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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

How to Connect with Families

To see real improvements in student learning, use the summer months to build good school–family relationships.

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Getting off to a good start with families may be more important than you know. Research shows that strong ties with families and community can make it four times more likely that your students will make major gains in math and reading. The key is to build strong relationships with families that focus on improving student learning.
To forge such connections, staff members in high-achieving schools that serve low-income neighborhoods engage in the following actions:
  • They become familiar with community issues and families' home cultures.
  • They use community resources.
  • They invite families to observe in the classroom.
  • They work as partners with families to improve learning.
  • They quickly respond to families' concerns about their children.
But you don't have to wait until September to begin making those connections. You can use these summer months to plan for or implement activities to get off to a great start in the fall.

A High-Touch Strategy

Plan a Back-to-School Community Walk

How would your families describe their neighborhood? Would your teachers see it the same way or understand its history? Parents, students, residents, and community groups know the area. Ask them to show it to you and share their stories.
A community walk is a parent-led tour that highlights the resources and challenges of the school neighborhood. Many communities face challenges, from unemployment to gentrification to immigration to poverty. We need to learn more from people with intimate knowledge of both the issues and the wonderful but sometimes hidden resources of the community.
Touring the neighborhood will help teachers and staff members appreciate the life and soul of the community where they teach, develop deeper relationships with families, identify community resources to tap, and enrich instruction using what they learn about families' cultures and backgrounds. Teachers can learn more about the realities of the physical environments in which their students live. For example, the neighborhood may have neglected parks, a lack of stop signs and crosswalks, and hot spots where young adults loiter. But teachers can also learn about the pride that many shop owners feel for their businesses and community.
A great time for a community walk is the first week that teachers and staff members return to school. Here are some basic steps:
  • Early in the summer, form a team of community partners to plan the walk. Partners typically include the parent association, the home–school coordinator, nonprofit groups, social service agencies, civic associations, and area merchants.
  • Schedule the walk with the principal and key school leaders.
  • Invite all school staff members to attend, with breakfast or lunch and a discussion to follow.
  • Map out a one-hour walking tour, near the school if possible.
  • Designate a community member to lead both the walk and the discussion that takes place afterward to deepen school–community connections.
Before taking the walk, encourage teachers to look for things in the community—streets, signs, special places, stores, people—that they can incorporate into their instruction. For example, after one community walk, a teacher in Washington, D.C., incorporated photos from the neighborhood and stories about the local institutions and businesses into her lessons. Students recognized the local landmarks and were able to connect their lived experiences with the curriculum.
Teachers can also ask students what they want to do to make their neighborhood a better place to live. They might suggest that students write a letter to the police about a safety issue, to the city council member about a broken street light, or to the mayor about a neglected park.
Tellin' Stories, an approach developed by Teaching for Change in Washington, D.C., pioneered the idea of the community walk and offers several useful tips.
First, make sure the community team includes members who know the neighborhood's story. One of them should lead the walk. Next, take an exploratory walk with this person to identify interesting stops and longtime residents to share first-person histories. Be sure to cover landmarks that have historic importance or value for residents, such as a local gathering spot, community center, or post office. Finally, invite the media and the community to take part by putting out a press release, posting flyers, and sending out invitations.
After the walk, make a list of all the resources you discovered—such as day-care programs, churches and religious organizations, hospitals and clinics, restaurants and other food services, stores, car repair services, and social services. These can be put to good use. For example, the parent coordinator could develop a resource referral list for families or expand the catering options for school events. Teachers could patronize local businesses, such as the car repair shop and food co-op; or a master gardener in the community could give a talk during 5th grade science class.

A High-Tech Strategy

Use Social Media to Communicate with Families

Your school may be closed over the summer, but it can be open 24/7 online. Using online and mobile technology, you can keep your students and families engaged and informed and build excitement about coming back to school in the fall. These days, a good number of students and family members have a smartphone that can receive text messages and access the Internet.
Joe Mazza, principal of Knapp Elementary School in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, is an ardent user of social media. Mazza has a blog and a Twitter account that he uses to stay in touch with families. Every Monday morning last summer, Mazza posted a new topic on the free social learning platform Edmodo<FOOTNOTE><NO>2</NO>For more on using Edmodo, see Joe Mazza's article, "Students and Parents Debrief on Their First Social Media Summer Program."</FOOTNOTE>—for example, "Contact a classmate you haven't seen since school ended. Enjoy a play date or conversation, and write about what you did."
Platforms like Edmodo enable schools to create a controlled learning environment open only to those invited—your students and their parents. Online, Edmodo looks something like Facebook.
Teachers can post summer learning tasks on Edmodo, such as this one: "Recommend a book you've read and really enjoyed (include the title and author). Write a one-paragraph teaser that will interest your friends in the book." Principals can start a conversation with parents and students on Edmodo by asking for their feedback on a school program, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS). The principal might ask students, "Do you think the program is making the school a better place? Why or why not?" The principal might ask parents, "What do you think of the program? Are you using any PBIS strategies at home? What more would you like to know about it?" Students and parents can respond and share their ideas through an Edmodo app on their smartphone.
Edmodo has a calendar that can be set up to show all summer assignments, as well as a polling feature that lets students and parents express their preferences on such items as topics they would like to see addressed in a school meeting or changes to the dress code. Students can stay in touch with their peers (which they really like), and teachers can foster learning, monitor student responses, and get input from families.
You can also set up a school Facebook page, which gives parents a way to swap information about summer learning opportunities, such as online courses, summer camps, activities and special events at recreation centers, reading programs sponsored by the public libraries, summer meals, and credit-recovery classes. Teachers can share information about themselves and their expectations to give students and parents a sneak preview of the coming year.
As a family engagement consultant in San Diego, California, Melissa Whipple challenges teachers to design a virtual bulletin board about themselves to post on the school website or Facebook page. Teachers describe who they are as a person and as a teacher, including what they think would interest students and their families. Teachers might post appropriate pictures from their summer vacation or of the children and pets in their lives. They might include favorite sayings or role models that provide insights about who they are and how they approach teaching.

A Winning Formula

It's vital to develop respectful relationships between educators and families and to link how we engage families to improving student learning. Reaching out to the community and getting to know families face-to-face and then staying in close touch with them through social media are great ways to foster collaborations that will improve student achievement.
End Notes

1 Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., &amp; Easton, J. Q. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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