Families & the Community Leader To Learn From

Connecting Schools, Diverse Families Is Mission for Nevada District Leader

By Alyson Klein — February 24, 2016 6 min read
D’Lisa Crain
Recognized for Leadership in Family Engagement
Family Engagement
Family-School Partnerships Administrator
Success District:
Washoe County School District, Reno, Nev.
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The Washoe County school district in Nevada serves just about every kind of student imaginable—from children whose moms stay at home and volunteer in the classroom to those whose parents are still struggling to learn English.

It’s D’Lisa Crain’s mission to ensure all these very different families have the tools they need to help their children succeed.

The 44-year-old Crain—who often finds herself working 12-hour days in order to be available to working parents—has spearheaded family supports for more than a decade in the 63,000-student district that includes the city of Reno and is the state’s second-largest school system.

In that time, she’s helped implement an array of new programs and services to help fill the district’s diverse needs, including an expansion of course offerings for parents, a home-visiting program, and a new approach to parent-teacher conferences aimed at giving parents a better understanding of their children’s academic data.

Through it all, she’s put a premium on helping parents from all backgrounds navigate the school system and feel that they can be a part of it.

Lessons From the Leader

  • Collect and Use Data: Know which families you are reaching, which teachers are participating, and which schools are successfully implementing practices. Know if you are empowering your most underserved populations.
  • Confront Bias, Differences: Call out and discuss underlying assumptions, so that you know you are addressing root issues in family engagement. Our own biases can be the biggest barrier to making meaningful connections and building true partnerships.
  • Be Creative and Tenacious: Don’t accept what’s always been done with funding, data, or systems. Think creatively about what initiatives would support families and educators. Tenaciously advocate for your vision and knock down internal barriers.

“With so many of our families, it’s not that they don’t want the best for their children, they absolutely do,” says Crain, whose formal title is administrator for the department of family-school partnerships.

But for some parents, “It’s hard to know what questions to ask. How do you, in a respectful way, advocate for your children, how do you access district resources when you might yourself be struggling with basic needs?”

Crain started her career in a very different place—doing marketing and public relations for a construction company. But she quickly moved into the nonprofit sector, and eventually, the school system, working first with the district’s Parent Information Resource Council, or PIRC, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the district.

Under her leadership, the district’s office of family and school partnerships has expanded from just Crain and an administrative assistant to nine employees, who support the work of more than 100 interpreters, child-care providers, and other personnel.

Built From Scratch

“She built all this from nothing,” says Michael Doering, the executive director of the Options Area, the portion of the Washoe school district that includes Crain’s program.

“D’Lisa took a simple request, ‘We need to have a little more outreach to parents,’ ” and ran with it, he says. “She created this huge body of work.”

There are many talented and dedicated leaders in districts across the country working on family outreach, but part of what makes Crain stand out is her ability to take high-concept ideas—such as home visiting or parent collaboration, for instance, and translate them into real action, says Karen Mapp, a senior lecturer at Harvard University and a national expert on parent engagement.

“A lot of us are really good at the rhetoric,” Mapp says. “If [Crain] takes on a project, I guarantee it’s going to happen. She knows how to cross the t’s and dot the i’s to get things done.”

D'Lisa Crain

Crain and her team organize twice-yearly visits to the nearby University of Nevada, Reno—bringing to a college campus a couple hundred families whose children range from kindergarten all the way through high school. For many students and parents, it’s their first exposure to the possibility of attending college.

And Crain has supervised Maria Fernandez in growing the district’s parent academy into a much more robust parent university. The program served more than 600 parents about five years ago, but last year, reached more than 6,000 parents.

Putting Parents at Ease

The parent university offers an array of courses—how to help students transition from elementary to middle school and how to fill out a college application, to name two examples. Thanks to a grant, day care is free, and translators are on hand—offering language assistance to parents whose native language is Spanish. Interpreters for other languages, such as Mandarin, are available on request.

The home-visiting program, meanwhile, started up more than five years ago, and recently, Crain has overseen a massive expansion. The program helps facilitate at least two teacher visits a year to help lay the groundwork for a successful academic year. It’s voluntary for teachers, and they are reimbursed for their time. Last year, more than 350 teachers elected to participate.

“Teachers ... say they see a tremendous difference” from the visits, says Elaine Lancaster, the executive director of the Washoe Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Teachers appreciate professional development from Crain and her team on how best to approach the visits, she adds. “She’s just been so enthusiastic and so determined.”

And Crain has ensured that the district sticks to the model devised by the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, based in Sacramento, Calif., says Carrie Rose, the organization’s executive director. For example, the initial visit, typically done in the fall, must focus on relationship-building, not district business.

Crain makes sure teachers do not bring along student-achievement data, behavior data, or requests for parents to fill out bureaucratic forms related to matters such as vaccinations that could intimidate or put off some parents.

Academics and goals for the future can be discussed in the follow-up visit, which usually happens in the spring.

Washoe’s home-visiting program may be associated with gains in reading scores in pupils in kindergarten through 2nd grade, although further study is needed, an examination by the Center for Program Evaluation at the University of Nevada, Reno, concluded.

More recently, under Crain’s leadership, Washoe began experimenting with a new twist on parent-teacher conferences: allowing parents to see how their child’s academic data stack up against peers’.

The concept, Academic Parent Teacher Teams, was borrowed from Phoenix and implemented for the past two years with the help of WestEd, a research and development organization. Parents are given a peek at data for the entire class and are told privately which graph represents their child. All the families talk about broad implications. And at the end of the conference, parents set a goal for their child’s progress. For instance, if a 1st grader has only mastered about 10 of her class’s 30 sight words, her parents could decide to help her double that number in the next couple of months, often through an at-home activity suggested by the teacher.

Strong Advocate

It wasn’t easy getting the program off the ground. At first, Washoe left out some key factors, including goal-setting and an icebreaker to help parents get comfortable, such as a quick game in which they swap information about their children, Crain says.

For some parents, 'it’s hard to know what questions to ask. How do you, in a respectful way, advocate for your children?...'

Partnering with WestEd helped the district improve its practice last year. Crain hopes to expand the program beyond the handful of schools using it now.

She has also helped the district integrate parent engagement into its accountability framework. And, with the help of parents, she and her team organize “family-friendly walk-throughs,” sending volunteers to schools to serve as so-called “secret shoppers,” to get a sense of what the schools are like to visit for new families.

It’s hard to get Crain to talk about her own role in these projects—she’s much more willing to give credit to someone else on her team. But Crain is the kind of leader who brings out the best in those she supervises, says Fernandez.

She sets clear expectations and goals, but works in a collaborative way to bring programs to fruition. And she advocates with the district to make sure that family outreach is always a part of the conversation as new programs and goals arise, Fernandez says.

“It’s a calling for her, for sure,” Fernandez says.

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2016 edition of Education Week

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