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Changes Needed for Successful Family Engagement

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Does your school district see parents as part of the solution, or part of the problem?

The answer to that question turns out to be a key to effective parent and family engagement, says Karen L. Mapp, a lecturer on education at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and presenter in Education Week's recent webinar "Engaging Parents in Schools and Student Learning," of which an archive copy is available.

Mapp says she has visited districts across the country where school officials' assumption is that parents' role is adversarial, rather than collaborative. To make effective partnerships between parents and schools for better student outcomes, that viewpoint must change.

At schools where parents are seen as part of the solution, Mapp often hears about school officials' "longing" for effective partnerships, but the issue is lack of awareness about how to make them happen. "When I talk to school leaders, they say they really want to do this, but just don't know how. On the school side, a lot of teachers and principals have not received any training in this area, and our families have not been exposed to opportunities that enhance their skills in this area," she said.

The bottom line: "The various stakeholders, whether they be parents, school leaders, or school staff, have not had the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills—in other words the capacity—to engage in effective partnerships.

For example, Section 1118 of Title I requires that families are to be engaged in forming district policy on family engagement.

When she was deputy superintendent for family and community engagement at the Boston school ditrict, Mapp found that problems arise when people do not know how to negotiate and partner to get the job done. "Many times what happens is that these initiatives fall apart, and it's very difficult to mend some of the tensions that have been created because people just do not actually know how to do this work," she said.

Among the districts, states, and schools that have been able to do this work well, there's a "focus on seeing parents as part of the solution to solving our problems when it comes to student achievement and school improvement, rather than seeing them as part of the problem," she said.

Mapp sees building capacity for success as an evolution that involves shifting the focus from:

'Individual Responsibility' to 'Shared Partnership'
"We all have to be on same page; we all have to be doing this work together," said Mapp.

'Deficit-Based and Adversarial' to 'Strengths-Based and Collaborative'
Those organizations that move from looking at families and communities through a deficit-based lens to seeing families and communities as having real strength and being able to make a real contribution to the work of school improvement and student achievement will have better chances to succeed.

'Random Acts of Family Engagement' to 'Systemic Engagement'
"I see too many initiatives that have absolutely no connection back to student learning, and that has been a problem," she says.

'Top Down Orientation' to 'Collaborative'
The impetus to get families involved and keep families involved requires collaboration.

'Service Focus' to 'Service and Development' Focus
This means moving from the position of only providing services to families, to building the capacity of families to take on roles themselves in developing where they want to go, and how they will work together.

'Compliance Driven' to 'Outcomes Driven'
This represents the move from "checking off boxes" to comply with government requirements, for instance, to looking at family-engagement partnerships that are outcome-driven.

'One-Time Project' to 'Sustained'
The goal is for family engagement to be sustained, "where it is part of organizational DNA that family engagement is going to be part of the work that we do," Mapp said.

In his presentation, Steven Sheldon, professor and research scientist at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of School and director of research at the National Network of Partnership Schools, emphasized the importance of taking a systematic approach to family-school partnerships. Schools need to:

1) Form a team with at least two parents, two teachers, community members, and an administrator. This team sets goal, plans activities, and identifies who will be responsible for events.

2) Make an annual action plan, connecting it to goals in the school improvement plan. He stressed the importance of "creating alignment with the existing goals of the school." For instance, how will the family-engagement activities help improve student outcomes in reading and math?

3) Conduct an end-of-year evaluation, identifying and celebrating the strengths of the family-engagement efforts, and working on the weaknesses.

To keep family-engagement efforts sustainable, it is best if they are part of a districtwide effort, he said. His points on sustainability:

  • Policy is important but not sufficient for districts to conduct viable partnership programs.
  • A district leader for partnerships must be assigned. "We find when nobody's responsible for helping schools engage families, nobody takes responsibility for it either," he says.
  • The leader for partnerships must implement thoughtful plans and actions.
  • The leader for partnerships needs to go out and support schools in their efforts to engage families, helping action teams at each school put plans together and turn them into action.

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