Family Engagement

Family Engagement: Engaging the Disengaged

Many schools take a traditional approach to family engagement. It's time to think outside of the box.
A female teacher is sitting in a room with other teachers. Everyone else is out of focus.
Photo credit: US Department of Education via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

"We want every family to be engaged in their child's education," Jaya said, "Not just the predictable ones." Jaya is the principal of a middle school that I recently visited. (Jaya is a pseudonym; she requested anonymity.) Upon arriving at this large, urban middle school, I had noticed a racially mixed group of parents drinking coffee and laughing in a room filled with couches and books. I asked Jaya about this, commenting that I usually don't see as many parents at middle schools as I do at elementary schools.

"When I became principal of this school, our family participation rate in back-to-school night, open house, and report card conferences was around 20%," Jaya explained. "That wasn't okay with me. Parents are an essential part of our success with our students; we need them. We had to figure out how to get them onto our campus."

Today, 95% of parents and caregivers show up to back-to-school night, open house, and so on. But perhaps more important and more interesting are the additional activities and events that they show up for: classroom walkthroughs, interviews for new staff members, key policy decision-making meetings, and teacher professional development.

Exploring Disengagement

One of Jaya's first steps as a principal was to learn about why families weren't more involved with their child's education. Teachers complained that parents never returned their calls and refused to come to meet with them; if they brought their kids to school, parents were likely to stand on a corner, a block from campus, and watch as their kids took their final steps into school. One morning, Jaya walked up to one mother and asked what kept her from walking her son all the way.

"Ma'am," the mother said, "I attended that school as a child myself, and when I left in eighth grade I never wanted to go back." This mother (and her mother as well) had attended this middle school, and their memories were not positive. As Jaya spoke with other parents, she heard similar stories of generations of former students who hadn't felt that their academic or social-emotional needs had been met. One father said, "I still have nightmares about being a kid there. I hate sending my son there, but what else can I do? I stay away though."

Jaya listened and listened and listened to what parents and guardians had to say about their experiences as students in her middle school. In addition, she heard comments such as, "Teachers have been calling me with the same complaints about my boy since kindergarten. Why should I return their calls so that they can tell me that he's distracted and unfocused?"

Listening Led to Change

It was perhaps her listening, Jaya reasoned, that family members started walking on to campus. "One day, this grandma was at my door. She said, 'Can I talk to you? You're a good listener. I'd like to tell you about my grandson and hear what you think I could do."

The school also hired a part-time family liaison who began setting up programs and offerings for parents, such as tax preparation help, computer classes, and clothing exchanges. Teachers were asked to make two positive calls home each day, and to blurt out, when someone answered the phone, "I'm calling with good news from your son's school!" Little by little, over the course of several years, parents began trusting the school more.

Hiring Committees and Professional Development

"But why," I asked, "do parents participate on hiring committees and in teacher's professional development?"

"Because," Jaya said, "we value them. We value their perspectives and input, and we see them as a second set of teachers for our children." It had started by chance. A couple of parents had volunteered to organize the library on an August day when teachers had professional development in literacy across the curriculum, which was held in the library. Part way through the day, Jaya noticed that the parents had stopped quietly organizing books, and were listening to the presentation, engaging in pair-shares with each other about the prompts that the presenter offered the teachers, and browsing over the shoulders of teachers to read their materials.

After this day, Jaya proposed that parents and guardians be invited to professional development. "They wanted to learn so that they could support their kids at home. It just made sense. And teachers came to love it. They learned together and made sense of the instructional practices together."

As I left Jaya's school, I thought about her comment that she wanted all families to be engaged in their child's learning, not just the predictable ones. This certainly was true -- so many parents and families were now involved in their child's school. And beyond that, she was clearly developing a partnership with families the likes of which I haven't seen elsewhere. Most schools take a fairly traditional approach to family engagement: It's time to think outside of the box.