Family Engagement: The Missing Link to School Reform

Danielle Asher is the Director of Curriculum and Training for Family Leadership Network, a division of the social justice nonprofit, Choice For All in Roosevelt, NY. Ms. Asher works with families and communities to shift the culture of what leadership looks like while working towards anti-racist and equitable systemic change. Danielle works locally and nationally to raise the profile of authentic parent engagement.  

Family engagement may be the key to heal our schools, our community, and our children. There is always talk about school reform and new methods being piloted every year so that we can improve our student academic success rate. What would it look like if we truly focused on families and the role they play as partners in children’s education?

If you are raising a child, you’ve probably found flyers in your children’s book bags, or received the pre-recorded phone message alerting you about upcoming events. If lucky, the district had them interpreted into other languages for families that do not speak English. Most districts invite parents to come for open house night or parent-teacher conferences. What I hear from parents all the time is these methods often fall short, leaving them without all the information they need or a chance to give feedback. Occasionally verbal or face-to-face communication between parents and teachers is dominated by the power dynamic that the ‘teacher knows best.”  Understand there are amazing teachers that dedicate their lives to their students and go above and beyond for them. I do believe most teachers are trying their best given with what they have to work with and the restrictions of our institutions.

Partnering with parents is usually not a standard practice or policy. Consider the difference between involvement and engagement. Schools are usually asking for involvement. Parents are only supposed to engage in parent groups that have bake sales and scholarship funds. According to Harvard Professor, Dr. Karen Mapp, family involvement is “doing for” and engagement is “doing with.”

We need more of the latter.

 Imagine for a moment what an ideal school setting would look like. What do you envision for a perfect school? Do you see parents and teachers as partners in creating a plan for success for their child? Is there a diverse group of people waiting to welcome families in whatever language they speak and representing different cultures, race, and ethnicities of the families coming through the doors? Many times as educators and professionals we think we need to educate parents. But what would change if we opened our minds and listened to what they believe their children need?

Donna, a Long Island parent leader and member of the Family Leadership Network says, “parent engagement is important because it is power.” When a parent comes to a school, and they are left out of the participatory process or feel judged because they are unable or uninterested in being involved by the school’s terms, it becomes a challenging environment for everyone. Family Leadership Network, based on Long Island, is a growing statewide network providing tools and resources for families to positively impact their own community. Other parent leadership programs around the country have similar ambitions: to give voice to families, who find resilience when they become informed of how systems work, when they have access to resources, and when they have a support system of like-minded people.

When families begin to feel valued for what strengths they bring to the table, over time they become more open to building relationships and trust with others. They gain the confidence to know their worth and own their power. As educators we need to meet parents where they are at and share the core belief that families want the best for their children and “have the capacity to support their child’s learning.” Whether or not they have a formal education, families will contribute based on their own learning and is they are guided in partnership with their child’s educator.

​Recently my partners at Metro Center at New York University and I have been exploring the idea of family engagement as an organic form of collaborative, trauma-informed practice. Shawn Ginwright Ph.D. recently published a blog where he spoke about turning trauma-informed practices into “healing centered engagement.” He speaks of the importance of not only addressing the individual but the root cause that derives from the collective experience “in our cultures, our neighborhoods, our families, and our schools.” One aspect of trauma is the feeling of being unsafe or helpless due to past occurrences.  Wouldn’t that be one way to describe how many school environments feel to families? If we begin to change the school environment so families feel welcomed, it could create a sense of belonging that can bubble over into the community. Imagine what kind of healing we could begin to do together as a community!

School-by-school, district-by-district, many of these changes can begin right now in our traditional schools, regardless of funding. Districts have a choice to put equity as a priority. One local school district that Family Leadership Network works with has created an equity task force working towards an equity policy that will be incorporated into the school district in 2019. This came out of a process where parents, board members, and administrators came together. One board trustee recently expressed how grateful they were to have an organization that cares about welcoming families and facilitates a process so that they can have a safe space to hear what families need to set goals for the children’s success.

Because I work with families every day, I believe in the transformative nature of parent leadership. I have seen school districts grow because they have chosen to partner with parents. The research is out there. The power is in your voice and your community to advocate to your school district to genuinely elevate the role of parents outside of traditional methods. There are supports and resources available for families and schools committed creating change. Many schools even get grants from the federal government to enhance parent engagement.

So why have so many chosen to do it in a way that is centered on involvement? Is it because they never thought about the possibilities of families as partners? Many times when I work with educators their views on families are filled with assumption and stereotypes. There is often a lack of authentic learning about culture differences. It is usually these same people who tell me they have not genuinely heard from parents. Usually, they ask leading questions and have expectations when speaking to them. I often ask the question of school staff whether or not they really want to see parent engagement in their buildings. It is usually met with silence.

I don’t say any of this to shame anyone. I say it so we can have a safe, honest conversation, learn from the role we have played in stymying engagement, and acknowledge that there is a lot to gain by expanding how we think about families. Teachers and school administrators are so overwhelmed with all they need to comply with that it is hard to think of everything. However, engaging families may be the answer.  If we start there, maybe we can see some true school reform and healing led by the families of the children we serve. That alone may be the factor that saves a child’s life.

What do you think?

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