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How Schools Can Foster Family Engagement

Lori Nazareno
Parents are their children's first teachers and they play a vital role in creating a climate of success for students. While it is possible to support students when there is little family support, the simple truth is, the road to success is much smoother when families and teachers work together to ensure student success. When families and teachers connect on behalf of students, and collaborate to provide consistent expectations, students benefit in significant ways that allow them to achieve at the highest levels.

My school, the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, was built on the idea that families are a tremendous resource and we seek to engage with them as vital members of our school family. This has required an intimate understanding of the culture of the families of our students.

Our parents are largely from a culture that believes that keeping their distance from school is a sign of respect for both the school and the teachers. As a result, we must actively support and encourage our parents to be present in our school and to provide feedback to us about how well they feel we are serving their children. In order to engage families in our school, we first establish open, two-way lines of communication. One simple thing that we do is invite parents into our classes to help us with our Breakfast in the Classroom program, or assist in any way they can. Simply opening communication between teachers and families in this nonthreatening way has been significant in increasing family engagement.

Family members can also sometimes feel as though they do not have the skills necessary to be able to effectively support their child. And, unfortunately, sometimes schools may make that assumption as well. I have often seen schools conduct parent meetings and spend the entire time lecturing family members about what they should be doing with their children. While it is important to communicate expectations to parents, it is also important to know what knowledge and skills they have to share with us. It is also important to develop a plan to strategically utilize the knowledge and skills that families have to support student learning. While parents may or may not be highly educated, they all have a deep body of knowledge that can only be gained through real life experiences. When we recognize that and tap into it, families then feel valued and validated and are more likely to engage with the school and the teachers.

Our success with families has come from establishing an environment that is welcoming and supportive to them. We intentionally balance listening with speaking and we value all of the knowledge and skills that our families possess. If you're interested in additional information, a profile of our schools family-engagement program is available here.

Lori Nazareno, a dually certified National Board-certified teacher in science, is currently the co-lead teacher at the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy in Denver, Colo.

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