Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

New Models for Family Engagement

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As part of American Education Week, today is Parents Day, spotlighting the importance of parental involvement in education. Schools across the country invite parents into the classroom to experience firsthand what a day is like for their child.

Of course, schools shouldn’t wait until Parents Day to engage families in their child’s education. Research has shown that family engagement in, or support of, learning leads to better grades, more positive attitudes towards school, better attendance, higher graduation rates and greater likelihood of enrolling in postsecondary education.

A new report from the National Education Association's Priority Schools Campaign reviews this research and profiles 16 family and community engagement initiatives from across the country that have shown success in engaging families and/or community organizations in improving student outcomes. From these programs, it identifies 10 major strategies and approaches that appear to be critical to their success, and it offers school, district, state and national level recommendations for how to scale up and strengthen this important work.

One thing I appreciated: the report’s articulation of how to move from traditional family “involvement” activities (which are rooted in “outdated thinking and faulty assumptions”) to strategic family “engagement” programs. As Larry Ferlazzo explains, 

When we’re involving parents, ideas and energy tends to come from the schools and from government mandates. We tend to sell ideas. School staff might feel they know what the problems are and how to fix them (and generally are well-intentioned).

When we’re engaging parents, ideas tend to be elicited from parents by school staff in the context of developing trusting relationships. More parent energy drives the efforts because they emerge from parent/community needs and priorities.

So what does this look like in practice? It is moving from one-time projects, like Family Fun Night, to “continuous improvement,” like a committee at Colorado’s Math and Science Leadership Academy focused on school climate that surveys families yearly to get feedback for improvement.

It is shifting from an deficit-based and adversarial approach (offering parenting classes on areas the school identifies as deficits, for example) to a strength-based and collaborative approach, as at Putnam City West High School in Oklahoma, which holds community conversations to hear families’ ideas for improving student learning and then incorporates them into school work.

And it is sharing responsibility with families, such as Phoenix’s Creighton Elementary School District does. There, some individual parent-teacher conferences have been replaced with “classroom team meetings,” in which teachers model learning strategies that parents can use at home to improve specific skills, and parents get to interact with other parents, sharing successful practices and forming a community. 

Each of the 16 profiles shares one school, district or community’s efforts to work together to improve student learning. And most of them involved communities that are often considered hard to engage – low-income or non-English-speaking, for example. Yet all have succeeded. They have shown us that it is possible. The next step? Using what we have learned from them to help more schools, districts and communities successfully engage families and citizens in education.   

Image from the German Federal Archive