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Wanted: Parents Embedded in the System

A U.S. Department of Education forum aims to ensure parent and community engagement becomes part of a district’s system.

In early November, the U.S. Department of Education gathered together public school district administrators and representatives from teachers unions, philanthropic organizations and parent groups to discuss the importance of family and community engagement as a strategy to support student success.

As the nation awaits reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, in which the Obama administration recommends doubling funding for parent and family engagement, the National Policy Forum for Family and Community Engagement drew about 150 people who wanted to learn how to best involve parents and communities. Four panels, including members of the Education Department, discussed relevant research and effective practices as well as ways to integrate and sustain engagement across education reform priorities.

The forum was designed to serve as a catalyst for reframing what family and community engagement should look like in the 21st century and help in turnaround efforts for low-performing schools. “There is a substantial amount of innovation intentionally linking family engagement to learning, as well as a strong base of practice experience on which to build more systemic, integrated and sustained approaches,” according to a working paper that summarized the national forum.

“In order for turnaround efforts to be successful we have to figure something out about family engagement,” says Anna Hinton, director of parental options and information in the Education Department’s Office of Innovation and Improvement. “We won’t turn them [low-performing schools] around unless the family is involved. And we’re still figuring out the federal government’s role and what a national strategy around family engagement should look like.”

Hinton stresses that family engagement cannot be “random, one-time acts,” as it often has been in the past, but that it must be embedded within the school system. The future of family and community engagement depends on each district.

Here are some successful examples:

? The Poway (Calif.) Unified School District helps parents set “family goals” to reinforce learning goals that the students and teachers developed. Regular assessments measure student growth and encourage students to set goals for their own learning. Parents can attend workshops that explain the assessments and can review resource materials that are available through the district’s Web site. The family goals can include setting a time limit on video games and creating time for homework and reading.

? New Visions for Public Schools, a network of 76 New York City public schools, makes parents key partners in the schools’ Campaign for College and Career Readiness. The family engagement component consists of training parents of ninth-graders to understand the importance of postsecondary education, what students need to do to be on the path to college and careers, and how to use student data to monitor academic performance.

? The Boston (Mass.) Public Schools includes in its curriculum development both a tool to help parents understand the content areas that their children need to master and practice tips for the home.

? The Creighton Elementary School District in Phoenix, Ariz., implements parent-teacher teams to review student performance data, learn how to set parent-student academic goals, interpret benchmark assessment data and quarterly assessments, and understand a student’s standing in relation to an entire class of students. Hinton says that the Department of Education plans to follow up on the forum’s discussions and release the next steps that districts could potentially follow.