Learning First Alliance

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Family Engagement in Student Learning: A Conversation with Dr. Maria C. Paredes

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

Parent and family engagement is a critical component in ensuring student achievement and success in school. However, traditional models of parent-teacher interaction (for example, conventional parent-teacher conferences) do not necessarily have a substantial effect on student performance.

Dr. Maria C. Paredes, a Senior Program Associate at WestEd, noticed that although parents in the Creighton Elementary School District did have high levels of engagement, student performance levels were static. Through the help of surveys of both parents and teachers, Dr. Paredes redesigned the district's parent-teacher engagement model to better serve both parties. The result - Academic Parent-Teacher Teams (APTT*) - is proving effective, and the model is spreading across classrooms and districts. Dr. Paredes recently took time to discuss the model with Public School Insights. 

Public School Insights (PSI): Tell us a little about the program at Creighton and the APTT Model. What are some of the key components?

Dr. Paredes: Academic Parent-Teacher Teams (APTT) is an intentional, systematic means of increasing student academic learning and performance by enhancing the quality of parent-teacher communication and collaboration. APTT was designed using the lessons learned from research and those learned by doing the work. APTT gives purpose, structure, and direction to school leaders and teachers on how to engage families in student learning. By providing parent education and creating a two-way system of regular communication, teachers can ensure that parents have knowledge and understanding of their children’s grade level learning goals, and that parents are engaged in helping their children meet or exceed appropriate standards.

APTT has two main components:

1. Three 75-minute classroom team meetings (Includes the classroom teacher and all the parents in the class together as a team)

In these group meetings the teacher reviews classroom data, models activities to practice at home, provides materials and practice time, and creates a trusting team environment where everyone works for the same goal of improving student learning.

2. One 30-minute individual parent-teacher session (Includes the classroom teacher, a student and their family)

Individual meetings provide an opportunity for the teacher and a family to review up to date progress reports, create an action plan for continuous academic growth, and to develop stronger relationships.

APTT empowers families with the necessary information, tools, and strategies to support student learning at home.

PSI:  Can you share with us a little of the historical background for this initiative? How was this model developed?

Dr. Paredes: APTT originated in 2008 in the Creighton Elementary School District in Phoenix, AZ. As Director of Community Education for the District, I was responsible for creating effective family engagement opportunities. Like many Title I districts across the nation, I set up regular parent workshops with parent selected topics, I hired Parent Liaisons to serve the needs of families at each school, I offered conferences, and set up a myriad of semester-long educational classes that were thriving with parent attendance. In spite of the great efforts, I had no concrete evidence to know if all the efforts were having the desired impact on student learning and family dynamics.

Developing APTT was my doctoral action research project at Arizona State University. I ran a couple of small APTT pilot projects before doing my formal action research. From the preliminary trial results, I knew that APTT had the potential to transform the way schools engage families in student learning.  I successfully defended my dissertation in the spring of 2011 with some very optimistic data results.

The positive outcomes for students, families, and teachers from implementation of APTT provided a research-based approach to repurposing traditional parent-teacher conferences, which in my opinion are mostly ineffective, lack strategy, are void of relevant academic substance, and come without accountability for parents and teachers.

PSI: Did you receive any pushback from parents, teachers or administrators as you worked to bring this model into the classrooms?

Dr. Paredes: No, I can’t say there was much pushback at Creighton; I think we were all ready to take family engagement to the next level.

The first year of implementation nine brave first grade teachers agreed to participate in my action research project. These teachers showed the way for the rest of us, and they did a great job of following the model with fidelity. The 214 participating students and their families adjusted to the changes very quickly and loved being part of the model. Most importantly, these families did exactly what they said they were going to do when they set their 60-day SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time bound) academic goals during APTT team meeting, they worked very hard to improve their reading fluency and they came out victorious.

The initial positive results transformed other teachers into believers of the model. In year two 79 teachers voluntarily joined APTT, and in year three the number increased to 187 classrooms. This is year four and about 218 classrooms are now implementing APTT. Four of the nine schools are APTT schools.

PSI: Did you encounter any challenges more broadly in the implementation?

One of the greatest challenges with family engagement is helping educators readjust their mindset about families. We often doubt families’ capacity to help their children, and we often have mistaken perceptions of their ability to commit to higher expectations and standards for learning. As educators of disadvantaged and minority children, we often have the erroneous belief that we hold the key to the failure or success of these children, when in fact research has demonstrated that academic success is cultivated at home, by families. After all, students spend about 10% of their time in school and about 90% of their time away from school. For this reason, the greatest challenge is our collective perception of families and their ability to be an important part of the solution.

Another easier to fix challenge is maintaining fidelity to the APTT model. Professional development, coaching and support resolve this challenge.

PSI: Are there specific costs associated with the program? Did the initial surveys cost money, for example? And if extra funds were, or are, needed, how did you procure them?

Dr. Paredes: Costs for implementation of APTT include: Professional development for teachers and staff, practice materials for families, childcare during meetings, and translation services. In Creighton District we used Title I funding along with Professional development funding. Several of the parent groups such as PTO were happy to pitch in.

PSI: In your opinion, and also through feedback from others, what are some of the most powerful aspects of the program?

Humility aside, I believe all the essential elements of the APTT model are powerful and necessary. First, the model calls for all parents in a classroom to come together, learn together, and hold each other accountable for higher academic outcomes for every child in the class. We work better as teams than we do as individuals, that is true for teachers and it is true for families.

Second, student data and foundational grade-level skills anchor all parent-teacher communication during meetings. Families learn concrete ways to help their child improve learning and performance, and they have an opportunity to see how their child is doing compared to other students in the class. Data also show what expected grade-level achievement is so families have a clear target for setting challenging and relevant learning goals for their child. The point here is to demystify teaching, learning, and assessments so every family feels empowered to play an important role in student learning.

Third, teachers model specific activities for families, and families practice together until they feel confident with each skill. All together, APTT is a concrete, systematic way to provide families with the information, tools, strategies and support they need to be meaningfully engaged.

PSI:  What results have you seen since this program has been implemented - in student performance and achievement, family engagement, or other?

Dr. Paredes: There have been many encouraging results:

  • Increased student performance of 11% in Reading to 17% in Math over their non-APTT peers.
  • Increased student engagement and confidence
  • Improved parent-teacher communication
  • Improved parent engagement and self-efficacy for supporting student learning at home
  • Increased teacher efficacy to engage families
  • Improved student attendance
  • A preference for APTT by teachers and families over traditional conferences as reported by teachers and families on interviews, surveys and reflections.

PSI: How does the relationship between parents and their child’s school, and then between parents and teachers more specifically, change as a result of this model?

Dr. Paredes: The APTT model brings focus, context, and greater meaning to parent-teacher communication. Teachers report that after parents attend APTT meetings they contact teachers more often seeking progress updates and asking for more challenging practice materials to use with their children at home. I have also observed that parents become more comfortable in the school environment and they develop relationships with other families in the class. In some schools, principals have reported that this increased feeling of community and collective purpose have decreased problems of discipline among students. Parents are more comfortable with reaching out to other families to resolve issues and conflicts in a more personal way. Strangers have become partners in purpose.

PSI: How successful have other schools and districts been in using this model? Do you have any advice for those who are interested in utilizing APTT?

Dr. Paredes: To date, APTT is reaching about 28,000 students around the nation. Districts and some individual schools in Arizona, California, Nebraska, Colorado, Nevada, and Washington DC are implementing the model. For more information, please link to http://www.wested.org/cs/we/view/serv/161

Adopting APTT is a process of adaptation; it takes time and commitment from administrators, teachers, and families. The schools that are experiencing the most success are those that have integrated family engagement into their continuous improvement plans. Successful schools provide staff with ongoing professional development, time for planning, and coaching support. It is also very important to collect data from diverse sources, foster internal expertise, validate excellence and celebrate positive results.

Contact Information:

Maria C. Paredes


* (C) Maria C. Paredes.