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New National Group Aims to Advance Family-School Engagement Efforts

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Some of the nation's leading advocates and practitioners of family, school, and community engagement have joined forces to found a new organization to elevate their efforts to a higher level of influence in discussions about improving student achievement.

The new National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement (NAFSCE) hopes to lead efforts to garner much-needed financial and legislative support for an issue that many acknowledge is heralded as a crucial component of school improvement but is often neglected. The organization also will work to strengthen the network of family engagement experts and researchers nationwide to share best practices and develop more research-based policies in the field.

The association officially opened its office in Bethesda, Md., in September and tapped Vito Borrello to serve as the group's executive director. Borrello spent almost two decades leading EPIC - Every Person Influences Children, Inc., a Buffalo, N.Y.-based, national nonprofit dedicated to family, school and community engagement.

Borrello told me that NAFSCE would work toward aligning and mobilizing practitioners and researchers in the field behind a strategic effort to garner greater support for family and community engagement.  

"The research is clear that family engagement supports student achievement, but not enough has been done to advance policy and practice so it can be the effective strategy that we know it can be," Borrello said.

The founding board's members include Karen Mapp, senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Anne Henderson, a senior consultant at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform; and Sherri Wilson, senior manager of family and community engagement for the National PTA. The association is open to a wide range of practitioners and activists, including educators, parents, family service workers, and community leaders.

Planning for the association began in 2013 with a $100,000 grant from the Los Altos, Calif.-based Heising-Simons Foundation. The foundation, which funds research in education, the environment, and public policy, among other issues, also awarded the group a $250,000 implementation grant. NAFSCE, which is working out of offices at the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium, is currently in the process of securing its nonprofit status.

Initially the group's work will focus on children from birth through age 8, but Borrello said the association would broaden its efforts to follow children from "cradle to career."

"Everyone acknowledges that the parent is the child's primary teacher," Borrello told me. "That realization is common sense, of course, but there's a skill set that is necessary to engage families as educational partners."

Among the goals listed in the group's prospectus are to:

  • Promote effective practices of family and community engagement in education, as well as parent and community organizing for school improvement;
  • Create a professional development "talent bank" for the field through a variety of efforts, including conferences, study tours and technical assistance;
  • Assist in the development of research-based policies using evidence-based strategies, with a focus on low-income communities and early-childhood and elementary school programs; and
  • Cultivate leaders in the field at all levels, especially those in marginalized communities.

"NAFSCE emerges at an important time," S. Kwesi Rollins, the director of leadership programs at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Educational Leadership and a member of the new group's board, said in an email. "Our understanding of what works in terms of family and community engagement has improved dramatically at the same time that these efforts are growing and become more systematized." 

Heather B. Weiss, the founder and director of the Harvard Family Research Project and a NAFSCE board member, told me that funding for family and community engagement has been scarce. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education discontinued the Parental Information and Resource Center program. And although a small portion of Title I dollars should be allocated for family engagement, she added that it's not always clear if that funding is being used to its greatest potential.

Weiss believes NAFSCE, with its network of experts and knowledge of proven practices, could position itself to make family and community engagement a priority in the next presidential election.

"We need a vital and powerful set of national organizations, of which this is a key one, pushing this agenda," she said. "This is really important work. We're not getting the traction we need right now."

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