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Texas Program Asks Parents What They Want For Their Young Students

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When a Texas district started a parent-involvement program, school officials figured they already knew what the parents wanted: food, rent assistance, other basic needs.

But the parents had other priorities: How can I help my kids get into college, starting in preschool?

"I think it sort of shifted a little bit," said Michelle Wallis, executive director of the Office of Innovation and Development for Austin Independent School District.

The district recently received a 3-year, $1.75 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to start an engagement program. The Austin Families as Partners project is starting in five schools—four elementary and one pre-kindergarten center—to figure out what parents want and go from there. The concepts will be expanded to other schools later.

In Austin, the schools were chosen in a neighborhood with high needs, including crime, mobility, and poverty. More than 30 languages are spoken in the 6-square-mile neighborhood of about 38,000 residents, many of whom are immigrants and refugees.

English is the home language for just between 17 and 25 percent of the students, depending on the school.  

Earlier in the school year, the district used a $330,000 planning grant, which it received in 2015, to hold meetings and leadership trainings. The district created Think Tanks at each school so parents, teachers and community members to rank their needs.

Meetings were held in Spanish and Arabic, as well as English. See a video of one of the parent meetings.

The five schools ended up with broad focus areas: family support for student academic success, safety and health and wellness. In the coming school year, the Think Tanks plan to start specific programs, such as creating a family welcome center and add mental health services.

"We want the strategy to be based in what families want and need and what we're finding on each campus," Wallis said.

The Kellogg Foundation has been deeply involved in parent-engagement issues, starting with a $5 million pledge in 2013. The foundation has continued to invest in family partnerships since then.

See a full Education Week story about how parent engagement is increasing as a priority for districts.

Related story: Study: Refugee Parents' Understanding of Schools, Language Can Affect Students

Contact Sarah Tully at [email protected].

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