Families & the Community Leader To Learn From

Driving Academic Improvement by Empowering Parents

By Arianna Prothero — February 17, 2021 10 min read
Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, and Sharlonda Buckman, assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, have made parental engagement a key part of their turnaround strategy.
Nikolai Vitti and Sharlonda Buckman
Recognized for Leadership in Parent Engagement
Parent Engagement
Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent of Family and Community Engagement
Success District:
Detroit Public Schools Community District, Detroit, Mich.
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Central to turning around public education in Detroit—a city that has suffered from crushing debt, contracting student enrollment, and cratering student achievement—is reengaging the parents who had been largely cut out of district decision-making.

That’s the bet that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and Assistant Superintendent of Family and Community Engagement Sharlonda Buckman have made. For Vitti and Buckman, a focus on parents is both practical and personal.

On a practical level, efforts to drive up student achievement will likely be stunted without parents, grandparents, and guardians who are engaged and working in tandem with the district toward that goal.

On the personal level, both Vitti and Buckman were raised in the Detroit area by mothers who struggled to make ends meet and support their children’s schooling. They are intimately familiar with what it feels like to have a school system dismiss one’s family.

“We always say that parents are partners, not the problem,” said Buckman. “We get more done and we get more right when we are working in partnership with our parents.”

Their initiatives have focused on bringing families back into the district fold by giving them a voice in how the school system goes about improving education and the resources to support their children’s schooling.

Lessons From the Leaders

  • Trust Parents: Barring mental health and substance abuse issues, parents want the best for their children.
  • Collaboration is Key: Our work is stronger, and our thinking is refined when we work with parents as partners.
  • Be Authentic: Being authentic matters. Parents know when you are checking a box versus valuing them and their children whom they entrust to us to educate.

‘People could only watch from the outside’

The fortunes of Detroit’s schools have followed those of the city’s, which has been slowly hallowed out over the past half century by the collapse of the local auto industry.

Detroit’s public schools have been under some form of state control for most of the past two decades—run more recently by a frequently changing cast of emergency managers—to try to turn around the district’s finances. Even so, debt continued to balloon as enrollment fell. Student outcomes were regularly among the worst in the nation. Buildings were falling into disrepair. Teachers were leaving in droves. And an audit in 2018 found the curriculum the district was using was outdated, bloated, and unaligned to the state’s standards.

The schools were in such a poor state in 2016 that they were “irreparably damaging children’s futures,” to quote a lawsuit filed that year alleging that state officials had failed to provide Detroit school children with one of the most basic skills—the ability to read.

“People had always wanted to be involved, but we had not created the platforms for people to be engaged,” said Buckman. “People could only watch from the outside when things were not going as they should.”

In 2017, the district was placed back under the control of an elected school board, although its budget remained under state oversight until last October. Vitti and Buckman also joined the district in 2017 and set to work creating avenues for parents to be engaged and weigh-in on school and district policies.

We always say that parents are partners, not the problem. We get more done and we get more right when we are working in partnership with our parents.

They reinstated Parent Teacher Associations in every school, which were disbanded while the district was under emergency management. Bringing PTAs back, said Vitti, gave parents an important, traditional avenue to be involved in their children’s schools.

The district also started regularly surveying families to use their feedback to shape policy. Most recently, parent surveys were instrumental in the decision to offer an in-person schooling option through most of the pandemic. The district also recruited a dozen parents this school year to serve on a special parent task force that advises district leadership on online learning.

But empowering parents is more than giving them opportunities to talk to school and district leadership, Buckman and Vitti said. It’s also helping develop parents’ abilities to support and advocate for their children’s learning—from knowing what skills their preschoolers should enter kindergarten with to what to ask during parent-teacher conferences.

To help parents develop these skills, the district has established the Parent Academy, where parents can take free classes on a range of topics, not just on supporting their children’s education, but also on parenting, more generally, and professional development.

With classes on conflict resolution in the home, monitoring social media, building credit, and learning English, the goal is to develop the whole parent, said Vitti.

Nicolai Vitti and Sharlonda Buckman of Detroit Community Schools in Detroit, Mich.

“The Parent Academy has been a vehicle to empower parents and for the district and school to meet parents in a space where we are not talking about their kids in a negative or positive way,” said Vitti. “I think a lot of districts struggle with not having that space.”

TaMara Williams, who has three kids in the district, has taken classes on résumé writing, preparing her youngest for kindergarten, and even a family painting class.

“It helped me engage my high schooler with my elementary children,” she said of the painting class. “I thought that was a good program … to have a little bonding time. Those extracurriculars are good.”

Williams plans to start teaching a parent support class this spring. Like regular classes, the Parent Academy has gone online during the pandemic, with the option for participants to call into the sessions if they can’t log in.

While it’s important that the district invites parents in, whether it’s through PTAs, the Parent Academy, or other initiatives, Vitti and Buckman believe it’s equally important to take the lessons to parents. The district has invested heavily in teacher home visits during Vitti’s and Buckman’s tenure, even expanding them during the pandemic.

“I hate the idea that parents have to come into the school and that there is a divide between school buildings and home,” said Vitti. “I think we have to do a better job of going to parents. I think that’s a sign of respect, and it limits and reduces the barriers around degrees, and language, and words.”

Sixty percent of the district’s schools are now conducting home visits, and systemwide more than 15,000 such visits were completed in the past three years.

This multipronged approach to engaging parents as part of the larger goal of improving student academic achievement is what Sonya Mays, a school board member, said she most appreciates about Vitti’s approach to his job as superintendent.

“There are a couple of approaches to problem-solving: You can get in there and fix one-off problems, or look for a systemic solution,” she said. “He is oriented around that second approach. He has really connected some of the barriers around student achievement to parent involvement.”

Personal experience informs their work

The driving force behind both Vitti’s and Buckman’s focus on families is their relationships with their own mothers—neither of whom finished high school. Both had children at a young age. They felt, at worst, judged by the school system and, at best, out of place.

Vitti, whose undiagnosed dyslexia made his early education difficult, said he remembers being appalled as a young teacher in New York overhearing his coworkers disparaging the parents of struggling students. He wondered if his teachers had talked about his mother, a single parent and hairdresser, the same way.

“I think one of the reasons why [Sharlonda and I] connect is we are such staunch, uncompromising advocates for our parents,” said Vitti. “Even in a system that sometimes looks down on our parents and doesn’t recognize their value and what they offer, I think we always go back to our own experience and say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re actually talking about my mom right now.’ That pushes us to push the system.”

Buckman and Vitti said they believe it would have made a big difference if their mothers could have attended a parent academy, had teachers visit them in their homes, and had better advocates in the school system.

Nicolai Vitti and Sharlonda Buckman of Detroit Community Schools in Detroit, Mich.

“Every parent I serve, I think about my mother,” said Buckman, whose mother was devoted to her children but wasn’t involved in their schools and would have benefited from more outreach from the district.

Buckman was expelled from her Detroit high school as a young teenager for a fight that left another student injured. That infraction left zero options for continuing her education.

“You are my daughter, and I love you,” Buckman said she remembers her mother telling her as the left the expulsion hearing.

But her mother didn’t know how to advocate for her during the expulsion process or find alternative schooling, Buckman said. Today, Buckman matches parent volunteers with parents who want extra support during, say, an expulsion hearing or Individualized Education Program meeting.

After Buckman was expelled, a former teacher tracked her down and connected her with a community organization, which paid for a full-time tutor to work with her until she finished high school, Buckman said. Her life trajectory would have been very different without the intervention of those community members, she said.

“That’s why I’m in this work,” she said. “To make sure that we are supporting every parent to support their kid.”

Family engagement works, if done right

Vitti said they’re seeing early returns on the investment in parents.

While there are still long-standing hurdles to overcome, and the pandemic has only compounded them, there have been some modest improvements: chronic student absenteeism had dipped down over the prior year, enrollment has stabilized, and student scores on state math and reading assessments have ticked up.

By many indicators, parents are also becoming more engaged. Well over 2,000 parents now participate in PTAs. Around 6,000 parents take classes through the Parent Academy each year. Mays, the school board member, said she has also noticed more parents attending school board meetings.

Those positive outcomes are in line with what research has shown are benefits of parent engagement.

Including families as partners in the education system has broad, positive effects, said Karen Mapp, a senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an expert on family engagement. It can raise test scores, attendance, and graduation rates, she said, in addition to a host of nonacademic dividends, such as improving parents’ civic engagement and their own educational attainment.

“You won’t get where you want in your school goals if you omit the family engagement variable,” Mapp said.

But how schools engage families—meaningfully and respectfully versus superficially—matters and will ultimately determine whether schools reap the rewards of family engagement programs. Too often, Mapp said, teachers, as well as school and district leadership, view parents as problems, not partners.

“Families know the difference, and they will shy away from programs that see them as something that’s wrong that needs to be fixed,” she said.

The pandemic has further underscored the importance of strong relationships between schools and families, said Mapp, as schools have had to rely on parents to deliver instruction.

Vitti and Buckman have leaned into the relationships they’ve built with families as the district tries to meet new challenges that have emerged because of the coronavirus and remote learning.

I hate the idea that parents have to come into the school and that there is a divide between school buildings and home. I think we have to do a better job of going to parents. I think that’s a sign of respect, and it limits and reduces the barriers around degrees, and language, and words.”

Buckman activated the district’s parent volunteers to launch a massive effort to track down students who had dropped off the grid during the pandemic.

Stacey Johnson was one of the volunteers. She donned her mask and a blue shirt marking her as a school district volunteer and went door-to-door, checking in on families whose children had stopped logging into their lessons. She connected those parents and students with resources, such as tech support, school counselors, and mental health hotlines, to help get them back on track.

“When people don’t just say they have a heart for the community, but put arms and legs on that, and go out into the community and check, in these critical times, where our families are, that speaks volumes to me,” Johnson said of Buckman. “That is a true leader.”

Vitti and Buckman have continued to tap parents’ feedback to improve remote learning.

When the district launched a major initiative this summer to get devices to every student who needed one for remote learning—raising $20 million from the business community to purchase internet-enabled tablets—it soon heard from parents that devices weren’t enough. Families needed tech support to go along with the devices.

In response, the school system set up 13 hubs last fall where families could take broken devices for repairs or in-person tech support, in addition to the tech support hotline it already had running. Families can also pick up winter clothes at the hubs, get help with paying bills, visit with a nurse, participate in workshops on strengthening family relationships and take home a family game night pack.

Buckman and Vitti see these supports, from check-ins, to tablets, to game night packs, as the linchpin to the district’s education reform efforts to raise academic outcomes among students.

“I focus on deposits,” said Buckman. “Because when we do the tough stuff, people will remember the deposits.”

Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Driving Academic Improvement by Empowering Parents

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