By Nicol Christie
July 14, 2021
When I was 7 years old, I began the long physical and emotional trek to a new school. I rode the cheddar cheese–colored school bus for over an hour, staring out the window as the scenery changed from row homes carved out of concrete in the inner city, through picturesque suburbs, to the eerie quiet of a small country campus with sprawling meadows, towering woods, and picket fencing as far as my little eyes could see.
I was the only black kid on the bus. And, when I finally arrived at the new campus that I grew to adore, I was one of only five black students in the entire school. It was there I began to experience the status quo racism that so many marginalized children face in American classrooms. Status quo racism isn’t the “in-your-face” overt discrimination you can distinctly hear, see, and fight through legal means; it’s the covert “you’re not welcome here” feeling that some children and families find in the educational setting. But I was gifted with two parents who worked in public education and knew how to navigate the system. So, I did okay.
But, what happens to black and brown children whose parents don’t have the knowledge, skill, vocabulary, or time to advocate? What about kids with a physical, emotional, or intellectual disability? And what about families who are dealing with food insecurities, homelessness, or live in rural communities with transportation, internet bandwidth, or poverty issues?
I don’t know of a simple solution to complex inequitable educational experiences. What I do know is that school systems have an inherent responsibility to meet each child and family at the school door with welcoming and inclusive practices. This involves fostering an environment where family voice is respected and every student can learn and thrive, no matter their background, language, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, socio-economic status, or any other difference. This also includes the siblings, grandparents, cousins, and other extended family members who often make up students’ critical support systems. Although school systems play a different role in children’s lives than that of communities, churches, and families, they’re a quintessential part of the ecosystem that—when healthy—develops well-balanced, contributing members of society.
Levers for Effective Family Engagement
- Make family engagement part of a larger ecosystem of support.
- Lead by strengthening relationships and setting a welcoming tone.
- Offer training and support to help families build their skills.
- Give families a seat at the decision-making table.
So, how can school and district leaders better engage families? The Region 9 Comprehensive Center is partnering with the Illinois State Board of Education to create a holistic vision and strategy for family engagement. We spent the past year listening to stakeholders throughout Illinois—family and community advocacy groups, local education agencies, parents, students, and legislators—to identify how to improve the educational experience for students and their families. We heard the passion in the voices of parents who were gravely concerned for both their children’s health and potential learning losses. Following these conversations, we looked at the stakeholders’ recommendations and mapped them with current research on equitable family engagement practices.
Our work determined four “levers,” supported by both research and practical application in the field, that school and district leaders can employ to promote effective family engagement. We believe these levers are essential to high-quality family engagement, but school leaders must decide which strategies to use based on their context, culture, and capacity.
Lever 1: Make Family Engagement Part of a Larger Ecosystem of Support
Good education systems help foster a sense of connection and engagement for students and their families, but an entire ecosystem of support is required to address children’s multifaceted needs. This includes business leaders, community partners, and religious and civic groups. Collaboration among multiple stakeholders, wrapping around the student and family, ensures that if one student support slips, the remaining supports pick up the slack. For example, a documentary and blog post from our partners at Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest showcase how school districts and community organizations in Chicago and Rockford, Illinois, are partnering alongside families to support early literacy development.
Time-tested practices such as home visits are proven to have positive impacts on students’ academic achievements as well as their general attitudes toward school. Districts should consider earmarking some of their Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds over the next three years to bolster existing home visitation programs or create new ones. Across the country, districts are leveraging COVID-19 emergency funds to align such programs with attendance initiatives.
Parents and guardians feel more connected to schools when they operate as a community resource. Families of color have been particularly disenfranchised from some educational systems, and supportive schools are in a great position to change their view of education for generations to come. Moreover, by pursuing family engagement as part of a broader commitment to social justice and educational equity, school leaders engender trust from their families. Hosting extended learning events like literacy nights, personal finance seminars, or job trainings can support a sense of welcome and target specific parent groups. The 21st Century Community Learning Center program is an example of how schools can be transformed into central locations for civic, vocational, and educational services for families. The practice of developing cooperative partnerships among educators, families, and local communities is paramount.
Lever 2: Lead by Strengthening Relationships and Setting a Welcoming Tone
Principals play a vital role in developing relationships with the families in their school buildings, positioning the school as a community asset, and changing school culture through purposeful work with family and community leaders. In fact, respect and trusting relationships between families and school staff are important predictors of student learning. School leaders set the tone for their buildings; they should cultivate an asset-based approach to family engagement that unlocks the potential for meaningful partnerships rather than a deficit perspective that may blame parents for their lack of involvement.
For example, an elementary principal might set a positive tone by being present at school drop-off each morning to welcome students and parents, or a high school leader might make an effort to chat with families at sporting events and activities. Other constructive ways to involve parents during the school day and beyond include in-person or virtual gatherings such as Donuts for Dads Day. Also, disseminating outreach information translated into families’ home languages is a must! But the change extends beyond saying hello to families during morning drop-off or translating school notices into Spanish. District and school leaders must pair their great intentions for a welcoming environment with meaningful training, support, and resources for their staff.
Family outreach that emphasizes personal relationships is more likely to be effective. Relational trust is a two-way endeavor that relies on perceptions of each other’s motives, reliability, competencies, honesty, and openness. It takes time and an understanding of some basic cultural nuances, but the payoff is well worth the effort.
Lever 3: Offer Training and Support to Help Families Build Their Skills
Entering the school building can be intimidating for many families. Leaders can counter this by inviting families to visit classrooms and educating them on how to visit in an unintrusive way that doesn’t disrupt instruction. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, inviting families into the school building and allowing parental classroom visits can help them feel more welcome. And, when parents are invited into the school (and not just to address a behavioral or academic problem), they are more likely to be actively involved in their children’s education at home and in school. This is especially important for students with disabilities: Increasing familial knowledge of their student’s needs can lead to increased family engagement.
What might this look like in practice? In one example, the Parent Mentor Program, operated through a partnership between the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and Southwest Organizing Project in Chicago, brings parents into the classroom and supports them through trainings on instructional practices and leadership. Some additional practical strategies that can help families better understand what is happening at school include
- holding several informal meet-and-greet events (virtually or in person) each year so parents can meet the school staff who interact with their students all day;
- offering workshops on the high expectations and standards expected of children at each grade level;
- providing training on topics such as strengthening study skills, curriculum standards, and postsecondary planning;
- conducting workshops on understanding and interpreting standardized test data;
- creating opportunities for parents to work with their children in setting their academic, college, and career goals; and
- training parents and caregivers on skills such as literacy, adult basic education, or leadership.
Building the capacity of families to work together with their local education systems is a powerful tool to bridge the gap between home and school.
Lever 4: Give Families a Seat at the Decision-Making Table
It is important that school staff see parents as equal partners in their school community. Parents and caregivers should be invited to participate through planning meetings for school events, serving on policy councils and other governing bodies (as well as community or state coalitions where they can share their ideas and cultural practices), and providing input on students’ academic goals and culturally responsive curricula. School leaders can empower families to serve in a leadership capacity by inviting them into decision-making conversations from the start, rather than simply telling them about decisions after they have been made. School systems also can leverage the relationships that parent liaisons, school resource officers, or community leaders have with families to involve them more. By taking the time to ensure someone is actively getting to know families and welcoming their input on policy and practice decisions, schools and districts create a larger complementary system that is key to student success.
Schools that cultivate relational trust and shared leadership with families, respond to family and student needs, and give attention to cultural sensitivity have seen increases in family engagement. Take this to the next level by inviting families to local school board meetings and ensuring ample time for them to be heard. Better yet, make sure parents and caregivers know how to run for a school board position, a strategy that is promoted by the Illinois State Board of Education’s director of family and community engagement, Sergio Hernandez. Toso and Grinder’s Practitioner’s Guide discusses the benefits of parents serving as leaders.
“Family engagement” is much more than a catch phrase. The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that educators are indeed first responders in a child’s life. My teachers certainly were. Some gave me life-saving treatment, others withheld vital health and educational services that I needed to thrive. Educators have a hand in shaping a child’s sense of self-worth by fostering well-being, safety, and acceptance, but that effort can succeed only when families and school systems work together. Schools that actively reach out to families are rewarded with increased parent involvement. And, when parents are empowered as leaders, a solid bond can form between school and community that supports ongoing student learning.
My hope for the American classroom is that it becomes an inclusive place with a commitment to navigating differences and where families are respected partners and all students can thrive. After all, we all want the same thing: what’s best for our children.
Nicol Christie leads the Equitable Family and Community Engagement project for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center and is an education specialist with more than 20 years of experience providing technical assistance to prekindergarten–12th grade parents, educators, and leaders focused on improving the lives and equitable educational opportunities of all children.