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White House Symposium Addresses Family-Engagement Practices Nationwide

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By guest blogger Amanda Ulrich

Family-engagement methods intended to involve parents in their children's education far beyond the annual parent-teacher conference took center stage at a White House event July 31 that drew representatives from the research and philanthropic communities, as well as Obama administration officials

The White House Symposium on Transformative Family Engagement, in which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan participated as one of the key speakers, aimed to examine successful family-engagement practices and address the barriers that parents and caregivers might face when attempting to engage in their children's education. It highlighted the differences between "traditional" family-engagement methods, where parents are not usually seen as partners in learning, and "transformative" engagement strategies, where parents have shared responsibility for the education of their children. 

Carla Thompson, the vice president for program strategy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which partnered with the White House to host the event, was among those who spoke at the symposium.  

"We're really considering effective engagement to be a transformational type of relationship, where families are no longer just going in for the parent-teacher conference, but they're really part of the planning, the analysis and the day-to-day operations of the school's activities—both before and after school," said Thompson in a telephone interview. "For instance, parents are now sitting on some of the hiring committees for schools, they are part of the planning teams when thinking about curriculum, and they are deciding what kind of informed-action programs to have."

Along those lines, in April the U.S. Department of Education released a family and community-engagement model for schoolsRight around the same time, the Kellogg Foundation, based in Battle Creek, Michigan, announced that it is investing $13.7 million in grants to 30 organizations with plans to bolster family-school partnerships. Representatives from some of these organizations also attended the July 31 White House symposium and gave updates on their work. 

Moving forward, speakers and attendees from the symposium agreed to continue working toward building an effective family-engagement model. Thompson stated that a more detailed action plan will be fleshed out in the next few weeks, and affinity groups are currently being formed to unite attendees under the common goal of engaging families and communities in education. 

"This is just one step of many over the next year or so as we really try to have great family-engagement practices," she said. "We want to keep this momentum going." 

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