If we as educators could successfully teach all children by ourselves, then it seems that we would have already done so. We haven’t, and that should be all the motivation to promote family engagement in districts nationwide.
When I became a high school principal, I began to take notice of the messages we sent out. Our front doors had decals: “WARNING: Trespassers will be prosecuted.” I watched as parents stood at our main office counter for several minutes before being acknowledged. As a superintendent, I recently listened to a parent almost in tears say, “I just need to know that someone cares about my child.”
The culture of public districts is the idea that we can do this without working with every family. Millions of dollars are spent each year on implementing school reform models with the hope of improving academic outcomes for all children, but especially those that have traditionally been left behind.
In 2006, the Rand Corporation compared four whole-school reform models widely followed among American schools and found that each of them had a strong family engagement component. In the “Catalog of School Reform Models: Program Report” released in 2002, Mark Buechler reviewed 26 whole-school reform models, three of which are duplicates of the Rand study. Of those 26 models, every one included parental involvement as a key ingredient in reform. Public school personnel seem to fall into three categories when trying to understand the issues of family engagement. They believe they are effective with all of their families; or that the engagement of families is secondary to instruction; or that engaging families is a waste of time or an illusion that is impossible to attain.
A systemic and systematic approach to school improvement and reform must include healthy and trusting relationships with all parents, even those that appear to be uninterested in their child’s education. The superintendent is in the best position to ensure the engagement of all families is central to the district improvement plan.
Applying Strategic Thinking
Those of us who have promoted the concept of family engagement as an important conduit to academic success for all children acknowledge that the most daunting challenge is to create a systemic approach to engaging every family. A systems approach to engagement requires that at the fulcrum of the strategic plan and process is the involvement of the stakeholders and the use of clear strategic language that supports such engagement.
In the Williamsburg-James City County School District in Virginia, we spent a year creating a strategic plan and vision that will carry our district through the next five years and beyond. The district received thousands of surveys, over half of which were returned from those who identified themselves as parents. As a result, one of the five strategic priorities for our school centers squarely on our commitment to engaging every family in the academic lives of their children. From this priority will come goals, objectives and metrics that will allow us to truly understand if we are helping all parents play an effective part in their child’s education.
Shaping the Culture
School districts are well served when superintendents focus their reform efforts not just on excellence in curriculum, instruction and assessment, but on reculturing schools to be inclusive of strong family partnerships. Regardless of their backgrounds, parents are the first and most influential teachers of their children, and they have a strong intrinsic desire to see their children succeed. To ignore the power of relationships between schools and families is to ensure that the pervasive achievement gap will never close.
There are various challenges to engaging every family, especially those families that are traditionally hard to reach. However, these barriers exist in the beliefs, values and attitudes about families held by school employees. There are really only two choices open to educators: Either we see families as assets or as liabilities. The former moves us toward success; the latter seals our fate. School system leaders need only establish family engagement as one strand of strategic planning and management. Leaders who place value in this arena have set the stage for cultural change.
More often than not, schools have exhibited an intermittent approach and commitment to establishing trusting relationships with all families. Excuses often include lack of time, cultural differences, parental uncertainty, school size and curriculum. While these are real issues with which all schools grapple every day, to understand the most significant barrier we face, the time has come to look at ourselves and understand that the educational culture we have created may very well be the nucleus of the problem.
What Can We Do?
Many districts have seen tremendous success in their efforts to engage families. In Toppenish School District in Washington, former superintendent (now the Educational Services District superintendent) Steve Myers boasts of improved attendance and achievement rates among students who traditionally had lagged behind, as well as significantly strengthened relationships with Native American families. As a result of a districtwide commitment to family engagement in the North Penn School District in Pennsylvania, like Knapp Elementary School, students have an attendance rate of 95 percent. Academically, 85 percent of students are proficient in mathematics, and 82 percent are proficient in reading. Attendance has more than doubled at home and school meetings.
There is no question that we have many mountains to climb with regard to reforming and improving our public schools. It seems to be a reasonable conclusion, though, that the mountain that is the easiest to climb is the one that convinces parents that we care about their children. Further, doing so is budget neutral. We must build the efficacy of every family by developing strategic priorities centered on a valued partnership.
Most importantly, though, is the need for superintendents and system leaders to proclaim families are important to reform efforts and are critical to continuous improvement of our schools.
Steven M. Constantino,is the Superintendent of the Williamsburg-James City County School District in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is a national thought leader and author of three books on the subject of family engagement and will be releasing his latest book, “Engaging Every Family: The New Standards for Global Family Engagement,” later this year.