Four years ago, Jenna Monley’s work took her inside a maximum-security prison near Philadelphia.
A recently incarcerated father had met with Monley, the deputy chief of family and community engagement for the Philadelphia school district, to tell her how badly some of the men he’d met in detention wanted to share in their children’s school experiences.
Undaunted by challenges like ensuring student privacy, securing parental permission, and acquiring the funding, Monley cleared every hurdle, bringing a busload of children and their custodial caregivers to the prison to do art and literacy projects with their fathers, an experience many of the men had never had before.
“They are not their circumstances,” Monley said. “These were fathers who were fully committed to their children and their education, but their circumstances prevented their ability to be present in their children’s lives every day.”
The program exemplifies Monley’s work building partnerships between families and schools, which has continued even as the pandemic has changed the contours of her job, her peers say. It has led her to say “yes” to some bold proposals, unafraid to deal with the uncharted territory of logistical issues and potential complications that cause other educational leaders to recoil.
- Your Message Matters: Leaders hinder their efforts when they fail to communicate properly with all involved in their work and their success. Communication tools, training, and language-translation services help to meaningfully engage parents and families.
- Engagement, not Involvement, Is the Goal: Parent- and family-engagement work must be a partnership that involves cultivating methods to listen to all families, rather than merely offering them information. By offering various and meaningful ways for parents to engage with their children’s learning and their district’s policies, we experience true engagement. Constantly evaluating and evolving our efforts is how we ensure no one is left behind.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Do Bold Things: Approach new ideas with an open mind and an innovative spirit. Don’t look for reasons why something isn’t possible before you consider why it might be valuable. In Philadelphia, visiting incarcerated fathers involved overcoming many hurdles, but the payoff has been most meaningful.
And it offers a window into her approach, her colleagues say: Try new things, ground everything in a game plan that gets educators on the same page, and constantly evaluate to see what’s working and what needs to be improved.
“Jenna is an example of what can happen when a leader brings a lot of her own skills and background to the situation, spends some time learning from best practices around the country, and then creatively applies them,” said Kwesi Rollins, the director of leadership programs at the Institute for Educational Leadership, a nonprofit organization that promotes stronger relationships between educational leaders and communities.
Monley has been a member of the organization’s collaborative for family and community engagement, where Rollins saw her start as a young administrator learning from peers in other districts and eventually grow into the kind of high-energy, innovative leader others draw inspiration from.
Grounding innovative ideas in a comprehensive strategy
It started with vision.
“She was willing to take on a lot of bits and pieces of work in the district and make it into a big whole,” Rollins said of Monley. “She really got people on board at the district level for a systemic vision. She moved away from isolated and random acts to a strategic approach.”
A case in point: The prison visit evolved into an ongoing program, which served about 20 incarcerated fathers before it was paused during the COVID-19 pandemic. Monley’s team also worked to arrange phone calls between the men and their children’s teachers, and they are exploring ways to involve them remotely in parent-teacher conferences.
“My commitment to this work is truly grounded in the belief that families want to help their children be successful,” Monley said. “But sometimes that path forward isn’t always clear.”
Monley, 40, started her current position in March 2016, taking leadership of an office that had lacked a permanent director or vision for years as the district tended to other priorities. She faced a daunting challenge in a district where, for nearly two decades, school board members were appointed, not elected. Waves of school closings in 2012 and 2013 had all but shattered parents’ faith in the school system.
She quickly organized the office’s mission around a list of easy-to-understand “power principles” that would guide the work of everyone from teachers to administrators in building stronger connections with families. She arranged those principles, like increasing communication and developing strategies, in a framework and identified ways to measure the success of each priority.
Under Monley’s watch, the district reassigned engagement staff to oversee a new team of liaisons between schools and the central office. Monley nearly doubled the number of bilingual aides to 98. They are tasked with providing interpretation services in schools, a key to engagement for many parents in the diverse school system where students speak 130 languages at home. She worked with refugee advocates and the Mexican consulate to attract candidates and inform her work.
My commitment to this work is truly grounded in the belief that families want to help their children be successful. But sometimes that path forward isn’t always clear.
“We want our parents to really feel as though they can engage, and, frequently, cultural norms and language differences can be barriers,” said Karyn Lynch, the Philadelphia schools’ chief of student-support services, who hired Monley for the family-partnership role. “A good deal of [Monley’s] work involves eliminating barriers for families to engage.”
Monley’s team sought to empower teachers in their own outreach: It developed a family-engagement onboarding session for new teachers and refreshers that could be incorporated into ongoing professional development. Those sessions helped teachers role-play strategies like how to conduct difficult or emotional conversations with parents and how to discuss complicated education data in a digestible way.
Her team helped develop “family academy” courses at 11 locations throughout the district, including public libraries, which are more accessible to some families. Those workshops offer lessons on how to engage with the school system, advocate policy changes as a parent, and support children’s well-being.
In another program that has attracted about 1,500 total participants, parents and teachers meet in teams to dissect data and learn about classroom instruction. The effort helps families learn more about how the district works and what happens in their children’s classrooms, and it helps educators understand how to strengthen their offerings and to better communicate their results.
Monley also helped draft formal policies about school advisory councils, addressing constituent concerns, pregnant and parenting students, and seeking parent and community input on plans for such federal programs as Title I, which supports the needs of disadvantaged students.
Developing a whole-district approach to family engagement
Through all those efforts, Monley has made family engagement feel like a key strategy, rather than a diffuse set of well-intentioned ideas, Lynch said.
“We tend to have great ideas in public education, but we don’t always have great execution of those ideas and we don’t always have systemic execution of those ideas,” she said, adding that Monley has managed to do both.
Lynch credits some of that success to Monley’s unconventional background: She earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from West Chester University and a master’s in business administration from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She always saw herself working in public relations and did so in her first job out of college, at Special Olympics of Pennsylvania.
But she very quickly found herself drawn to working in schools.
“I’m a Philly girl,” Monley said. “I was born and raised and educated in our schools from elementary to high school. I’m also the child of a teacher. Seeing my mother as an educator, working in collaboration with families and her peers to boost the educational advancement of her students, was really impactful for me.”
The hometown connection helps Monley relate to families who may distrust the school system. And her background in business and public relations has helped her recognize that effective communication with families—about everything from classroom lessons to districtwide policies—can rebuild trust in the school system or break it permanently.
In May 2004, Monley took a job with the Philadelphia schools, where she served as a grants officer. Concerned about whether a special program for pregnant and parenting students complied with grant requirements, Monley took over that initiative in 2010.
Under her leadership, the district improved, expanded, and elevated the program, which helps teenage parents and their young children through the use of case management. It connected them with social services and programs that provided free diapers and other supplies. Educators completed home visits to check up on the well-being of both the students and their young children.
The program, which remains part of Monley’s portfolio, also worked to bring consistency to the varying ways schools interpreted and applied the district’s policies on pregnant and parenting students. Monley created materials to communicate the rights and resources of students with children, and she reached out to employees, such as office staff and school nurses, who are more likely to interact with such students, to help share the materials. She also developed an online training module for teachers about working with pregnant students.
“I really understood families as a key lever of a child’s success. Seeing those young students strive to achieve their own success and continue in school and, at the same time, try to uplift their young children was really powerful for me,” Monley said. “I wanted to take the lessons learned from the work I did with our young families and move that into working with the district at large.”
When the district listed her current position in 2016, Monley quickly shaped a pitch for how she would fill the role and how she would bring more intentionality to the office, said Lynch, who is now her supervisor. Administrators argue over whose idea it was to hire Monley, Lynch jokes.
“I was impressed with her initiative,” she said. “She saw something and she went after it. She said straight up, right upfront: ‘I’m going to demonstrate that I can do this and I’m going to do it well.’”
Lynch said she’s fulfilled that promise, even taking on additional roles in helping to coordinate and communicate the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s critical because the crisis has strained parents’ relationships with schools in many parts of the country, said Rollins of the Institute for Educational Leadership, and it has made the work of family engagement more urgent.
I wanted to take the lessons learned from the work I did with our young families and move that into working with the district at large.
When schools closed for in-person learning in March 2020, Monley’s office quickly set up tech-support hotlines, sent informational flyers in a variety of languages to break down policies for families, and held virtual events for parents to ask questions and provide feedback.
Parents met online to discuss the challenges of virtual learning, their strategies for keeping their children engaged, and some frustrations, too. Meanwhile, the parent-engagement staff participating in the video chats did something really bold: They stayed quiet.
While officials in some districts might have felt defensive after hearing parents’ complaints, Monley said her staff wanted parents to feel heard. At the end of the call, they would unmute themselves to answer any questions that came up: how to pick up a computer, where to pick up a free meal, how to contact a district program office.
“As opposed to myself, or one of my team members leading that conversation, we were there to make sure that the environment remained a safe space,” she said. “We wanted families to have that comfort that it wasn’t going to be us coming in and saying, ‘Let us explain why that happened.’”
The Philadelphia district continues to face some criticism from parent organizations about issues like the condition of facilities and communication with the school board. And Monley is quick to acknowledge that she is still learning, despite outside recognition for her work: The incarcerated fathers’ program and her support for teen parents have been featured in educational conferences around the country.
There are still more families who need outreach, more educators who need to feel equipped to do so, more strategies to be refined or improved, she says.
She’s also quick to credit her team—which has grown from seven to 50 staff members during her tenure—for remaining true to the vision and consistent in carrying it out.
“I don’t do this on my own.”
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 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as A Multilayered Approach To Family Engagement