It’s indisputable that most students perform better academically when they have parents or adults to help with homework and to be advocates with teachers and principals.
But in many communities, parents who juggle multiple jobs, don’t speak much English, or have low levels of education often don’t have the time or resources to make meaningful connections to their child’s schooling experience.
That’s why some leading-edge districts have made it their job to reach out to families and create more welcoming and accessible ways for parents to be part of their children’s schooling.
In Washoe County, Nev., for example, the school district’s family-engagement work includes organizing home visits by teachers—and training those teachers to make the most of those face-to-face encounters in students’ homes.
In Federal Way, Wash., the leader of family-engagement efforts taps a diverse array of parents to serve on committees or task forces that inform major decisionmaking in the district, including high-level hires.
Still, the specialized field of parent and family engagement has mostly been driven by ambitious leaders at the district level. And even in districts with robust programming, resources to support the work are often tight.
But new and potentially bigger forces are building around the need for schools and educators to forge deeper connections with parents and community members.
Philanthropists—in particular the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation of New York—are championing the flow of more money into family-engagement initiatives, including research to identify what efforts are effective.
And the federal budget has set aside $10 million to help fund efforts by several state education agencies and outside partners to develop strong parent and community programming.
The Every Student Succeeds Act also directs states and districts to develop plans to work with families and surrounding communities—a requirement that has spawned a multistate endeavor to create guidelines and exemplars for schools and districts to follow.
Advocates for building strong ties between schools and families say it’s a major opportunity for a proven, yet underutilized strategy to make schools better.
“There is a lot of excitement, and more of an evolution in where both policymakers and funders feel like they want to increasingly put their money,” said Vito Borrello, the executive director for the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement.
Leaders in Mississippi and South Carolina are already taking steps to spread successful parent-engagement efforts to communities across their states, said Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the Council of Chief State School Officers, which is working with those two states and more than a dozen others to craft the guidelines for family engagement.
In Mississippi, officials who run the state’s early-childhood education programs are working to expand the kind of hands-on efforts they use with parents of children from birth to 5 years to families of students in all grades. As students age, establishing connections to parents gets more challenging and school-led efforts to do so tends to drop off, said Borello.
South Carolina leaders are tapping into the state’s religious community as one tactic to help support students and families. They are recruiting churches to adopt schools and assist them in helping meet students’ basic needs. More than 1,500 churches across South Carolina have joined the effort.
“We ask churches to perhaps be a reading buddy to students, ask them if they may be able to do a backpack program where they fill backpacks with non-perishable items and, if possible, include a book in there, as we have a lot of kids who are not reading when not in schools,” said Yolandé Anderson, the head of the office for family engagement in South Carolina’s education agency.
Although there’s enthusiasm about the new momentum around family engagement, especially from policymakers, it doesn’t come without challenges.
The $10 million infusion of federal money is dwarfed by earlier government investments in similar initiatives, said Borello. Before being defunded in 2011, states shared $40 million in federal money to support entities knowns as parental information resource centers.
And under the requirements of the new ESSA-related grants, state education agencies can’t directly apply for the funding, said Anderson. Independent organizations that partner with states must seek the money, making it difficult for states to ensure there’s an equitable distribution of resources, she said.
That’s why philanthropic sources of funding are especially appealing.
Officials with the Kellogg Foundation said they have given about $25 million over the last five years to support family-engagement efforts, including the multistate endeavor to write guidelines.
The foundation is also directly funding research, including a study published in 2016 that found that teachers who share their students’ racial identity or linguistic backgrounds are generally more successful at building trusting relationships with parents and families, said Jenefer O’Dell, a program officer with the Kellogg Foundation.
“We want to help the school system move away from looking at family engagement as a one-time program or collection of random events, like fundraisers such as a bake sale, and focus more on looking at sustainable ways in how parents and families are constantly incorporated in every aspect of the learning settings within the school,” she said.
The Carnegie Corporation of New York has funded family-engagement programs in the past. But officials there increasingly see it as a priority, thanks to research showing its effectiveness and ESSA’s push for states to consider ways to get “stakeholders” more involved, chiefly parents, said Ambika Kapur, an education program officer at Carnegie Corporation.
The foundation wanted to first get a snapshot of where family engagement was in the philanthropic world, and surveyed 150 foundations. Carnegie found that they collectively poured about $230 million into family engagement, and nearly half were newer foundations pumping money into the cause—a confirmation that the support for this work was real.
“The more we went deeper in learning about research about successful educational reforms, we found that the greatest influence on students is the family,” Kapur said.
In just the past year, Carnegie has worked with DonorsChoose.org to offer about $500,000 toward matching—dollar for dollar—what teachers raise themselves, and supporting burgeoning nonprofits. Such nonprofits include EdNavigator, an organization that sends advisers into parents’ workplaces—with employers’ cooperation and financial support—to offer help and advice on how to advocate for their children at school.
Making Equity a Priority
While family engagement again may be fashionable in education reform, educators in districts that have long championed the approach have a few suggestions for those jumping on the bandwagon.
“It’s vital to have a culturally responsive lens in however you shape the outreach,” said Trise Moore, the head of family and community engagement for the Federal Way school district near Seattle.
O’Dell, of Kellogg, agreed, saying it’s vital for policymakers and funders to incorporate awareness of racial inequity into family-engagement programs, as it’s part of the foundation’s “DNA.”
To help, Kellogg has issued its own set of guiding principles for promoting racial equity in family engagement to help peers working in education to address such nuanced challenges.
Moore also emphasized that in a data-driven education reform culture it’s important to remember that some positive outcomes are not easily quantifiable, such as the “self-efficacy that a parent will gain” through family engagement work.
“You can’t measure a parent’s hopefulness, you can’t measure a parent’s confidence,” Moore said. “You can’t measure a student’s competence based on the parent’s confidence.”
Patricia Spradley, the chief of parent and community engagement in the Springfield school district in Massachusetts, said it’s important for the superintendent to be on board with championing family engagement and for that work to be a formal part of a district’s strategic goals.
“That allows a mechanism for enforcement,” Spradley said, regarding how policymakers can approach supporting family engagement.
As for the potential for new funding sources, Spradley said: “For those of us who have been the forerunners in the state of parent engagement, we are called upon to do training for others.
We have had very little professional-development opportunities to take this work to the next level that funding could help. At the local level, family engagement still feels like we are on our own, a bit of an afterthought, stand-alone part of the system that needs better integration.”
Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education 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 September 26, 2018 edition of Education Week as Forces Build for Stronger Ties Between Schools and Families