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August 29, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 1
Reader's Guide

Family Engagement Reimagined

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    Family engagement can no longer be regarded as an "add on" in schools.

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      As many commentators have noted, the last three years in education have changed the dynamics between families and schools in significant, still-evolving ways. The prolonged shift to remote learning led to a new (if sometimes strained) sense of collaboration for many educators and families. The pandemic and the heightened attention to racial injustice created a greater sense of urgency around the inequitable treatment that many families, particularly those of color and those living in poverty, routinely experience in education. At the same time, new safety protocols and administrative decisions sparked tensions and divisiveness in some school communities.
      All this has made family engagement a critical area of focus and potential growth for schools in this new school year. As scholars Karen Mapp and Eyal Bergman write in a report published by the Carnegie Corporation last year, COVID-19 and the antiracist movement have opened the door for schools "to address the often-ignored and unspoken dynamics that prevent the cultivation of effective partnerships between families and educators." Educators need to "seize this opportunity," they argue, to forge stronger, more inclusive, and ultimately more transformative relations with families.
      This back-to-school issue of Educational Leadership speaks precisely to these goals. The articles, written by a diverse selection of educators and experts, describe specific practices, structural changes, and mindset shifts that school leaders and educators can use to better connect with, support, and learn from students' families. They focus in particular on strengthening relationships with families from racial and socio-economic groups that have tended to be discounted or out-influenced in schools. They also illuminate the critical, though often neglected, links between effective family engagement and student growth.
      Given the importance of the topic, we hope this issue will serve as a high-leverage resource for educators and schools as they seek to navigate the (hopefully) "post-pandemic" era. Here are some key ideas to consider in reflection or professional learning:
      Create real partnerships. As authors in this issue point out, educators' relations with families are often more like one-sided conversations than genuine partnerships. Real partnerships with families, Jamila Dugan writes, are "concerned with building reciprocal relationships, shared responsibility, and joint work across settings." They are co-constructed and focused on individual student experiences and needs. They may require greater humility and deeper forms of outreach on the part of educators.
      Listen closely. A related theme is the importance of finding ways to be more open and attuned to families' needs and interests. This may require processes like "empathy interviews" or "caregiver feedback" sessions, or less formal opportunities for personal sharing. It may also mean resisting conventional procedures and assumptions on what's best for others.
      Take an asset-based perspective. As a matter of culturally responsive practice, educators must see all caregivers (not just those who were successful in schools themselves) as assets to help inform instruction, support student growth, and build community. As Nawal Qarooni asserts, families can be rich sources of cultural knowledge, insight, and curricular depth and continuity.
      Establish supportive structures. Effective school-family partnerships typically aren't sustainable on the strength of good intentions alone. Instead, they require embedded protocols and structures in schools, including systems for regular communication and follow-up, meaningful and accessible events, and expectations for proactive outreach by educators. They often also entail more "protective" structures, such as translation services, curriculum upgrades, tiered supports, and access to support networks and community services.
      After three years of disruption in education, as Mapp and Bergman argue in their report, family engagement can no longer be regarded as an "add on" in schools. It must be seen as a "pillar of effective teaching and school improvement."

      Reflect and Discuss

       "Co-Constructing Family Engagement" by Jamila Dugan

      ➛How can you restructure events like back to school night to be more of a two-way conversation with families?

      ➛What "good intentions" do you and your school have about getting to know students and families better? Can these interactions be given greater priority or restructuring?

      ➛How do you currently involve student and family voices in your school processes?

      ➛What are some topics that would be most helpful to focus on for your own empathy interviews? Who would you prioritize speaking to first?

      ➛What challenges do you anticipate to implementing an interview process?

      ➛ How do you plan to get to know families throughout the school year? Name one additional action, noted in the article, that you could take.

      ➛ In what way could you elevate the authentic literacy practices students experience at home in the classroom?

      ➛ Check your caregiver biases. For example, do you tend to call mothers before fathers or English-speaking parents before immigrant families? What steps could you take to eliminate deficit thinking around families and literacy?

      ➛ Does your school or district do enough to actively address the unique circumstances of newcomer students and their families? Where are the gaps in your approach?

      ➛ In what ways could you or your school build better connections with newcomer families?

      ➛ What systems or practices could you put in place to boost "protective factors" for newcomer students?

       "Cultivating Hope Through Community Partnerships" by Leigh Colburn and Linda Beggs

      ➛ The authors stress getting students' take on the kind of services they and their families need most. What does your school do, if anything, to seek students' views on their needs beyond academics? How might you survey students?

      ➛ What local groups, resources, or services has your school traditionally partnered with? What other groups might you approach that could help provide what families need? How might you deepen existing partnerships?

       "A Multi-Tiered Approach to Family Engagement" by Hadley F. Bachman and Barbara J. Boone

      ➛ Can you see a multi-tiered system of family engagement working at your school? How is it different from the approach you currently use?

      ➛ Why is it important to think of the tiers in this type of model as fluid and adaptable?

      ➛ Is there room for all of the roles that the authors list for the families in your school? If not, where might you make additional opportunities for them?

      End Notes

      1 Mapp, K. L., & Bergman, E. (2021). Embracing a new normal: Toward a more liberatory approach to family engagement. Carnegie Corporation.

      Anthony Rebora is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership.

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