We cannot have a serious talk about student achievement without having a serious talk about engaging our students' families. But this talk needs to go beyond the movie night or spring carnival. It must be about creating an environment where all families feel embraced by a school's culture, not just invited to attend its events.
Many times there's a tapering off of family engagement between elementary school and the secondary levels. Some of that is due to the teachers themselves. It's as if once we don't have holiday parties to organize, we don't seem to reach out as often to our students' families.
Some of it is also due to the families themselves. Maybe they represent a minority group in the school, a fact that can be intimidating for both the students and their parents. Maybe they themselves don't have a high level of schooling, and are not totally comfortable in a school environment. They might also be experimenting with backing away from their student. However, there's a fine line between encouraging independence and disengaging from the school all together.
And some of it is also due to a school's lack of effort in actively reaching out to all families, not just equitably, but with determination.
Why It's so Vital
We all know the impact that a school and its teachers can have on a student's growth. However, as stated by The U.S. Department of Education, "Raising the next generation is a shared responsibility. When families, communities, and schools work together, students are more successful and the entire community benefits."
If a school makes the decision to actively engage its diverse community of families, the possible benefits far outweigh the effort. According to DropOutPrevention.org, studies show that with more family engagement:
- There is greater student achievement.
- Student attendance is higher.
- Graduation rates are higher.
- Alcohol abuse is lower.
- Students from diverse backgrounds and who are farthest behind benefit.
So how does a school walk this tightrope of asking for age-appropriate involvement? It all begins with communication.
Taking Action: Family Engagement
Earlier this year, I spoke to educational consultant Lisa Dabbs about family engagement, primarily for our non-English speakers and underserved demographics. Our conversation spoke of the need for schools to reach out, not just fairly, but in a determined way. It isn't just about ensuring a family has the opportunity to learn about the school; it's about ensuring we are doing everything we can to encourage those conversations to happen.
Dabbs and I spoke for a while on the topic, and I've boiled down some of our discussion into eight ways to engage our families.
1. Engage Families in Their Elementary School First
Secondary schools tend to have larger gatherings, and this can be intimidating to many families who aren't already actively involved in a school. Seed the transition between elementary and middle school by having administration visit the elementary sites with PTA parents in tow. A multilingual PTA parent can help translate during an informal meeting or be available for breakouts after a larger gathering.
2. Create a Parent Advocacy Group
Identify parents who speak particular languages and help train them in facts about the school. Perhaps those parents are given a badge of sorts to identify them as go-to parent leaders. See if any of these willing parents would host an informal Coffee with the Principal event in their home. Ensure that there are some parent leaders that share the demographic of those who are least engaged.
3. Take School Information on the Road
Find out the churches or community centers where groups of families congregate. See if that location can host a meet-and-greet with admin and parent leaders. Meet families where they are rather than expecting them to always come to the school. For many of our families, the school environment can be a scary place. Help them get to know the players in the school, and the school site itself might become more comfortable in the future.
4. Utilize Your Local Businesses
Ask to set up and maintain a bulletin board in local markets, bakeries, and restaurants. Advertise an upcoming event or celebrate a student's accomplishments.
5. Find Out What Your Families Need
Conduct a needs assessment (available in different languages) during registration. Set up a station of computers manned by student or parent leaders to help family members set up email accounts if they don't already have them. Have them fill out a quick survey asking how they would like to best be reached throughout the school year and what concerns them the most. Have these topics become the themes for Coffee with the Principal get-togethers.
6. Reach Out to Families Just to Build a Relationship
So many times we reach out to families because of discipline issues, but a little proactive positivity can go a long way in building trust and comfort between a parent and school.
7. Provide Trainings
Schools can help ensure that families know how to access information online. Host a night where the school website is introduced. Demonstrate Google Translate to model how a web page can be easily translated. Embed student-hosted videos on the school website that are in different languages. These can be clicked on for reminders of where to find staff contact numbers, event information, and homework pages.
8. Host an EdCamp for Parents
Host an un-conference for parents that can involve staff, and even students, as well. Use topics that are developed by the parents based on the earlier needs assessment or on-the-spot surveys of questions and interests. It's vital that families feel their input is heard and that they are able to take part in developing their school's culture.
We know that in every school there are the families who will always be involved and there are those who, for whatever reason, might not be. The school, however, can no longer be a part of the reason for this split. Reach out in any way they need.
How do you encourage engagement from your families? Please share in the comments below.