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Five Lessons Learned About District Leadership for Family Engagement

[Originally published in the New Directions for Family Engagement Blog, Harvard Family Research Project website]

The opportunity to advance the field of family engagement is best described as a window. The window is sometimes open and sometimes closed. When the window for opportunity is open, family engagement makes headway. However, when it closes, we seem to lose ground. The question is: How do we maintain ground so that when the window closes, we have a national infrastructure and support in place for districts to avoid losing ground?

Currently, the window is open, with provisions for family engagement embedded in the reauthorized Every Student Succeeds Act; the release of the U.S. Department of Education’s Partners in Education: A Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family‒School Partnerships; and the joint Draft Statement on Family Engagement of the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.1

Districts are responding to changes in the policy environment by establishing leadership positions focused on family engagement. An unprecedented 105 districts nationally have identified people in their district who work on family engagement and participate in the District Leaders Network on Family and Community Engagement, which is sponsored by the Institute for Educational Leadership. Through this network, these districts are connecting with one another and conducting site visits to learn more about effective family engagement practices in place in other districts. This leadership exchange is one way that the family engagement field can advance so that we do not lose ground when the window closes.

Leadership matters, and I believe it is the primary driver for both district and school improvement. Leaders with core beliefs around family engagement can articulate its value, ensure staff embraces its significance, and create an environment for it to flourish alongside instructional practice. These leaders are key to building a national infrastructure to keep family engagement thriving throughout the vicissitudes of political change.

Through my experience at Boston Public Schools (BPS), I am sharing lessons learned about district leadership for family engagement.

1. Districts benefit from having clear goals and objectives. At BPS we developed a broad theory of action for family engagement. We believe that if BPS engages families in ways that teach parents how to support student learning at home, if we guide teachers on how to partner with families to make home an extension of school, and if school leaders establish a culture to foster these partnerships, then the school district will have families that are more meaningfully engaged and teachers that are confident about involving families in the classroom and school community in ways that impact student learning and school improvement.

2. Family engagement efforts must utilize student data to link family engagement strategies to grade-level fundamental skills and learning goals. For example, BPS Parent University implemented an eight-week Parent‒Child Reading and Writing Club to equip parents of third through fifth graders with skills to support their children’s reading and writing at home. We designed this intervention in collaboration with the BPS Office of Curriculum and Instruction after noticing that many of our third- through fifth-grade students were skipping the open response section of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam. We learned students needed more support building writing skills and so this became a district focus that continues today. The aim of the club was to provide parents with strategies to support their children’s reading and writing skills. Using participation metrics, we knew that the program caught the interest of parents and children. We maintained a 98% retention rate with parents during the first round of the program. That’s success when we considered the great diversity of families we serve.

3. At the school level it is important to develop strong engagement practice with school leaders. We began our work with willing leaders, and acknowledged their accomplishments and sought their advice on how to reach their colleagues. We identified principals whose work demonstrated positive family engagement practices, documented their practices, and based on the BPS Family and Student Engagement Standards, created an award for family engagement: the Family Friendly Schools Certification. This created a buzz around schools, prompting many to get more involved in family engagement in order to achieve the certification. The award not only acknowledges effective practice schools but also provides exemplars of proficient practice to be shared across the district.

4. Small wins are important for sustainability. Once schools see the value of parent engagement, they want more of it and it no longer becomes just a district-led initiative. For example, we provided stipends for teachers at two elementary schools to conduct home visits based on the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project model. Teachers who participated saw such great value in the work that they continued to do home visits when they were no longer provided stipends. The principals of the schools even allocated professional development time for home visits because of the value they brought to the school: improved parent‒teacher relationships, increased attendance, and a collaborative focus on student learning.

5. For districts to effectively engage parents throughout their children’s school years, districts must shift the lens through which they view family engagement at different levels of a child’s education. The shifts throughout the continuum require different engagement approaches.

  • In early childhood, parents carry their children, meaning they protect them and ensure they have a safe school experience.

  • As the children transition to elementary school, the parents also transition into the role of a guide: They no longer carry their children, but instead walk in front of them, clearing a pathway to school and providing opportunities for them to learn and explore.

  • In middle school, parents shift to walking beside their children instead of in front of them. In this position, the parents promote the children’s independence and identity development while still guiding the children through school when necessary.

  • By the time children reach high school, though, they take the lead from the parents, now walking in front and forging their own path. The parents’ role is no longer that of a guide but rather of a supporter, advocate, and monitor. If children are struggling, the parents help them advocate for themselves and find and access resources, without stepping in front to take the lead.

As I write this blog for a university-based project, I want to reinforce the idea that higher education plays a crucial role in cultivating leadership for family engagement. Providing preparation of superintendents and principals on family engagement can ensure that districts do not lose progress toward meaningful family engagement. If the importance of family engagement is emphasized as part of leadership development, then family engagement can become a priority for new leadership. This will create a fertile field for taking advantage of windows of opportunity and avoiding losing ground.

Michele Brooks is the former assistant superintendent of family and student engagement for Boston Public Schools. Brooks discusses her work in Boston Public Schools and lessons learned to advance family engagement nationally.

1 The joint Draft Statement on Family Engagement of the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services went out for public comment on December 14, 2015 and is under review by the Departments.

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