Family Engagement: Four Ways to Make it Equitable and Accessible
One silver lining of the pandemic we continue to hear from school leaders is that it increased parent engagement—and that engagement has continued throughout the past two school years. The unpredictability of COVID-19 and the real-time shifts schools needed for family members to turn their homes into temporary classrooms required clear and constant communication and collective problem-solving from everyone within the school community.
As we head into another school year, one that will continue to have its challenges with the possibility of a fall COVID-19 surge and education being front-and-center of the November 2022 election season, equitable engagement with families will be critical to maintain. This will take an intentional, deliberate effort. Here are a few strategies to consider as you cement those plans for the year ahead.
Strive for family engagement vs. family involvement
There are countless benefits that occur when families are engaged in what’s happening not only with their child’s education but in the school building as a whole: a more united school community, an increase in teacher morale, trust between parents and educators, and a significant boost in overall student success—academically, socially, and behaviorally.
To see even more of these benefits, it’s helpful to have “family engagement” as your ultimate goal, rather than “family or parent involvement.”
Let’s think about the definition of “involve” vs. “engage.” To involve is to experience or participate in an activity or situation. When you strive for family involvement, your goal is for parents to attend events like an open house. That action is usually one-way, with your school telling families what they can do. When you engage, you’re looking to attract and draw in.
Effective family engagement has the broader goal of making families an integral part of school life. A healthy engagement strategy begins with listening to your families—their ideas, communication preferences, and what they know works best for their children—to develop a more genuine and trusting partnership.
Lean into listening to and learning from your families and students
The best way to learn how to engage with families is to spend time identifying the experiences and needs of the families in your school community. This is especially important when deciding on strategies for how families receive information and opportunities to get involved.
A healthy engagement strategy begins with listening to your families—their ideas, communication preferences, and what they know works best for their children—to develop a more genuine and trusting partnership.
This community outreach can be done in a myriad of ways: family surveys via email or text, in-person focus groups, or video conferences. Cambridge Public Schools, for example, developed student focus groups to get feedback about the district’s interactions with families. By asking students questions—many of whom serve as language interpreters for their parents—they were able to get the perspectives of those who knew more about their family’s preferences better than anyone else.
Your research can focus on so much more than understanding communications preferences. Digging a bit deeper with questions like—What is your perception of your child’s experience in school? What do you, as a parent, wish you heard about more from our school or district? What’s most important to you in your child’s education?—gives you a better idea of not only how you communicate but what you communicate.
Reframe your role to focus on community and engagement
Preparing students to thrive in the future requires a more robust definition of learning and success—and also necessitates a fresh evaluation of what it truly means to be a principal. Twenty years ago, New Leaders set out on a mission to help our country define what a principal should be. We’ve worked hard to shift away from the limited vision of the principal as an operations manager to a new national vision of a mission-driven instructional leader who is accountable for student learning.
Preparing students to thrive in the future requires a more robust definition of learning and success—and also necessitates a fresh evaluation of what it truly means to be a principal.
That observation is echoed in this recent Aspen Institute report, which calls for a shift in what we ask of schools in the wake of historic educational disruption, systemic racism, high-income equality, and more. It’s a shift that can—and should—begin with the principal’s office.
As a school leader, your highest accountability is to your school community. Taking actions to align resources and create a school climate where students and adults both feel a sense of connection validates their identities. When you lean into the listening discussed above, consider how you can use your findings to truly embrace the voices of your parents and families. How can you use them to encourage action and navigate important conversations around equity and climate?
Your commitment to focusing on the high-impact work of building a healthy school climate and addressing the priorities of all members of your school community is a pathway to greater family engagement and trust.
Empower parents and families to become co-educators
New Leaders alum Michael De Souza, former high school principal and chief program officer of The Oakland REACH, a parent-run and parent-led group in Oakland, CA, says that school systems “need to ensure that those who are furthest from opportunity are the ones with the most agency.” His words suggest that instead of doing “for” our parents and families, the time is right to create and implement solutions together.
One way to begin to create those solutions jointly is to invite parents and families to become co-educators of their children—and co-creators of your school. We saw many families take on this role during the pandemic—and with it came a shift in the mutual respect and empathy shared between families and teachers.
When families have a shared role in their child’s educational journey, more parent and family engagement will follow.
Think about the ways that you can engage families around curriculum and learning. For families with younger students, are there additional opportunities to invite families into classrooms so they can see and participate in parts of their child’s education? Are there ways to communicate more with parents about a particular program, subject, or technology a student is using, and why it’s important? Is there a chance to channel parent feedback in a positive, constructive way to promote student success? When families have a shared role in their child’s educational journey, more parent and family engagement will follow.
Consider the bigger picture
Family engagement is more than clear and consistent communication. Understanding how families are experiencing your school—and how to best involve them in decision-making and feedback—will ensure you’re on the right track with your efforts. For more innovative strategies, read our full series: Innovative Ways to Create a Positive School (and District) Culture.