Educators at Great Bend High School were used to parents playing hooky from parent-teacher conferences at least half the time. Participation used to be about 50 percent in the fall and as low as 20 percent in the spring, Assistant Principal Randy Wetzel said. That changed dramatically about five years ago when the high school switched to student-led conferences.
Instead of one out of three parents coming to parent-teacher conferences, attendance has increased to 85 or 90 percent, Wetzel told the school board this week. Now GBHS educators are being asked to create workshops so other school districts can follow their example.
“Over the last year or so, we’ve gotten a lot of recognition from the state,” Wetzel said. GBHS was asked to put together a presentation for a February education conference. About 80 people were in the room and after the conference Wetzel received a dozen emails asking for more information.
On April 3, Wetzel and GBHS teachers Dan Heath and Andy Negaard drove to Rock Creek USD 323, a school district near Manhattan, to give another presentation. “They paid for our transportation and our substitute teachers,” he said.
How it works
Students complete weekly assignments during their advisory class in preparation for the conference. They work on long- and short-term goal setting and discuss their grades and concerns with their advisory teacher. All of those assignments go into a folder, along with information about their grades in each class.
When it’s time for parent-teacher conferences, a meeting is scheduled with the student, the advisory teacher, and a parent. During the session, which lasts from 10 to 15 minutes, the student presents the folder and explains its contents.
“You look at the old way, it was parents hearing either how good their child is or how bad their child was,” Wetzel said. “ It was kind of — got to be adversarial sometimes. It really wasn’t a conversation, just a statement of facts.”
With the student-led conference, the student learns to become his own advocate as he explains the grades for each class and the work that was done or not done. At the conclusion, parents and students create new or additional goals to be met.
“Basically the idea behind student-led conferences is to empower the kid to be involved in their education and their decision making,” Wetzel said. “It’s a conversation; ‘how are we going to get your child to graduate and get a career?’ It’s a conversation between the child and the parent, and the teacher is now a facilitator.”
School board member Cheryl Rugan said she wasn’t sold on the idea of student-led conferences initially, but got to see it first-hand as a parent.
“I was skeptical because you don’t go to all of the teachers,” she said. But after experiencing the conference with her child, she says, “It really does help the kids.”
Board member Lori Reneau added that even though the conference is scheduled with just one teacher, the student's other teachers are still available if a parent has an issue or needs to talk to someone.
The spring conferences are especially important because they help the student decide what classes to enroll in for the fall, Wetzel said. So, even though parent participation is close to 90 percent, student participation is 100 percent. If his parents don’t attend, the student makes his presentation to Wetzel or another educator at the school.