Talking with Parents

We are a student team at Harvard working with the Boston Public Schools to understand and improve the parent experience—yet none of us have children!

To understand how parents experience the Boston Public Schools (BPS), we needed to do a little fieldwork. We went out into Boston to talk with parents in their neighborhoods.

 John speaking with a BPS parent

John speaking with a BPS parent

Our initial research included:

  • John walking the streets in Dorchester, where he grew up, on a frigid February day—starting at the bus stop he used to take to school near Codman Square library, followed by stops in convenience stores and laundromats near Ashmont Station.

  • Molly calling parents who had previously contacted Carolyn MacNeil, the BPS ombudsperson.

  • Ayna and Ben attending the Boston Schools Committee meeting in Roxbury, canvassing parents on the streets of Allston, and speaking with parents who attend Harvard Kennedy School.

  • Chris stopping by the Josiah Quincy school in Chinatown and talking with parents waiting to pick up kids at the end of the school day.

We quickly found that parents and guardians care deeply about the public schools. One grandmother stood in the freezing cold for twenty-five minutes to talk about her son being bullied. Many parents wept as they expressed their frustrations. Their stories reminded us that when a kid boards a school bus, their parents’ hearts go with them.

 A snapshot of our research methods

A snapshot of our research methods

We talked to twenty-five parents, some for over an hour. Some parents reported their initial worries turned into love of their local school and teachers. Other parents felt pretty good about their school, until they hit a problem.

We heard about fourth-graders who suddenly fear math, middle school students with disappearing homework, and parents trying to get their child’s medical needs recognized in high school. Some parents had already resolved their concerns, but many talked about big life changes they had considered—homeschooling, charter schooling, or even moving the whole family—just to switch schools.

Parents who felt their principal wasn’t listening to their concerns often decided “I have to go over their head.” For our team, that’s an important learning: Parents aren’t starting out bringing every problem to the BPS administration. They’re going first to the school, then escalating.  By the time they first get to a BPS employee, they are often already frustrated.

Parents want to reach someone who will listen, and address their concerns. Both parts are important!

Ayna Agarwal, Chris Kuang, Ben McGuire, John La Rue, Molly Thomas