Impact of Family Engagement on Schools and Districts

This section will discuss the impact of family engagement on schools and districts. We will explore how the different groups have overcome the challenges of building a strong relationship with schools, families, and local communities and bringing about transformational change.

Impact on Schools and Districts

The Role of Districts in Family Engagement

So one of the things we really would love to have school leaders understand is that we’re really talking about family and community engagement as a component of good school organization and good district-level leadership.

What we’ve learned over the years, by collecting data every year from every site that works with us overtime at the district level and in their schools, is that district leadership really matters for whether every school within a district understands family engagement as a matter of school organization, and as a matter of culture.

Most districts have a written policy hiding somewhere that says family engagement and community partnerships are important here.

But unless they have put in place the leadership structure that will help every school activate and implement the policy, the policy tends to sit on the books.

And what we’re trying to do through our center and the national network is if a policy exists, let’s implement it. And what that means, that we’ve found, is that a district has to have a designated, named leader for partnerships, who becomes the go-to person for expertise on family and community engagement., and has, in our work, two responsibilities.

First, they’re going to lead all the work in the district about partnerships from their office, or with other offices, interdepartmental. Collegial work might happen in a good district.

And the second responsibility is to facilitate each school’s action team for partnerships so that each school builds its capacity to work with its students’ families. And what we found with data in a new set of analyses that uses advanced methods called hierarchical linear modeling is we actually have data where the data are nested.

We have data from districts, and data from their own schools, simultaneously collected. So we can check if district leaders say they’re helping the schools, and do the school say the district leaders are helping them?

And if they do, do the schools have a higher quality partnership program? And what we learned, now two cycles of this kind of analysis, is yes, the district help, helps schools do better.

They will reach more families. They will address more challenges to reach the hard to reach families. If they’re getting some assistance, encouragement, and recognition, perhaps, from the district level, to do that work better and better and learn from each other, the district leader learns from the schools.

The schools learn from the district leader. And actually, the schools learn from other schools. Because in a culture of good partnerships across the district, one school may be working very well on engaging fathers.

Another school may be working very well in engaging multicultural families who may not speak English at home. And they may learn from each other that year how to do both of those things better because of the work that’s going on district-wide.

There’s a kind of a set of variables that we’ve learned are essential elements for good leadership at the district level, also in the schools.

But it includes leadership, teamwork, collegial support, adequate funding, and even an implementation of what goes into a plan, and networking. All of those hang together to make a better program, stronger leaders, and more systematic use of partnerships across the schools within a district.

Some districts in our network have one school. No problem. Some districts have lots of schools, hundreds of schools. There this kind of nested leadership includes a leader for partnerships, that person’s staff, because one facilitator from a district, we’ve learned, can work with up to 30 school action teams.

So we actually did a study, how many schools a facilitator can work with effectively. That’s great. That’s wonderful that you actually have that ratio. That’s very helpful for districts. We started with one facilitator for eight schools. That was easy. Then we tried 1 to 15.

That was also possible. And what we found that in districts that have areas, they would often have 20 to 30 schools per area. And one facilitator for each region worked. And that was fiscally sensible in a district.

So a district isn’t going to hire hundreds of facilitators. They’re going to hire the minimum number for doing the best job with the most schools.

And what we learned was that one to 30 was a difficult but doable equation. So we’ve learned how important leadership is, that we don’t just leave teachers to figure all of this out on their own.

We don’t leave each school to figure it out on their own. We create a leadership structure that’s really going to make a district a better, stronger place because families are going to move with their child from one school to the next as they go from elementary to middle to high school.

So we don’t want just one school doing something over here and nothing happening in the next school that a child will attend. We want to have families understand that they’re partners in their children’s education every year.

And to have that happen, every school has to be ready to work with families as partners. And to do that, we need district-level leadership that’s going to actually make it clear that this is part of the policy here.

And we’re all going to engage families and the community because it says we’re supposed to do that. Well, let’s go ahead and make that happen.

School Infrastructure & Family Engagement

We probably have a smaller team than we would like to. But we have an office of family and community engagement that deals with a couple of different things.

So we have one portion of the office that deals with how we partner with nonprofit organizations and volunteers. We have another group that really runs this family engagement collaborative, the schools that are being trained in-home visits, and the teachers who are in the fellowship so that this community of practice is happening all across the district.

We have another group that is really instrumental in how we engage with the community. And they go to every single neighborhood meeting, civic association meeting, school meeting, PTA meeting so that we know what’s happening on the ground in communities and can support families differently that way.

It’s not just the people in our central office, right? Our school leaders have to be key members of the team. And so in addition to training them through the family engagement collaborative, we actually train our up and coming principals in family engagement so that they are clear that this is a priority for us and they have the skills to be able to do it

before they hit the principalship.

So that way, they will be leaders that prioritize family engagement. I think we’ve done a lot of very interesting things around family engagement. We partner with an organization, a local foundation, called the Flamboyan Foundation.

And I raise that partnership issue because, at a time when we knew the family engagement was important, we couldn’t figure out what the right strategies were.

I was able to say to my foundation partner, go out, scour the country. Figure out the best ways to engage families. And then help us do that.

And so the Flamboyan Foundation figured out the home visit piece. And they figured out these academic parent team teacher meetings and helped us develop a program to train our teachers.

We’ve also done simple things, like make information more accessible to parents. We’ve also created guides to our curriculum so that parents, at any time, know what their kids are studying, and what kinds of projects their students are doing, what kinds of field trips might be supportive of what’s coming up.

We want to send a signal to families that let them know that we want them engaged in their student’s learning. You know, because as you were talking, I was thinking about when I was deputy superintendent for family communication engagement in Boston, one of the things that I was always trying to think about and work with Tom Faison on was how do we convince some of our school leaders who have been sitting principals for a while, this was a different way of saving the world.

I think that a lot of times seeing your peers do this work and seeing the results that your peers are getting is the best way to move principals. When you’re peer stands up and says, I found a way to incorporate this into my work.

And as a result, we have much better student achievement, or much better whatever, and I think that’s when principals listen. And so we have created a set of disciples who are out spreading the good news of the family engagement.

Impact of Organizing on School Leaders

So often, teachers are feeling powerless; teachers are feeling put upon, teachers don’t know each other. They’re in their own little classrooms. So the idea was, can we start to build what they came to call a relational culture in the whole school? A school that’s filled with relationships– parents with each other, parents with teachers, teachers with each other. 

And the principal now is not the administrator telling people what to do; the principal now the one who’s building the capacity, helping teachers unleash the passion they felt they had when they first got to the school.

He really talks about a transformation in his mindset to thinking almost like an organizer himself as the leader of a school, not as the administrator of a school.

And a leader is a fundamentally relational kind of term, right? You’re leading a community that has other people in it who are also providing leadership in different kinds of ways.

But I do think that– and this is something we haven’t had the chance to talk about before. One of our findings, I think, was that the community organizing groups play a very important role as an independent organization.

And I think there’s a question as to how far real, authentic power-building if you will, can occur if it’s all centered at the school or at the district level.

So you know, I’m all in favor of schools having family and community engagement staff. I think that’s very important. But one of the things that we found, the groups that we studied were not housed entirely at schools.

They also were in the community. And I think that’s an important balance, right? We’re talking about schools and communities working together. These are public institutions, right?

These are not private institutions of the families with children who go to them. They’re public institutions for all of our communities, and so I think there’s got to be a vision about working with community organizing groups that are in your locality to create the kind of change that we want to have happened in our schools.

So I really would like to push, in a way, on school leaders to think in more imaginative ways of the kinds of partnerships that occur out there.

Additional Resources

Impact on Communities

A Foundation’s Role in Family Engagement

We see our role as– we’re very clear on what our role is, and we’re very clear on what our role isn’t. We are a lever. We provide those resources to teachers, and teachers and families are the actors. They’re the ones who are out there doing the work. We’re very clear. We’re not the actor. We’re the lever. And that, I think, is essential.

When funders or nonprofits think of themselves as the key actor, I think that’s sometimes when you find inauthentic relationships or find missteps. We go out and research best practices. We go out, and we figure out the best programs in the country that we can bring here. We then provide training for teachers. We provide support for teachers. We ensure that teachers’ voices are heard, and we ensure parent voices are heard.

We are behind the scenes helping to make it happen, but we are very, very clear that the actors in this work are the teachers and the families and that our role is to help them be as effective as they can be.

One of the things I think I’ve really liked about the flamboyant role is what you said. It’s not just that you all have funded the initiative and let it go.

And you’ve actually provided a lot of wonderful professional development for teachers and training for families. And sometimes that’s something I haven’t seen. Sometimes people just will give the money and then take a step back, which is not always effective.

We’re not a typical foundation in that, I would say. And I don’t believe money solves problems. I believe people solve problems.

And I believe money can be a way of getting people to the table, or it can be a way to find great resources. But I will never sit here and tell you that giving money to something is going to fix it. People fix things. And the people who share the problem share the solution. And so our work is to activate the financial resource and use that financial resource to go find what we can find to help leverage the human resource.

A Match on Dry Grass

We could maybe start with a stereotype of what community organizing groups do: they march or they rally, or they demand changes. And it’s kind of like banging on the doors of the school. Improve, change. This is what we need.

Certainly, there is that aspect to community organizing that oftentimes we’re talking about communities now that basically lacks a lot of power in our system. And so, what community organizing groups are trying to do is build power or capacity.

Not just to demand things, but also so that we can work together to create change. Increasing funds is one thing, but we need a wholesale transformation. And that means a sustained engagement. Also, a transformation of relationships between organizing communities and institutions of public education, so people have a voice, they’re organized, and they’re at the decision-making table when the important decisions are made.

So that’s the kind of transformation at the institutional level. But we also found that at the individual level. So when parents, when young people, when community members get involved in community organizing groups, what we found is that they really were– we talked about it some as a sort of transformation of a private individual to a public actor.

And this is often profound for many people. This is a place to learn the skills of public speaking, learning how to do research to uncover data and what’s really going on in the schools, learning how to craft proposals for change, learning how to build relationships with people, learning how to organize your fellow community members, but also how do you work constructively with teachers in the school? Or how do you work both constructively, but also sometimes in a challenging way with your elected officials to actually create change?

And so these individuals really report just a tremendous transformation that then extends into their families, when their children start to see them in an entirely different light.

Because now they’re seeing their mom or their dad standing up at school committee meetings and speaking on behalf of their community.

These are very profound things that happen in people’s lives. So there’s a transformation of the individual that’s involved here. There’s a transformation of the institutions. And we also talked about the transformation of communities that goes on when communities now have more organized leadership and a capacity to demand change.

And again, we’re trying not to talk about a few individuals speaking for a community, but a much deeper process of relationship building and engagement so that those leaders are really in relationship with others and speaking in concert in collective action for change.

Well, I think what struck me being involved in the project and listening to some of the parents as we interviewed them. What really struck me was when they did talk about the difference between we got the win, so we got the budget increased.

Or we had a policy change, but that actually wasn’t the whole point of the organizing. That just really struck me that in all the six organizations we went to, how people talked about how this process of finding their voice was so transformational for them.

I’ll give you an example. So one of the groups that we studied, one of our cases, was in San Jose, California. And it was a group in East San Jose, which is a predominantly low-income Latinos part of the city.

This is a community with a lot of struggles, a lot of assets as well, but a lot of struggles. Any case, their campaign was to open three new small semi-autonomous schools. And I won’t get into the whole story about why they felt that whether they needed it.

But it was a story about large scale schools that they felt were just too distant from families and communities that wanted to create smaller schools that they felt families could be involved in.

And so they won that, but as you say, it wasn’t really about just winning that, it was about changing the relationships. So when they started to design teams to create the schools, parents were at the table participating in the design of the school. And the entire schools were infused with the notion of family and community engagement.

So I got a chance to go to one of those schools. And there was a meeting happening in the cafeteria of the school, and the purpose of the meeting was to write a proposal to the state to be declared innovative or an excellent public school.

There was a competition. And I got there, and there’s like 120 parents in the cafeteria working on this proposal. And the principal comes running up to me and profusely apologizes for the low parent turnout.

Because there’s a meeting going on at the Catholic church down the road, and a lot of the parents whose kids are at the school went to the church’s meeting. But they still have like over 100 people.

And again, it’s not that idea of people talking at this crowd. Everybody’s active at stations all over the cafeteria, using organizing techniques to be engaged with each other, to be contributing what they thought what should be said about the school in this application—so talking about their school. What do they like about it? What was good about it?

And then they got back together and had some report backs. And one parent raised their hand and she said I really disagree with what’s in this draft. This draft says the school has a whole range of activities in which it involves parents.

And she said I completely reject that. We are the parents who organize the activities and engage ourselves in the school.

And I think that whole shift of who are you as a person in relationship not just to the school, to the public life of your community, you’re not somebody that things are done to, that somebody is engaging you in.

You are part of a community that is working yourself to build your community and change the school. So that that transformational change, that mindset that you take into a school changes everything.

Family Engagement & Race

Historically, for ethnic minorities, American schools have not been a safe place. And we know even today, there are several meta analyses, which are studies that combine the findings of multiple studies to kind of answer a question that might be controversial.

And these meta-analyses show that even today, teachers often hold higher expectations for white and Asian kids than they do for black and Latino kids. And this is something that many minority parents, especially African-American parents, are aware of.

And so often, it colors the kind of interactions that families have with schools. And so if you’re coming into the school and you feel like the teacher might not have the best interests of your child at heart, that creates a different kind a context in which to have a partnership or a collaboration.

And one of the ways in which we see this empirically is that when you look at teachers’ perceptions of how much parents value education, we find that teachers’ perceptions of how much parents value education is related to how much parents are involved if the parents are black or Latino.

If they’re white or Asian, how much parents are involved is unrelated to how much teachers think parents value education. As a case in point one of my good colleagues, Ruth Chao, does a lot of research on family engagement among Asian families who, if you look at the mean levels of engagement and the ways we measure engagement, including volunteering at school and helping with homework and showing up for PTA and parent-teacher conferences, Asian-American families are involved the least in those typical ways.

And it doesn’t occur to teachers that the Asian families don’t value education.

It’s almost a given. But the moment an African-American or a Latino parent doesn’t show up; now you know they don’t care.

And it makes African-American parents, in particular, have a sense of distrust of the schools. And when they distrust them, then it means that they can’t collaborate in the same way. And so they come to school, not just to see how their kids are doing, but to monitor the teacher.

And if I was a teacher, I’m not sure I’d want a parent monitoring me. You know, it’s not the kind of context where you can easily create a collaboration. And so, race and socioeconomic status matter. And the second thing I think we often miss in these interactions between families and schools is that we’ve forgotten to look at what the other parents do, that there is a club of parents often that run the PTA meetings and the PTO meetings that end up being representatives on the various decision-making committees in the schools.

And those parents often become barriers to the very parents that schools want to reach.

And we found in our focus groups, particularly the African-American parents who tend to want to be more involved and figure out how to be involved, that often those parents feel marginalized by these power-broker parents who have lots of time and resources and are the ones that the principals call on because they’re like-minded and available and willing.

And so to be really careful, I recommend to principals and to district leaders to be more inclusive in who they involve in these parent representative positions and decision-making bodies to make sure that they have a breadth of representation and that they don’t have a cadre of parents that might end up being gatekeepers that are keeping out the very parents that they want to reach.

Because if families see some people who look like them in leadership, they might be more likely to become engaged in school and trust that the school understands their perspective.

Population Changes and Tension

We know how to improve our curriculum. We know a lot more about engaging families and students. But I think one of the toughest parts of the job, to be very honest, is managing the demands of these– in some cases– clashing cultures.

There are families who have always been with DCPS. They didn’t have any other choice. In many cases, we misserved them– parents or grandparents or what have you. We haven’t done right by them.

And we owe them a better education for their young people. And then there are new families who are coming into town who deserve that their taxpayer dollars pay for a good public school system.

And sometimes those two folks want different sets of things. And my challenge is to be the chancellor for all families– new families, old families– and make sure that we’re able to serve them both well.

I think the underlying work is valuing all of your parents equally. I think educators are non-confrontational. We are people builders, right? So we want to motivate people.

And so we have to teach our educators how to have some difficult conversations while still respecting people and bringing them in. But it’s not easy work. It’s not– I can just stick a program in place, and everything will be OK. It is slow work and its person by person work. And you’ve got to be committed to doing that. It’s building community.

Additional Resources

  1. Chao, Ruth K. “Beyond Parental Control and Authoritarian Parenting Style: Understanding Chinese Parenting Through the Cultural Notion of Training.” Child Development 65, no. 4 (July 1994): 1111-119.
  2. Hill, Nancy “How Can African-American Parents Keep Their Children Safe From the Police?” U.S. News & World Report (July 2016).
  3. Quinlan, Casey “How Marginalized Families Are Pushed Out of PTAs” The Atlantic (July 2016).

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