In 2010, as Title 1 Coordinator in Virginia Beach Public Schools, I had an a-ha moment regarding how we were and weren’t serving our Title I families in support of their “active” participation in schools.
During our yearly family application meetings, we started noticing a pattern: Parents in various ways shared that “they were doing everything they knew of to help their children succeed in school.” Everything they knew of… But what if they knew more? The notion of “providing more knowledge to families” led to new Professional Learning (PL) initiatives and to the acknowledgment that our family engagement program needed to shift focus from big one-off events, to consistent and ongoing involvement.
We needed to provide more practical opportunities for family interaction – and fun – around academics. The cultural shift really came into practice when we initiated forums for learning, listening, collaborating, and decision-making. My team, which consisted of central office, principals, teachers, and parent volunteers, built a series of highly successful programs to support our 13 Title 1 schools designed around engagement, attachment, and resources.
But first, we had to work on getting to know our communities. We started asking hard questions. Principals needed to gain insight into whether issues of poverty were generational, situational or a mix of both. We uncovered what activities families participated in, what failed, and why? The research of Joyce Epstein, Karen Mapp, and Steven Constantino on the effectiveness of family interaction guided us, and helped uncover ways to work together with families to fortify student success at school.
Translating ”engagement” from a concept into a practice is easier said than done. In my community, we knew we had to define it together. There is no doubt that when family engagement is developed in true partnership, it has the ability to positively impact students’ academic, social and emotional growth, even within distressed communities. We knew we had to get it right.
Our starting point was building trust by listening to and addressing some of the key challenges facing our families. Some families told us: “We want to help, but we don’t have the materials.” Many of our families work multiple jobs, are without cars, work nights and may have little interaction with their children. All were focused on providing essentials for their families. Our engagement activities had to be meaningful to them, and respect and address cultural differences. Working with over 400 families per school, this meant a lot of listening! Title I provided opportunities for the Family Engagement Liaisons and principals to discuss challenges and find solutions, and provided essential learning opportunities to help schools get started. We leaned on our teaching staff, who had their hands on the pulse of specific student needs, and who are a core component to all of our family engagement initiatives.
We also took an honest look at roadblocks to engagement, and broke free of those practices. We stopped looking at schedules and events that worked for us, and started looking at what type of engagement worked for our Title 1 families. This shift in mind-set made the difference, and moved us forward as problem solvers, instead of problem creators.
I explored “attachment theory,” after hearing Dr. Ann Corwin speak on the subject, and decided we needed to infuse this essential element into students’ most important relationships – those with their families and with their schools. We then re-examined our communication process with all stakeholders about student academics and social andemotional success. We developed a regular practice of asking for caregiver feedback at every family event. This small act made them aware of their vital role in carrying out our mission and vision. Our engagement opportunities also better ensured that children and their families have fun together around learning.
To provide our 13 schools with better support, our Title 1 central office formed a partnership with Scholastic and developed a train-the-trainer model for Family Engagement Liaisons. We implemented a series of three Family Reading Workshops from the publisher’s Read and Rise program, and customized learning opportunities for each community. This collaborative forum reinforced families’ critical role as a child’s first and most important teachers. We distributed easy literacy building activities for home, and shared information on the role of literacy and numeracy in their children’s lives. These valuable sessions provided actionable and replicable activities for our communities.
Research has shown that when children and families feel connected to the school the more successful they are. The work of Dr. Robert Brooks and Dr. Eric Jensen both highlight the importance of emotional intelligence and its role in student academic success. All children need positive relationships and support to achieve emotional stability and academic success. Strong home and school connections help students have those essential positive relationships. Therefore, it is up to the school to create academic and emotional supports that inform, engage and support positive student outcomes. We created fun learning experiences in which schools showcased student work at family engagement opportunities. This empowered students around academics and shared that success with parents, helping to build family relationships and experiences around school.
Our Title I community defined resources as materials and training both at school and at home. We consulted research, and drew from Beyond the Bake Sale, by Karen Mapp, to help our principals and Family Engagement Liaisons identify proven engagement activities and then make practical changes at each school to get more families involved.
I worked one-on-one with each principal on his or her strategic engagement plan, addressing consistency and ways to use funding most effectively. We worked in a collective partnership to build relationships with the 400+ families per school we serve, and worked to shift the culture, so that families saw themselves as true partners with us. How could we empower parents who may have had negative experiences with schools and who may have limited education themselves? Our job was to make it doable. We tried to inspire a growth mindset for all those involved. We then folded our big ideas into the writing of our Title 1 Continuous Improvement Plan, right along with our academic objectives in mathematics and literacy. We rolled out our family involvement initiatives to directly support our work within these core curriculum areas.
By knowing your families, creating practical opportunities for them to engage, and finding partnerships around what works, we have been able to achieve extraordinary successes. In my next blog, you will hear about our access to books initiative, and how it helped not only to build text-rich environments for our Title 1 families, but provided a significant measure of the growth of family engagement in our community.