Family Engagement: Welcoming the New School Year and Partnering with Parents From the Get-go

Like most independent schools teachers, I never received formal family engagement training. In my first-grade classroom, I used all of the popular strategies—back-to-school night presentations, listening conferences, curriculum mornings, and so on. I introduced language to talk about race, culture, and various family structures, and I focused on building foundations of positive racial, ethnic, and cultural identity. But by November last year, I realized that my toolkit was significantly lacking.

“I’m afraid that my brown boy is going to crack,” a mother of a new student said through tears as we discussed her child’s recent behavioral and academic challenges. As a parent myself, I could relate to the anxiety and fear in her voice. As a teacher, I felt that my professional skill set, built upon 10 years of teaching experience and a graduate degree, was failing me. Where did I miss the mark with this family?

Our schools are changing. National shifts in racial and ethnic dynamics as well as more resources to develop our schools into diverse and inclusive institutions have resulted in school populations better reflecting our diversifying global society. In the 2017–2018 academic year, enrollment of students of color in NAIS schools reached 30 percent.

It’s one thing to make our schools racially and ethnically diverse through enrollment. It’s another to create welcoming, inclusive school communities in which authentic partnerships are formed with families, especially marginalized families of color. To do this, parents must receive consistent messaging from all stakeholders (teachers, administrators, and board members) that they are equal and valued partners in their child’s success and that they have the capacity to positively influence their child’s learning.

Research and Best Practices

A recent study by Johns Hopkins University tells us that when teachers initiate trusting relationships with families, such as through a home visit, the partnerships that are formed are associated with student success and better teacher outcomes. As the gap between high income and low income families widens, schools and educators must recognize that “engaged families” aren’t necessarily the ones putting in the most volunteer hours and heading up the PTA. All families are invested in their child’s success, but not all have the luxury of time and flexibility.

This summer, during my time at the Family Engagement Institute at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), I learned that government agencies, districts, and schools across the country are becoming increasingly aware of the value of family-school partnerships. They are calling for implementation of family engagement policies, staffing district-wide family engagement offices, and are integrating family engagement into educator evaluation systems. Karen Mapp and Paul Kuttner’s Dual Capacity-Building Framework outlines the best practices that families and schools should undertake when developing effective family engagement strategies and programs.

Mapp, a senior lecturer at HGSE and faculty chair of the institute, spent time during her tenure as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Education fighting to change the language in the Every Student Succeeds Act from “parent involvement” to “parent engagement.” Her work begs us to reflect on the ways independent schools typically partner with families. Do we create opportunity for family “involvement” (student performances, teacher-led parent-teacher conferences, fundraisers, potlucks) or do we “engage” families through high-impact strategies that affect student learning, such as home visits, modeling of learning support strategies, and positive phone calls. As our family demographics shift, how are we, as schools, shifting our assumptions and best practices for meaningful family engagement?

Reflections on a School Year

Over the course of last year, I slowly built a foundation of trust with the mother of my student, and I dove deeper into how my identity as a white teacher impacted families in my classroom, especially families of color. I told this particular mother who came to me last year that I would hold her son to high academic and behavioral standards and would love him. While our relationship made progress, I knew that it was not supported by the solid foundation that should have been established within the first few weeks of school.

At the end of the year, I sent a survey to all of my classroom families asking the following questions.
  • In thinking about the start of the academic year (September/October), what do you wish I had known or understood about your child? What do you wish I had asked?
  • What do you wish I had done differently this year? I welcome any answers related to you, your family, your child, or my own role/identity.
  • I strive to have each child known and loved. Was this accomplished for your child? If not, what was missing?
  • I am deeply committed to issues of identity in my classroom, in my own learning, and in my personal life. What advice would you like to give me or share with me about my own learning around identity and culture?
I received responses from every family, and 100 percent of families felt that their child was known and loved. Still, I was skeptical. I recognized that at the end of the year, families wanted to be grateful. While the positive feedback felt affirming, I was seeking constructive feedback. I still wanted to do better.

A New Approach to Building Family Relationships

My time at Harvard’s Family Engagement Institute opened my eyes to the fact that it’s not the responsibility of families in my classroom to guide me to become a culturally competent teacher. It’s not up to families of color to teach me how to help their children meet their fullest potential. It’s my responsibility to take the first step in building our partnership.

This year I’m taking a proactive approach. A colleague and I proposed a pilot home-visit program in which the first-grade teachers, in pairs, will visit the seven new families, a vulnerable group with whom building relationships is paramount. I’m sharing my learnings and resources from the institute with other teachers in my pre-K through grade 5 division. I’ve also crafted an email, which I’ll send to families a few days prior to the start of the school year. My hope is that the letter will communicate to families the value that I place on partnering with them, right from get-go.

This Fall, I’m excited and eager to build trusting relationships with all of the students and families in my classroom. I may never fully achieve this goal, but striving to build these relationships will help me best serve students and families. These partnerships are the foundation on which academically and socially emotionally successful students are built. They are the key to creating truly inclusive independent school communities in which all families feel a sense of belonging.
Author
Katie Carr
Katie Carr

Katie Carr is a first-grade teacher at The Park School in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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