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July 29, 2021
Vol. 16
No. 22

Creating the Conditions for Family-School-Community Partnerships

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School Culture
As Leila Kubesch, a teacher at Norwood Middle School in Ohio, and the National Toyota Family Teacher of the Year, visited the porches of students and families during the pandemic, she was surprised to hear a common request: the need for students to take cooking classes. With many older students at home with younger siblings while parents worked, students needed a way to cook healthy meals for the entire family. Springing into action, Kubesch developed “Chow and Tell,” an afterschool class designed so that students could learn the ins and outs of cooking. As the class progressed, so did family and community engagement. Families began sending her photos of their home-cooked meals, and families and students had opportunities to talk with one another about their day, what they learned, and how they were doing. Local community businesses even began donating stoves and other cooking materials to make the project a success.

Ten years from now, when students, educators, and families look back on these pandemic times, perhaps what will stand out is how COVID erased the imaginary boundaries between home and school. The pandemic has underscored how learning happens everywhere, all the time, not just in classrooms, but throughout our daily lives, in kitchens, in homes, and community settings, with families. Decades of research confirm the for student learning and success. Going forward, equitable and liberatory family and community engagement should shape education in the years to come.

Yet, one thing we at the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement (NAFSCE) and others have known for quite some time is that for family and community engagement to move from the periphery of school efforts to the center, educators must have intentional preparation and support to co-create with families. Schools and the broader education field are being called upon to consistently reach out to and listen to families, raise up their voices, and harness their intellectual and linguistic resources and strengths as the foundation of teaching and learning. Unfortunately, we’ve learned that, all too often, these systems are not in place.

In NAFSCE’s COVID-19 family engagement survey, only 47 percent of educators felt they were properly prepared to engage families. Educator preparation programs echo this finding. In a 2021 national survey of over 150 educator-preparation programs throughout the United States, NAFSCE found that only 51 percent of educator preparation programs offer standalone courses in family and community engagement, and family engagement topics are embedded infrequently into required coursework. Moreover, from a policy perspective, only 30 percent of U.S. states and territories explicitly address four foundational elements of family engagement when training teachers: collaboration and partnership; communication, culture, and diversity; and relationships and trust.

These statistics point to the importance of creating opportunities and pathways for educators to learn about and practice family engagement on an ongoing basis throughout their careers and forming broader school communities that support and amplify educators’ efforts. There are three critical areas in which schools can invest in the coming years to ensure that educators have the time and tools necessary to carry forward family and community engagement. These ideas are based on NAFSCE’s previous research and recommendations related to opening schools and how states and school districts can use American Recovery Program funds to strengthen family and community engagement (see Figure 1).

Invest in Infrastructure to Promote Equity and Diversity

School leaders drive the vision and commitment to family and community engagement and create the infrastructure for its success. This can mean hiring dedicated staff, such as parent coordinators and facilitators, whose roles are to reach out to families and share the engagement work with educators. It might also mean hiring social workers who connect with and advocate for families, make referrals and community connections, and provide counseling.
Building infrastructure is also about investing in data systems that allow schools to better track family needs and student attendance and provide families with better access to real-time student learning data, along with opportunities to understand and make use of it. Though all families faced challenges during this pandemic, circumstances and resources varied greatly. The data that schools collect should be analyzed and disaggregated to better understand the different challenges and circumstances of families, such as those who experience homelessness, eviction, and chronic unemployment.

School leaders can also provide opportunities for educators to grow their family engagement knowledge and skills, such as flexible time and resources to expand upon what students are learning in other contexts. Try something like teacher Leila’s cooking classes or making visible the mathematics we see and use in our daily lives while we travel or shop.

Invest in Programs and Strategies

Successful family and community engagement is cultivated through the everyday actions of families, principals, teachers, and other school staff who intentionally build relational trust. Schools can create new systems and strategies to communicate with and reach out to families—whether in the form of websites, home visits, community festivals, transition events, or partnering with community-based organizations. For example, Shannon Pfaff, principal of Southside Elementary School in Shelbyville, Kentucky, collaborates closely with the local Family Resource and Youth Services Centers to engage families through summer reading programs and home visits. Schools can also create opportunities to promote parent leadership and raise up family voices through experiences such as porch visits, surveys, design thinking opportunities, or focus groups. These conversations might focus on what families want for their child’s learning, how schools can better collaborate with families, or how to build belonging in the school community.

Schools and families can also design family programs and services that enhance families’ abilities to support student learning, either through online or in-person literacy and math nights, STEM programming and workshops, or opportunities for sharing academic progress. Community dialogues, book circles, or service-learning projects can help reduce isolation. Finally, forming robust partnerships with community learning spaces, including afterschool programs, libraries, museums, religious institutions, or other businesses, will further help engage families who are disproportionately underserved.

Invest in Supplies and Resources

When educators and schools invest in updating their digital resources (e.g., e-books, textbooks) to make them culturally relevant, families and students see their experiences and lives represented, valued, and honored. Educators can also provide translation and interpretation services for families to access relevant information about health, safety, and any current changes being proposed around the school. Given the emphasis on the digital divide, providing all families with access to technology (computers, printers, etc.), training on how to use it, high-speed internet (broadband access, local hotspots), and programming (software, online services) that supports remote learning requires updating services and systems.

A New Start

Our hope is that 10 years from now the pandemic will have marked a new starting point: one where family involvement informs more effective instruction. For this vision to be a reality, schools must make investments in infrastructure, supplies, and resources, and implement family and community strategies across all levels of education. In addition, state and federal education agencies need staff and resources dedicated to strengthening communication with families, coordinate family-focused programs, and regulate professional learning and licensure. Whether they’re at the table creating new policies, holding high expectations for their children, or suggesting new and relevant curriculum, families are the foundation of our new start.

Margaret Caspe is the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement’s (NAFSCE) research consultant. She co-leads the Pre-Service Family Engagement Consortium, a collaborative of national partners and state and higher education teams dedicated to supporting educator preparation in family engagement. Prior to joining NAFSCE, she worked with the Global Family Research Project and Harvard Family Research Project, where she developed tools to build the capacity of school and community educators to promote family engagement.


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