Working with parents comes naturally to Tracy Hill.
The Cleveland schools administrator began her teaching career 24 years ago working with the families of children whose behavior problems made it difficult for them to attend traditional public schools. Both inside and outside the classroom, she immediately learned that parents play a pivotal role in their children’s future academic and social success.
“You can’t just treat the child,” Ms. Hill said. “You have to work with the family as well.”
As parent-engagement strategies gain momentum in districts across the nation, the long-held belief that parents are problems or obstacles to be overcome, rather than partners in learning, remains a challenge.
In the 40,000-student Cleveland school system, however, Ms. Hill is being praised for methodically building a systemic approach to ensure that parents are educated and engaged at every stage of their children’s academic journey.
Under Ms. Hill’s direction as the district’s executive director of family and community engagement, Cleveland schools are in the midst of a cultural shift when it comes to parents. Rather than an afterthought, parent input is sought early and often and at all levels in this urban district in northeastern Ohio—whether it’s for systemwide school improvement plans or implementation of new statewide reading benchmarks.
“There’s not a parent out there who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to screw up my child,’” Ms. Hill said emphatically. “Parents who want to be involved just need someone who will show them the way.”
Among the administrator’s most successful parent-engagement undertakings are the Parent University College Tours, which provides parents a much-needed firsthand look at postsecondary opportunities available to their children. For many Cleveland parents, the tours may be their first time visiting a college campus. (All Cleveland students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify them for federal free and reduced-price school lunches.)
“We assume our parents know” how to support students’ learning, said Ms. Hill, the 50-year-old mother of a Cleveland Heights, Ohio, high school student and a college sophomore at the Cleveland Institute of Art. “What if they don’t know? Is it a crime to let them know? Whose job is it to let them know?”
Voice for Families
For more than three years, Ms. Hill has passionately become Cleveland parents’ advocate and self-described servant. It’s a role that she’s relished throughout her career, which began at the Positive Education Program in Cleveland, where she taught and counseled students whose behavior made it difficult for them to succeed in traditional schools. Later, she worked as a coordinator for a center dedicated to strengthening families and preparing young children for school in a nearby suburb.
With that experience in mind, Ms. Hill sought to transform how Cleveland schools reach out to parents. She spent part of her first year with the district visiting and researching other school systems, such as Boston, with successful parent-engagement initiatives already under way. She also joined the District Leaders Network on Family and Community Engagement, which was founded in 2010 at the Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports school improvement and education initiatives.
S. Kwesi Rollins, the institute’s director of leadership programs, noted that Ms. Hill quickly emerged as one of the network’s leaders and mentors. He said the Cleveland educator has successfully learned how to operationalize the best practices in family engagement to improve student achievement in her city.
Ms. Hill launched the district’s Parent University, a series of workshops aimed at providing parents with information and guidance on topics ranging from the common-core standards to children’s transition to kindergarten. Since its inception in 2011, more than 1,500 parents and other caregivers have attended the sessions, which are part of a growing array of efforts to build the capacity of parents and caregivers to become informed advocates and partners in their children’s education.
The emphasis on equipping parents with knowledge is infused throughout district events, and Ms. Hill said the responsibility to engage and inform parents rests with all educators—from the custodian to the principal.
Ms. Hill, who leads a team of six employees, said parent events in Cleveland are no longer “just fluff and stuff.” Having Donuts With Dads at a school, for example, provides a captive audience to give parents reading tips or information about the latest instructional strategies, she said. At the district’s Back-to-School Fair last fall, families received the customary free school supplies, and about 1,000 parents also attended 15 Parent University workshops.
Last spring, under Ms. Hill’s guidance, and in partnership with the nonprofit group College Now Greater Cleveland, Parent University’s free college tours involved more than 300 parents, caregivers, and students, who visited 18 colleges and universities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
Often, the college tours—which include extensive admissions and financial-aid information along with meetings with college recruiters—did more than demystify the college-enrollment process. One parent enrolled in college herself following the tours, and others have shown interest in following suit, Ms. Hill said.
Michele Scott Taylor, a chief program officer with College Now Greater Cleveland, added that parents sometimes unintentionally derail a child’s interest in college because they know little about the process. Exposing parents to the college experience, accompanied by their children, helps them all envision the possibilities of pursuing a postsecondary education, she said.
Injecting New Perspective
In addition to Ms. Hill’s extensive efforts to educate and inform parents, administrators are seeking parents’ guidance to reach more families.
Karen Thompson, Cleveland’s deputy chief of curriculum and instruction, said she often presents material from her department to Ms. Hill’s parent-advisory committee. She said the parent feedback helps prevent district-penned information from getting bogged down in education jargon.
Ms. Thompson added that Ms. Hill is a fixture at every district-level academic meeting and attends weekly administrator walk-throughs at school sites, providing the parents’ perspective to every discussion.
“She invited herself to the table,” Ms. Thompson noted. “She didn’t have to do that.”
Ms. Hill, who considers herself “the voice of the parents,” wouldn’t have it any other way. During district leadership meetings, she said she frequently asks the following question: “How are we engaging our families around this work so that we can be successful? Because you are not going to do it without them.”
Yet she is the first to acknowledge that the Cleveland district is a work in progress.
The district this year set up a Family Engagement Executive Committee, bringing together departments and offices that interact with parents (special education, gifted programs, and student services, for example) to further align their work and ensure that parents are engaged in those efforts. Ms. Hill also will host more Parent University workshops at schools and community centers to increase parents’ attendance.
And she plans to continue to recruit more school- and district-level staff members to help strengthen her parent-outreach work.
“It’s not just one person’s job to engage families; it’s everybody’s job,” Ms. Hill emphasized. “We are all responsible for building that trust.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2014 edition of Education Week