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I Know What They Think of Me

Today's guest blog is written by Steve Constantino (Ed.D), Superintendent of Williamsburg-James City County School District in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Traveling extensively as a speaker, capacity-builder and thought leader in the arena of family engagement has afforded me the distinct privilege of working in hundreds of schools in hundreds of districts on four different continents.

Delving into the research and eventually conducting my own, the same set of facts continued to emerge. First, engaging families in the educational lives of their children supported better learning outcomes at just about every age. Second, there were specific strategies that could be employed by schools that could support, encourage and nurture this much-needed engagement. Third, schools absolutely must develop a culture that is inclusive of truly engaging families in the educational lives of their children. And fourth, there were and continue to be a significant percentage of perennially disengaged families. While we are very good at engaging the already engaged, disengaged families provide a great deal of frustration amongst educators.

The Desire of Every Family
It is the last two ideas that stay with me day in and day out. It is quite common for educators to assume that because families often do not behave or respond in a manner that we would hope, those families must suffer from apathy. They must truly not care about whether their children are successful in school. There is a significant amount of research that suggests the number of truly apathetic families is less than 2% (nationally). There is also almost an equal amount of research that shows beyond a doubt that families, all families, have a common desire, that being, that families want their children to exceed them in quality of life. This is a universal truth for every family, in every school, everywhere. I am also of the opinion that it is enough of a foundation upon which to build a culture in every school that values and believes in the need to engage every family in the educational lives of children. Believing that all families want what is best for their children is important and creating a culture and an arena to support it is essential. But where to start?

We Can't Do Any More
As a trainer and consultant, I was working in a school district that wanted to both analyze their present commitment to family engagement and then set about trying to improve. The district was urban and the vast majority of families served were disadvantaged economically and represented more cultures and ethnicities than I could count. The teachers were embracing the new commitment to family engagement, but understandably, were skeptical of the outcomes and frustrated with yet another "new initiative."

I met with a team of elementary teachers at one of the schools located in a relatively impoverished neighborhood. These teachers were frustrated. They told me that they had "tried everything" to engage families and their success rate was minimal. "Dr. Constantino," they said, "we did everything just as you suggested. We made home visits, we sent personal invitations, we made the work we were doing relevant to the parents and families, we had food, we had child care and tutoring and we even arranged for transportation. After all of that, three parents participated in our workshop. We can't do any more."

I pondered what the teachers told me for a few minutes. "Well then," I said, "it looks like we are going to have to figure out why this isn't working. We need to find out why parents and families are not responding to your efforts."
"How will we do that?" the teachers asked.
"We, you and I, are going to go ask them."

Listening to Families
Three teachers and I made our way to the home of a parent that did not attend the event as planned. The home was located in a housing project within walking distance of the school. The teachers showed me to the apartment door and then looked at me.

"Now what?" they asked rather nervously.
"How about we knock on the door?" I said as I knocked loudly.

A woman, dressed in a housecoat with curlers in her hair came to the door and opened as far as the door chain would allow. When she saw the teachers, she opened the door and invited us in, looking rather cautiously at me. I noted the apartment was barely inhabitable, with a broken window, a space heater, and by my count a family of five living in what amounted to two rooms. We made small talk for a few minutes when I thought it best we get to the heart of the matter. I explained to the parent who I was and why I had accompanied the teachers to her home. I asked her if the teachers had told her about the event, they did. I asked her if she knew how the event would eventually help her child, she did. I asked her if she had received personal invitations and reminders, she had. She also knew there was child care, knew there was food, and knew there was transportation if she needed it. She also freely admitted that she told the teachers she would attend.

"But you didn't attend?" I asked.
"That's right," she said.
"May I ask why?"
"Because I know what they all think of me over there."

What I Learned That Day
The teachers were stunned at the answer. I was and I wasn't. I knew that perceived value played a huge role in whether or not relationships to support students would be fruitful; that part didn't surprise me. I was taken back a bit that the parent freely admitted it and didn't cover it with an excuse of "no time" or "something came up," which are often more likely responses.

No matter to what lengths we try and go to garner engagement, without a real relationship built on trust and honesty, the efforts will probably fall short. If you do not honor all families and convey true appreciation for what they can bring to the partnership, regardless of their station in life, then the efforts to engage them will always be seen through a lens of skepticism. Actions, attitudes, assumptions, beliefs and values must all work together in order to build engagement with every family. And most importantly, when working with the disengaged, it is almost working with one family at a time. Daunting? Yes. Impossible? No.

We cannot fix socio-economic disparities, but we can convince those families that they have value and are truly needed to complete the circle of people that will successfully educate their children.

First though, we have to decide if we believe it ourselves.

Steve Constantino is internationally known for his work in building family engagement and is the author of the forthcoming book Engaging Every Family: The New Standards for Global Family Engagement. Follow Steve on Twitter

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