Family engagement in education—often referred to imprecisely as “parental involvement”—extends beyond incidental communication with schools or helping with homework. Effective family engagement is best achieved through a balanced and reciprocal partnership among schools, families and the community.
The Role of the District
Beginning at the district level with the implementation of strategic plans and yearly goals, best practices prescribe the deliberate and meaningful inclusion of families and community partners. This means that families and the community collaborate with schools on shared plans and initiatives that support student achievement. All roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and supported, with a commitment to providing resources for ongoing professional learning for school staff, and ongoing, actionable communications for families, so that the connection between school and home is continuous and beneficial for all. When this level of engagement occurs, families and communities share ownership of student achievement, which is sustainable even if district or school leadership changes. It also means that a foundation of successful engagement can be expanded in the future.
The Role of the School
It is crucial for teachers and staff to develop deep knowledge of their communities. Schools are increasingly diverse, with students who might be multi-lingual or multi-ethnic, who practice many different religions, or who come to school with special needs. And in many cases, what we once thought of as traditional family structure has changed, and students may live in foster, blended, or other kinds of families. We also often hear from teachers that the families who consistently come to school—especially once their children enter sixth grade—are the families of students who are doing well. When some families do not participate in school activities or communicate with the school, it may seem like they don’t care. In fact, the case may be that cultural, language or logistical issues (such as inflexible work schedules) prevent families from communicating with schools. So the school’s biggest challenge is learning how to create partnerships with all families. Schools must be able to understand their students’ families, and be equipped to engage with them in a flexible and responsive manner.
For leaders, teachers and school staff, strong professional development can provide concrete strategies on how to identify factors that impact whether and to what degree families are able to communicate with schools. Schools are then able to differentiate engagement in order to effectively work with all families on an ongoing basis.
The Role of the Family
For families, meaningful engagement starts with learning how to work in partnership with schools. This begins with a family’s strong connection with their child’s teacher, which allows cooperation and the means to provide deliberate support. In addition, through both these important conversations and opportunities to learn from other educators and families at the school, families can learn how to ask different kinds of questions at home in order to establish a deeper connection with their child’s academic progress. For example, instead of asking, “How was school today?”, they will learn to ask questions with purpose: “What did you learn today?” “Which character do you like in the story, and why?” When schools have great home connections, they are able to encourage students to read more at home, which increases vocabulary, and, ultimately, overall academic achievement.
Effective family and community engagement is therefore more than a series of meetings scheduled throughout the school year. It must begin with systemic implementation, and then evolve as a proactive, responsive and deliberate relationship of equal partners.