Families & the Community

Parent Engagement on Rise as Priority for Schools, Districts

June 02, 2015 7 min read
Melissa Chavez, a site coordinator with the Washoe County school district in Reno, Nev., leads a training session for teachers on conducting home visits. The district has ramped up its parent-engagement efforts in recent years.
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Family-engagement practitioners and researchers say educators are adopting systemic and sustained efforts to integrate parents into the fabric of their schools—a welcome shift for advocates who have complained of lip service but scant support for programs they say can have a big impact on student achievement.

In the past seven years, large and mid-sized school districts such as Denver and Nashville have created positions and departments specifically geared toward parent involvement, with a concurrent growth in related organizations, increased attendance at conferences, and a heightened interest from some philanthropic groups to fund parent-engagement efforts.

Meanwhile, states are including family-engagement in their teacher-evaluation systems or making it a requirement in other programs.

In Massachusetts, for example, family and community engagement is one of four standards within its teacher-evaluation rubric, which has led to the development of some parent-engagement professional development programs. California crafted a “family engagement framework” to help districts meet requirements in the state’s new school funding law to include families in the school budget decision-making process.

And at the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education released a family- and community-engagement model in 2014 to encourage school districts and states to adopt parent-engagement efforts linked directly to student learning.

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“Instead of constantly knocking on the door, I feel like the door is open, and we’re invited to the table,” said D’Lisa Crain, of the Family-School Partnership Department administrator for the Washoe County district in Reno, Nev. “Now, I feel like family engagement is a natural part of the discussion.”

Tools for Parents

School districts that have family and community-engagement offices are able to develop a comprehensive district-wide approach to provide parents tools, training, and support to help their children academically. These districts also are able to provide family-engagement professional development for staff and teachers to expand their parent-engagement efforts even further.

Heather B. Weiss, the founder and director of the Harvard Family Research Project, said that in the past, family-engagement initiatives were often what she calls “one-offs” rather than long-term integrated efforts.

“Now, people realize the need to develop more robust family-engagement plans carefully linked to children learning in and out of schools and also develop the capacity of teachers to implement those plans,” she said. “It can’t just be math help in 3rd grade.”

When Ms. Crain began developing parent-engagement strategies in 2007 for the 63,000-student Washoe County district, she had a $5,000 budget and one secretary. Today, Ms. Crain’s department has nine employees and a $1 million budget.

From its parent-teacher home-visit project to its academic parent-teacher teams, Ms. Crain said Washoe County’s parent-engagement programs are growing and gaining converts from within the district and nationwide. She said her staff fields calls from colleagues and educators weekly asking for advice or to collaborate.

S. Kwesi Rollins, the director of leadership programs at the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership, has also witnessed the family-engagement field expand nationally. The institute founded the District Leaders Network on Family and Community Engagement, a networking and professional-development group made up of district-level administrators, with representativesfrom about seven districts in 2009.

This year, the network’s membership has grown to include 125 urban, suburban, and rural districts. Mr. Rollins noted that some of the parent-engagement administrators report directly to their district superintendents, giving them an opportunity to infuse parent-engagement efforts throughout their school system.

“There are clearly more positions like mine than there ever have been,” noted Patricia A. Spradley, who has been the chief parent and community engagement officer for the Springfield school system in Massachusetts since 2007, and was named one of Education Week’s 2015 Leaders to Learn From.

Ms. Spradley, who was one of the founders of the network for district family-engagement leaders, said such efforts were at first “haphazard.” But she said that “strategic and intentional programs,” developed using student data and research, now are having a much greater impact on student learning.

The promise of such programs, coupled with increased interest in the network, led the Institute for Educational Leadership to host its first-ever National Family and Community Engagement conference last year in Cincinnati. This year’s three-day conference, which will be held in Chicago on June 22, is already sold out. Mr. Rollins said the number of registrants doubled to 1,000 this year.

“Many national leaders are in a collaborative spirit, which is helping to gain traction and is providing a mechanism for sharing high-impact strategies,” Mr. Rollins said.

Just last year, some of the nation’s leading family- and community-engagement advocates and practitioners founded the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement, or NAFSCE, in Bethesda, Md., to mobilize family-engagement advocates behind initiatives to gain greater financial and legislative support for the issue.

Pushing for Resources

Thus far, advocates have failed to have the Title I federal funding set-aside for family and community engagement efforts increased from 1 percent to 2 percent in congressional proposals to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But Karen Mapp, a senior lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, said school districts that have made family-engagement work a priority consider that Title I funding mandate a “floor, not a ceiling” and are adding more funding to support parents.

True, some districts, like the Springfield school system in Massachusetts are eliminating all or some of their parent coordinators, and some family-engagement departments, like Boston’s, have seen their funding reduced in recent years due to shrinking education budgets. But Ms. Mapp said other school systems, like New York City’s, have maintained school-based parent coordinators.

Ms. Mapp also said philanthropic organizations are showing an increased interest in family-engagement strategies. For example, the Battle Creek, Mich.-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation awarded $13.7 million in grants to strengthen family-school partnerships across the country last year, while the Los Altos, Calif.-based Heising-Simons Foundation awarded NAFSCE $350,000 in grants to help found that group.

Ms. Weiss, of the Harvard Family Research Project, added that interest in family-engagement efforts isn’t relegated solely to education circles: She plans to make a speech at a meeting convened by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis board of directors and the University of Minnesota this fall. She said community and business leaders see the potential for a long-term return on their investment in family-engagement efforts in the community.

Building Momentum

Education and civic leaders from cities including Albuquerque, N.M., and New Haven, Conn., have visited Boston for a first-hand look at their family-engagement department before crafting their own plans. Michele Brooks, the assistant superintendent for family and student engagement in Boston, said representatives from up to eight school districts visit her district each year.

Ms. Brooks, who is retiring this month, said school district leaders are becoming more aware that family engagement can no longer be a volunteer-led practice. Family-engagement administrative positions at school districts, Ms. Brooks said, have developed into professional positions requiring high-level skills and experience to “help families understand the language of schools and to help educators understand the culture of home.”

“Teachers don’t realize that parents are a natural ally for them in managing student behavior and helping them bolster student achievement,” said Ms. Brooks, a 2013 Education Week Leader to Learn From.

That’s why parent-engagement advocates are pushing more states to adopt family- and community-engagement standards within educator evaluations, as in Connecticut. But to help teachers and principals learn how to engage parents requires professional-development training and in-service opportunities that are aligned to instructional goals, Ms. Mapp said.

Ms. Mapp acknowledges that some teachers are “pretty reluctant” to add parent-engagement strategies, like home visits, to their already daunting duties. Still, she said, once teachers experience how partnering with parents can make their jobs easier as educators, they are eager to encourage their colleagues to join them.

Ms. Crain said the family-engagement field must continue collecting data and research to show both educators and parents how effective these practices can be to improve student achievement. If family-engagement practitioners can convey that message, she added: “I don’t think family-engagement is going away.”

Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 2015 edition of Education Week as Parent Engagement on Rise as Priority for Schools, Districts

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