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August 29, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 1
Online Exclusive

Giving Marginalized Families a Voice

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Family-educator teams helped this school district forge stronger relationships with the caregivers who used to be sidelined.

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August 2022 Gerzon-Kessler Header image
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“For equity work to work, it must be handed to the community. We have to actually trust the people we say we want to empower to make structural changes, not just tinker at the edges of injustice.”  
-Bettina Love  
 Despite its status as a top ranked district in Colorado with high test scores and effective teachers, the Boulder Valley School District where I direct school-family partnerships efforts has historically had one of the largest opportunity and achievement gaps between white and Latino students. Fortunately, I work in a district that is committed to reducing marginalization and narrowing achievement and opportunity gaps. 
For most of our district’s history, we were unaware of the barriers and marginalization our under-represented families regularly experienced. We guessed what they needed instead of asking them. Educators were spinning in circles on their own, trying to figure out how to narrow the gaps with traditionally marginalized students and families. Parents were having their own conversations too. These efforts were well-intentioned, but they were tinkering at the edges, trying to solve problems without the partnerships really needed to create genuine transformation.   
To really create change at our schools, we knew we needed to listen and learn from traditionally under-served families. We were aware that they held key insights into how we could more effectively remove barriers and increase opportunities for students and families of color. We decided we needed to create a consistent forum for collaborating with under-represented families and uncovering the actual root causes of our opportunity gaps, and so the concept of Family and Educators Together (FET) teams was developed.  
Based loosely on the Action Team for Partnerships model out of Johns Hopkins University, FET has catalyzed a notable shift from our educators making assumptions about minority families’ needs to deeply listening and taking shared action. Through collaborating around tangible steps that foster positive change, all participants deepen their sense of personal and collective efficacy. As one of our FET leaders put it, “We are all part of a multicultural committee of decision-makers impacting the systemic structures of our school.”   
At most schools, it is the school leader or the most vocal and privileged parents driving the change, which often heightens the marginalization of underrepresented families. Conversely, at schools with FET teams, caregivers that were traditionally sidelined are spearheading change. As one of our most senior leaders in the district said, “The FET teams have been nothing short of transformational for the schools where they have been implemented.” 

Through our district program, we develop relational power with families instead of exercising power over them.

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Ari Gerzon-Kessler

An Inclusive Model

The research is clear-cut—strengthening school-family partnerships is one of the five keys to moving from good to great schools (Bryk, 2010). However, in every school or district that I have worked in or consulted with over the last two decades, this vital component of school transformation is typically relegated to the bottom of the priority list.   
When schools commit to a FET team, they quickly move from a scattershot approach to partnerships to one of greater intentionality, and from the type of school where a few parents hold power to a more inclusive and generative model. Research has shown that ongoing dialogue and fostering mutual understanding are central to engaging Latino families (Delgado-Gaitan, 2004). However, historically, schools haven't promoted two-way relationships in which the families of English learners are elevated as equal partners (Ishimaru, 2018).  Solutions cannot be identified until we can generate a deeper understanding of the families themselves and the systems that maintain the inequities we are seeking to transform (Ishimaru, 2019). Through FET, we develop relational power with families instead of exercising power over them (Warren et al., 2009).  
Currently, my district has implemented FET teams at 17 of our 56 schools. For each meeting, we aim to have at least five educators and five underrepresented family members present at each meeting, as well as a school leader. Teams meet monthly and are led by two or three educator or parent co-chairs. Over a span of an hour and a half, the teams engage in both team-building activities and candid dialogue that builds trust, sparks mutual learning, and ultimately leads to action. In all but three of the schools, the meetings are held in Spanish with English interpretation provided. Participating families are overwhelmingly Latino, but some teams are comprised of parents from half a dozen national, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.  
Karen Mapp (2021), a national expert on school-family partnerships, says that schools often prefer that families play the role of spectators rather than genuine teammates. FET flips that dynamic and makes parents teammates, helping educators discover the needed expertise that underrepresented families bring to the table. Since partnering with families is a dynamic process and can easily be perceived as “one more thing,” schools also benefit when the district provides resources, a gentle push, and tangible support. 
Another important aim of FET is to challenge the status quo. For instance, when one of our teams was recently looking to revamp one of their main events for families, the principal realized, “We just do it the same way year after year without thinking about it. It’s so dumb.”  This kind of humility and candor is only possible in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.  

How FET Works 

FET incorporates all six of the core elements that Mavis Sanders and Steve Sheldon, authors of Principals Matter: A Guide to School, Family, and Community Partnerships, describe as essential to thriving family-school-community partnerships. They say that the main keys to outstanding partnership efforts ensure that:  
  • School and district leadership are on board 
  • Inequities are examined head-first and are not glossed over 
  • Parent voices are centered 
  • Efforts are ongoing and part of a programmatic approach 
  • Shared leadership informs the work, and power is shared with families 
  • Evaluation and reflection, both formative and summative, are utilized to assess the strengths, weaknesses, and impacts of large change efforts.(2016) 
The teams foster unusually strong parent-educator partnerships in the same way that PLCs are a proven structure for teacher-to-teacher collaboration. I have spent these last five years, from trial and error and drawing on my background as an SEL and equity trainer, to consistently refine a common structure for FET meetings. Here is what tends to work best as a template for a successful gathering. 
The Planning Phase 
Much of the success of any FET gathering is grounded in thoughtful planning. “Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them,” writes Priya Parker, the author of The Art of Gathering (2018). Parker adds that it is often the apparently small design choices that make a gathering soar.  
I typically spend an hour planning with each team’s co-chairs. We briefly discuss logistics (such as where the meal will come from, childcare options, what interpreters we might need, and what outreach will look like to both families and staff), but the bulk of our time is focused on the agenda, with an emphasis on how we will intentionally foster connection from the opening minutes, center parent voices, bring in the heart, and close with a sense of unity.  
Opening Team Building Activities 
The opening minutes set the tone for the entire gathering. When I was a principal, I came across research on the key ingredient to an effective team: creating a strong sense of psychological safety for all members (Edmondson, 2018). It affirmed my experiences as a student and teacher—when I felt safe to show up authentically, or my students did, engagement was high and great things unfolded. Fostering strong levels of psychological safety is particularly critical for underrepresented families to mitigate the discrimination and bias they have encountered, the power imbalance between parents and educators, and the negative experiences many traditionally marginalized families encountered in their own schooling.  
How do we create psychological safety from the opening minutes? How do we do everything possible to help participants relax and feel safe enough to be vulnerable and connect authentically? As facilitators, we also model the way by demonstrating vulnerability ourselves, engaging in deep listening, and inviting people to speak up who may have stayed silent throughout the bulk of the meeting. It is vital that team leaders create a safe, brave space for families to candidly reveal the barriers that schools have unintentionally erected, as well as our blind spots and biases as educators.  
We also break bread together—eating dinner to start most meetings. We then transition to a quick sharing circle in which participants share their first name, their children’s name (or their role at the school), and then one word or sentence about themselves (such as answering what they are looking forward to during spring).   
After the introductory circle, we transition to a team-building activity, a brief game that reliably energizes and connects everyone. These interactive activities play a critical role in helping everyone show up in a more relaxed, authentic fashion. During one inaugural meeting, for example, four teachers were sitting in a line of desks, and as the parents filed in, they occupied the row of desks across from the teachers. Once it happened, it felt too late to shift the set-up, but it felt more like an encounter between two debate squads rather than the opening meeting of a team that would address decades of disconnect between the school and Latino families. In less than five minutes we went from awkward silence and zero conversation to laughter from every participant as we played Rhythmic Clapping, one of my favorite SEL team-builders, in which participants try to clap in sync with the person on each side of them as we send the clap around the circle. 

We break bread together—eating dinner to start most meetings. 

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Ari Gerzon-Kessler

Engaging in Meaningful Dialogue  
On some teams, after the three opening activities, we go directly to the central conversations that are aimed at eliciting parent perspectives on topics that matter to everyone. These topics can emerge from a previous FET meeting or may be brought forth by our staff or FET co-chairs who want to hear parents’ insights. Co-chairs might begin with posing a thought-provoking question, such as “What do you wish your child’s teacher shared more with you?” or “How might we build stronger relationships with you and other families at our school?” Alternatively, we might go straight into an open forum where parents bring forth timely issues that are important to them (such as concerns about the paucity of communication from teachers). To catalyze more participation, sometimes we will have team members talk with a partner or a small group before sharing with the whole team. This strategy works particularly well with newer teams or when parents or staff do not yet feel comfortable to confidently bring forth their voices.  
At some schools, guest speakers are invited to share important information, spark dialogue, and give the guests an opportunity to learn from what family members share. For instance, at one recent team meeting, parents had requested that district nurses share the latest news on COVID-19 protocols, and both staff and families asked questions that were mutually fruitful. Other recent topics included mental health resources, digital literacy opportunities for families, information on vaping, and the role of the school counselor. 
Regardless of the path, the work mirrors what Ann Ishimaru (2019) describes as the four principles to more just schools: 
  • Begin with family priorities, interests, concerns, and knowledge 
  • Transform power 
  • Build reciprocity and agency 
  • Undertake changes as collective inquiry 
I cannot overstate the importance of educators doing most of the listening. From back-to-school nights to parent-teacher conferences, educators typically do a disproportionate amount of the talking. I was guilty of this as a teacher and principal, feeling that this was how I demonstrated my competency and maintained “control” of the conversation. In the rare cases where a FET team has struggled, it is primarily because educators dominate the discussion time.  
Purposeful Closure 
Research shows that participants disproportionately remember the first and last five percent of a gathering, yet event planners often treat these meeting times as an afterthought (Parker, 2018, p. 173).  
For this reason, FET Team leaders consistently designate five minutes for the closing, which is typically another sharing circle in which each team member shares a word or a few sentences about something that they are appreciating, one of their hopes around next steps, or how they feel the gathering went. Too many gatherings in school settings end abruptly with “Sorry, our time is up,” or close with logistics. In gatherings like FET, the best closings uplift each individual and deepen the sense of unity amongst the group members.     
I remember one particularly poignant closure at one of our elementary schools. We asked each person to share how they felt as the meeting ended. Parents shared words like connected, hopeful, inspired, and content.  
The final parent in the circle, an Argentinian mother and college professor, shared the most fitting word to capture the essence of what FET is at its core. It was a word I did not know existed. 
“I am feeling the word kurtum,” she said. “It comes from the Mapuche people in Patagonia. It means to listen in order to be transformed.” 

Seeing Change

FET teams spearhead tangible changes that both strengthen relationships between staff and underrepresented families and create a more inclusive school. At one of our elementary schools, the team revamped teacher-parent conferences so that there was more time for families that use an interpreter. Teachers were also trained in how to foster more reciprocal conversations. In one of our middle schools, the FET team created a Latino parent panel in which staff gained valuable insight on how to better partner with families. At a high school, the team developed an extensive Frequently Asked Questions document for Spanish-speaking families that filled a decades-long information gap that had made it more difficult for these families to be informed and access opportunities.   
Through FET, families feel more connected to their child’s school and gain greater trust in the staff. Parents also feel more confident in communicating with staff and a greater sense of a belonging. As one father shared, "When we come into school, a lot of us Spanish-speakers feel timid when we see the principal. We try to hide. Even though she doesn't speak our language, I now feel comfortable when I see her. I feel like this is my school too." 
FET has also benefitted teachers and school leaders in countless ways. It has deepened educators’ respect and understanding of all our families and builds their capacity to skillfully partner with them. FET is also one of the best ways for educators to strengthen their cultural competency. As one of our middle school principals told me: “In FET, we are learning who our families are, and they are learning who the teachers are through our stories rather than our titles. This has reduced many of the stereotypes we put on each other and has allowed us to see our collective desire to do the right thing for all the children.”  
In FET we are not “tinkering at the edges.” We are building a bridge between educators and families and developing a school community that includes them both. 
References

Bryk, A. (2010). Organizing Schools for Improvement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Delgado-Gaitan, C. (2004). Involving Latino families in schools: Raising student achievement through home-school partnerships. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. 

Edmondson, A. (2018).  The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. New York: Wiley. 

Mapp, K. (2021). Equal Opportunity Schools symposium. 

Ishimaru, A. M. (2018). Re-imagining turnaround: Families and communities leading educational justice. Journal of Educational Administration, 56(5), 546–561. 

Ishimaru, A. M. (2019) Just Schools: Building Equitable Collaborations with Families and Communities. New York: Teachers College Press. 

Parker, P. (2018). The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. New York: Riverhead Books. 

Sanders, M. & Sheldon, S. (2016). Principals matter: A guide to school, family, and community partnerships. Skyhorse. 

Warren, M., Hong, S., Rubin, C. L., & Uy, P. S. (2009). Beyond the bake sale: A community-based relational approach to parent engagement in schools. Teachers College Record, 111(9), 2209–2254. 

Ari Gerzon-Kessler is the coordinator of family partnerships for the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado. He is author of the forthcoming bookOn the Same Team: Deepening Trust and Collaboration Between Educators and Families (Solution Tree, 2023). Previously, Ari served for 16 years as a principal, assistant principal, and bilingual teacher. 

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