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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Increasing District Capacity for Family and Community Engagement

For decades, educators have been interested in improving the connection between local schools and their students’ families. There is extensive literature connecting greater involvement of families to positive academic outcomes in students, particularly those who are in the most need of academic intervention. For example, the California Department of Education has provided a fairly comprehensive list reflecting over two dozen researched family and community engagement practices that improve student outcomes (e.g., shared reading exercises, strong teacher-parent relationships).  Most of these practices involve supporting families in taking actives roles in the education of their children (i.e., supporter, encourager, monitor, advocate, decision maker, collaborator) as well as supporting educators in honoring and recognizing families’ funds of knowledge, connecting family engagement to student learning, and creating welcoming and inviting cultures (see - The Dual-Capacity Framework for Family-School Partnerships).

Education policies (i.e., IDEA, NCLB, ESSA) continue to promote and, often, require schools to engage with families. Yet, schools consistently identify family and community engagement as one of their areas in need of improvement. After helping several districts in New Hampshire increase their capacity for improved family-school partnerships, I have reached the same conclusion of many in the field—that the complexity of the family-school relationship is so unique and ever-changing that pre-made, one-size-fits-all programs cannot accomplish the goals so many schools have for engaging families. Rather than a program, success lies in developing an ongoing process at the local level for systematically evaluating the needs of families and staff and then providing programs to meet those needs. 

On May 9th 2017, I was the Featured Speaker at the University of New Hampshire’s Family and Community Engagement Conference for Educators and Related Professionals. My goal was to talk about this process for improving family-school partnerships as well as identify local resources available for educators in developing and sustaining authentic partnerships between families and schools.  The Keynote Speaker, Dr. Karen Mapp, discussed her nationally recognized work in the field and laid the groundwork for the day (i.e., The Dual-Capacity Framework for Family-School Partnerships). Dr. Mapp’s free online course on the topic offers a trove of resources (e.g., free videos, access to literature) for both personal academic growth as well as professional development planning. 

My presentation focused on the first of several steps I commonly discuss with schools on implementing Mapp’s work; Identifying leadership and establishing responsibility through policy. Regardless of the specific approach a school takes, sustained family and community engagement (FCE) programming requires dedicated time and responsibility at the local level. With this charge in mind, I asked school officials to take time during the presentation to explore their districts’ policy on FCE, the job responsibilities related to FCE, and plans for annual evaluation of FCE efforts. Nearly everyone in the room was able to test how accessible their district policy was on a public platform.  This is important, because if a member of the school system cannot find it, a parent has little chance of doing so. Additionally, several participants were able to discuss future plans for making their FCE practices more sophisticated. Just as there is no one program or presentation will solve the decades-old struggle to engage families, investigating current district policy (or lack thereof) can serve as a springboard for trying something new approaches and seeing what sticks for a particular school or district. 

Tips you can use

If you are thinking of exploring your own district’s family and community engagement practices, here are some things to consider: 

  • Who in the district or school is responsible for family and community engagement efforts? Is it in their job title/description or just an unofficial add-on? If the position does exist, consider reviewing the duties associated with the position and explore how they do or do not align to Dr. Mapp’s Dual-Capacity Framework.  
  • What is the district policy on family and community engagement? Is it an outdated reference to the requirements of No Child Left Behind (i.e., Uses the phrase ‘parent involvement’)? If so, consider looking at more recent policies of similar schools – or explore suggestions by state organizations (e.g., State Boards, State Departments of Education). 
  • Is there a systematic plan for creating, implementing, and reviewing family and community engagement activities grounded in family need and perspective while also linked to learning? If not, start small. Pick the most successful thing your school already does (e.g., a spaghetti night, football tailgate, Title I annual night), have a very short survey ready, and start assessing what your families and staff want out of it (and from each other). Take that data and use the Dual-Capacity Framework as a guide to adjust aspects of the event.  

These are the first important steps in fostering authentic family-school partnerships. As with nearly everything in education, FCE work is an ongoing process that requires constant revision. But the hard work and focus are worth it, as improving FCE in a school has the immense potential to improve the academic outcomes of all students —and especially those who are struggling the most academically.  

If you have questions about improving your family and community engagement efforts you can reach me at rfeistman@ccebos.org.  

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