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'Back To The Future' For Parent Engagement

Larry Ferlazzo

I'm not at all surprised by results from either survey. Plenty of research has documented what teachers—and probably most families—already know about the importance of parent involvement and engagement. (As I've written before, I think there's a continuum that extends from parent involvement to parent engagement—involvement being more like "doing to" and engagement more of a "doing with.")

Our school is very committed to making home visits to families before or near the start of the school year. Through these conversations, which are focused on building relationships instead of talking about problems, we're able to help create trust that can be beneficial to parents, students, and educators. We look to parents as the experts on their children, and we want to take advantage of their knowledge to help their child succeed. Parents can tell us about when their child has seemed most excited about attending school, how their child spends free time, and what past teachers have done to successfully connect with their child.

We use other strategies to support family engagement too. "Parent academies" are classes sponsored by schools to typically inform parents about the "ins and outs" of our education system and generally use a district-approved curriculum taught by school staff. However, at our school, parents themselves control the curriculum, which often explores non-school issues (citizenship, for example), and parents—with assistance from our parent coordinator—decide who they want to teach them. We arrange for supportive parent-teacher conferences, assign homework that encourages family conversation (for example, when my students do research on careers and colleges, they are assigned to get questions from their parents, too), and make positive phone calls home (rather than only being bearers of bad tidings.)

In the future, I hope that more schools will recognize themselves as neighborhood institutions that not only have a responsibility for what goes on inside their four walls, but also need to look outward at the challenges facing their families. I know that recent cutbacks have strained schools' budgets—and it's difficult to "squeeze blood out of a rock." However, schools can actively work with community organizers (if not be THE community organizers) and other local institutions (like religious congregations and block clubs) to help connect families who share common problems and take action to resolve them.

"Social capital" is the term used to describe the human connections that are created out of these kinds of interactions, along with the resulting benefits. Interestingly, the phrase was coined way back in 1916 by a state supervisor of rural public schools in West Virginia. L. J. Hanifan was describing local schools' community engagement efforts, which then included teacher home visits, parent academies that identified their own needs, making schools the conversation center of the entire neighborhood through community meetings, and organizing to get broader problems solved (in West Virginia, it was getting roads improved).

Maybe—when it comes to family engagement—our schools need to "go back to the future."

An award-winning English and Social Studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif., Larry Ferlazzo is the author of Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers To Classroom Challenges.

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