Family Engagement: The Gold Standard for Achievement
By Dr. Matt Doyle, the executive director of iCERP, and Jacqueline "Kiki" Bispo, the family- and community-engagement lead at the Vista Unified school district
Throughout California and across the nation, educators are starting to make significant progress building a multitiered system of support for students who traditionally have struggled. One of the challenges that has historically caused the struggle for many disadvantaged students is the singular focus on student academic-achievement outcomes without a careful, deliberate cultivation of the conditions for learning and a systematic approach to improving student engagement. The California Scaling-Up Multi-Tiered System of Support, a state initiative designed to help districts more effectively meet the needs of diverse learners, is making a difference for all students by focusing on the power of the family. Through a Family and Community Engagement (FACE) Network, Vista Unified school district (VUSD) is building authentic relationships in a servant-leadership approach to students and families. And we're seeing the impact it is making in meeting the needs of all students.
"In every conceivable manner, the family is the link to our past, the bridge to our future." —Alex Haley
Students and Families: The Purpose of Our Work
In the VUSD, our areas of focus for creating an educational environment that supports the personal needs, goals, and achievement for all students are guided by our strategic plan, the Blueprint for Educational Excellence and Innovation. At the foundation of our plan is Strategy 1 - Family and Community as Partners in Education. Our firm belief is that meaningful partnerships and authentic family engagement is the key to success for our children. As this requires shared responsibility on the part of all stakeholder groups, we formed a Family and Community Engagement Network, a team of 18 school site liaisons and a network lead built from the ground up over the past five years. The network is dedicated to building relationships with parents, serving individual needs of families and providing appropriate resources, developing community partnerships, breaking down barriers to engagement, strengthening school-home communication, empowering parents and advocating for families, and promoting the goals and efforts of our schools—all in the name of student health, success, and happiness. As a network, the team collaborates to serve all families, including those whose children are not yet enrolled in our schools. Closing the achievement gap begins with early education at VUSD, which means performing outreach with all early education providers, health-care and county service organizations, and general housing areas to create initial connections with families throughout the district. In line with our district's focus on personalized learning for students, these efforts are our way of personalizing family and community engagement.
Meet Parents Where They Are
Meaningful and diverse engagement opportunities ensure VUSD not only meets a wide variety of needs and interests but also maintains and strengthens relationships with our amazing parents and fabulous community partners. Sometimes we hold meetings at 8:00 a.m. and sometimes at 6:30 p.m. We hold home visits in the middle of the day and sometimes later in the evening. Often, we repeat activities to provide them at different times and days of the week as well as in different locations around the school district. Even more fun, we go straight out into the community! We provide presentations and outreach efforts off campus and we bring computers and Wi-Fi hotspots to ensure parents can connect. There is nothing quite as beautiful and powerful as getting out into the community and spreading love side by side with our local partners and families.
Measuring Our Success
In the 2017-18 school year, VUSD's FACE Network helped coordinate 1,602 family-engagement events (an increase of 797 from the previous year) with 30,431 attendees (an increase of 16,830 from the previous year). Engagement activities ranged from small-scale "Coffee with the Principal" sessions, book clubs, and school tours; to weekly food distributions, volunteer groups, technology workshops, and English-Spanish conversation and Rosetta Stone classes that promote dual-language literacy and communication; to community partner collaborations, such as college field trips and pilot work with the #USvsHate project through the University of California San Diego leading to weekly "Community Unity Conversations" with parents and staff to build dialogue, strengthening relationships and positive school and community climates.
We have also seen much success with longer-term projects like parent institutes and a "Family Habits of Mind" series. Perhaps the greatest indicator of success building a bond with parents and the community is seen by the incredible participation in large-scale projects like the cultural Día de los Muertos celebration, with 1,080 attendees, and our 4th annual Early Childhood Education Fair that drew 2,000 attendees.
Using Data to Guide Outreach
Currently, we are utilizing unique school site-specific and districtwide data maps on general attendance, chronic absenteeism, and discipline incidents to broaden and more deeply personalize our community-outreach efforts as we go on weekly excursions outside our campuses. We hope that having a stronger understanding of every neighborhood and street, analyzing patterns of needs and behaviors, and building more business partnerships will create deeper connections between schools, families, and our community. We hope that this parent and community engagement will allow our district to continue serving as a transformational entity for our students and for education.
This is how we collectively create change. This is how we do right by our students and community. This is how we serve and love.
Image courtesy of Vista Unified School District Family and Community Engagement Network