussions.  Aspire Board Chairman Denny Johnson attended the event, as did volunteers from multiple partner agencies.

The YWCA Youth Development Programs, Girl Scouts of Western Ohio, Adelante, Mercy St. Vincent’s Healthy Connections Program, ABLE, and the Toledo Federation of Teachers all were on hand offering information on their support programs.

Superintendent of Toledo Public Schools and Aspire Board Member Romules Durant spoke to the group about the importance of education and the role of parents, highlighting the many new initiatives being introduced at Toledo Public Schools.  A representative from America’s Promise Alliance gave a presentation on the GradNation campaign.

Strengthening Families parent partners led the café conversations discussing challenges, as well as what student success looks like for parents.

Parents surveyed after the event said it was informative and interesting; that it gave them hope and inspiration and that they appreciated the support.

Click here for more photos.


Aspire Thanks Its Supporters at East Toledo Parent Summit

Aspire would like to recognize our community partners who came out to support the Aspire East Toledo Parent Summit.  The evening was a great success!  Nearly 100 family members attended the event, which was sponsored by GradNation and AT&T.

Parents were welcomed by Aspire Board Chair Denny Johnson.  Aspire Operation Team members Jane Moore, Chad Henderly and Libby Schoen served the families a wonderful meal.  Toledo Public Schools Superintendent Romules Durant, who is also an Aspire Board Member, kicked off the night with remarks about many of the new programs being introduced throughout the school system.  Madeleine Bien of America’s Promise Alliance, the organization behind the GradNation campaign, also addressed the group and talked about that organization’s drive to achieve a nation-wide graduation rate of 90 percent.

Aspire would also like to acknowledge several of our community partners who came out to provide support and information to families.  The programs included, YWCA Youth Development Programs, Girl Scouts of Western Ohio, Adelante, Mercy St. Vincent’s Healthy Connections Program, ABLE, and the Toledo Federation of Teachers.  The families appreciated the information provided by the Aspire partners.

The event could not have succeeded without the support of the Strengthening Families parent partners led by Marian Brannon, Strengthening Families Coordinator.  The parent leaders led the café conversations, discussing what student success looks like for parents, as well as the challenges they face.  We’d also like to thank the numerous Aspire Network members who worked with the parent leaders to capture the major themes from the café conversations.  Gathering input from parents is an important part of Aspire’s work.

At the close of the event, parents were asked to share one word that captured the evening for them.  Here are a few of the responses shared by parents:

  • Informative
  • Interesting
  • Grateful
  • Hopeful
  • Enlightened
  • Educational
  • Inspirational
  • Helpful
  • Joyful
  • Astonishing
  • Supportive




Aspire Kindergarten Readiness Network Update

Aspire’s first  Kindergarten Readiness Network  meeting of 2016 was held in February.
Each of the three Aspire Lean Six Sigma Project Teams provided attendees with updates on their exciting progress and gathered feedback from the members of the network.  The teams include the following:
  • Data Warehouse Needs Assessment Project (aka Resource Mapping)
  • Student Data System Pilot Project
  • Program Dashboard Project (aka Program Quality Report Project)
There is still time to join a team.  Feel free to reach out to Kristen Kania ( or any of the team leaders for more information on how you can help out with their work.
The next network meeting will likely take place in June.

Network News – January 2016, Aspire Kindergarten Readiness Network

Kindergarten Readiness Network Update Dec. 2015

The Aspire Kindergarten Readiness Network met on Monday, December 7 at the United Way.  At this meeting, the Network was presented with Aspire’s next steps toward improving Kindergarten Readiness.

For the first half of 2016, Aspire will work on three major projects aimed at bringing each Network closer to their goals – (1) Conduct a Data Needs Assessment of Education, Health and Human Services Data for the Data Warehouse; (2) Develop a Program Dashboard for Early Childhood and High School Age Programs; and, (3) Recommend a Student Data System to build.

The data warehouse will be rolled out in conjunction with the Chapter Two Report. The Data Needs Assessment will support the continued development of the data warehouse. By identifying additional community data and information for this system, we will continue to build our capacity to make data driven decisions.

By developing a template for Program Dashboards, we will further data driven decision making — supporting a culture of continuous improvement. The Program Dashboards will further the understanding of what is available for our children.

By the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, the intent is to have a student level data system in place to pilot in Waite Feeder Pattern Neighborhoods. The system will enable us to know what truly works to support cradle to career success.

The Kindergarten Readiness Network will continue to meet bi-monthly in 2016. The project teams will meet during the months between Network meetings.


In addition to these projects, the Aspire Kindergarten Readiness Network will host a Kindergarten Readiness Summit for Parents in the Waite Feeder Pattern Neighborhoods this Spring. The goal is to assist parents in better understanding Kindergarten Readiness.

LSS Project Teams

Aspire continues to build a culture of continuous improvement in Lucas County. In November and December 2015, five dedicated volunteers from Aspire partner agencies – Toledo Public Schools, United Way of Greater Toledo, and the Mental Health & Recovery Services Board of Lucas County – completed Lean Six Sigma (LSS) Green Belt training at Owens Illinois.

Between January and June 2016, teams led by the new LSS trainees will complete three key projects with Aspire. These projects support the work of both the Kindergarten Readiness Network and the Graduation Network.

The project teams will meet in January, March and May. If you are interested in joining a LSS Project Team, please feel free to contact the project team leaders listed below or Kristen Kania at

LSS Project Teams Meeting Schedule for January*:
Meeting: January 19 at the UW from 2 PM to 3:30 PM
Project Team Leaders:
Gayle Lake
Toledo Public Schools
Community Liaison Director of Programs and Enrichment Activities
Toni Shoola
United Way of Greater Toledo
Investment Reporting and Data Lead

(419) 254-4612

Meeting: January 20 at the UW from 2 PM to 3:30 PM
Project Team Leaders:
Evelyn McKinney
United Way of Greater Toledo, Income Manager
(419) 254-4675
Cami Roth Szirotnyak
Mental Health & Recovery Services Board of Lucas County
Quality Improvement Manager
(419) 213-4612

Meeting: January 21 at the UW from 1 PM to 2:30 PM

Project Team Leader:
Libby Schoen, Education Director
United Way of Greater Toledo,
(419) 254-4613
*The March meeting date will be set during the January meeting.

Network Meeting Schedule

The Aspire Kindergarten Readiness Network will meet bi-monthly at the United Way.  Here is the meeting schedule for the first half of 2016:

February 2, 2016
10 AM to Noon

at the United Way

April 13, 2016
10 AM to Noon

at the United Way

June 14, 2016
10 AM to Noon
at the United Way.