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Family Engagement Is Much More Than Volunteering at School

A recent commentary at the New York Timesexplored the findings from a study on parental involvement. The authors of the study found that the common types of parental involvement, like volunteering more at school or attending school events, don’t improve student achievement. And they’re right. "Random acts of parent involvement" aren’t enough. Other research shows that schools need to do more, especially to engage struggling families. The bottom line: Parent/family involvement must be “Beyond the Bake Sale.”

That was the message at the National Family Engagement Conference held earlier this month. Among the conference speakers was Dr. Jonathan Brice from the U.S. Department of Education, who announced the release of a new family engagement framework designed to assist schools in developing more effective school-family partnerships. You can view the framework here.

I had the opportunity to attend the conference and I walked away with insights on some promising strategies that illustrate what deeper family engagement looks like, pre-K through 12th grade. Examples could include regular and personalized ongoing communication that includes positive information about students, sharing data about students’ learning, home visits, and more. Here are four of my takeaways from the conference:

  1. While family engagement is very important in pre-K and the early grades of elementary school, it is not only important in those years.
  2. The best family engagement efforts are linked to learning, and help families understand what students should know and be able to do.
  3. Building trust among families is essential for a successful engagement program. Some parents, especially many parents from low-income families, may have had negative experiences themselves and view schools as uncomfortable, frustrating places. It’s the job of schools to be a welcoming, engaging place for students and for their families.
  4. Engaging with families is not always intuitive for teachers and school leaders. It’s not generally a big part of their preparation, and it’s often left out of professional development, too. Their comfort and skill levels often need to be developed.
While family engagement is very important in pre-K and the early grades of elementary school, it is not only important in those years.

One of the sessions, I attended highlighted two promising family engagement strategies that do the address the takeaways I list above: the Parent/Teacher Home Visit project and Academic Parent Teacher Teams.

The Parent/Teacher Home Visit project modelis currently used in about 300 schools across 15 states, including Washington, D.C. Teachers are trained to and compensated for conducting two visits each year with families. Teachers make the visits in teams of two with the goal of getting to know the families and understanding their experiences. Parents and teachers discuss their respective dreams and expectations for the student and the teachers share tools and resources that families can use at home to help further their student’s academic and social success. Last fall in D.C., according to a Washington Postarticle, teachers in 43 traditional public schools began conducting home visits. Evaluations of the program have found increased student attendance rates, increased student achievement, and decreased suspension and expulsion rates.

The Academic Parent Teacher Teams (APTT) initiative was developed by WestEd. The idea here is more structured parent conferences coupled with ongoing communication. Over the course of the school year, the teacher holds three 75-minute team meetings with all parents in the class and one 30-minute individual meeting that includes the teacher, the student, and the student’s family. During the team meetings, teachers engage families in activities to help them get to know each other, review key grade levels skills and class data, and demonstrate at-home practice activities. Parents set 60-day goals for their students, which are then revisited at the next team meeting. The goals of the individual meeting are to review student progress, create a learning plan for the student, and build relationships with families. APTT is currently being used in schools and districts across 16 states, and the results show increased student achievement, improved school culture and increased family support for student learning.

These are two promising strategies and their adoption continues to spread. But the idea of home visiting is not new; it’s a strategy that has been used with parents of young children, birth to kindergarten, and that even received federal funding in the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Evidence-based home visiting programs help to support disadvantaged families in ensuring their children’s safety, promoting healthy development, and building early language skills.

Still, it is a newer concept in elementary, middle, and high schools, especially traditional public schools. As with any new initiative, it comes down to how well it’simplemented. Both of these strategies require training for teachers, as well as additional time and resources. They also require a shift from more traditional ideas about parent involvement versus family engagement: Simply inviting parents to school celebrations, distributing school newsletters, or creating parent resource rooms won’t likely lead to improved outcomes for students. Schools need to do more—and they should not expect engagement efforts to have much effect unless they do.