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Connecting Families and Schools Is a ‘Shared Responsibility’

Empowering parents pays dividends for student learning, experts say.

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There’s plenty of evidence that when their families are engaged in their school experience, students do better.

The trick, experts said during a recent Education Writers Association event, is finding ways for school officials to reach those families, particularly if there are cultural or language barriers, or if low-income working families struggle to find the time or transportation to participate in school events.

“Poverty creates barriers for being able to be engaged in your kid’s development,” said Heather Weiss, the founder and director of the Global Family Research Project. Weiss joined a panel discussion on empowering families to advance education equity at the EWA conference in November.

Lack of financial resources poses numerous obstacles for families, including the inability to afford after-school programs, summer learning programs or other enrichment activities for children. In addition, parents may struggle to get time off work or arrange child care to participate in school activities. Immigrants new to the country may not understand the role they can, or should, play in their child’s education.

Finding a way to connect is “a shared responsibility” for both teachers and families, Weiss said.

“Parents have a responsibility to engage, and schools and communities have to create conditions to enable them to be able to engage effectively,” she said.

Multiple Strategies to Reach Families

In Portland, Maine, the school district employs multiple strategies to reach families, tailored to their needs. More than half the district’s roughly 7,000 students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, 24 percent are English language learners and more than 60 languages are spoken by families.

“If you want meaningful engagement, always provide child care, transportation (and) translators,” said Grace Valenzuela, the district’s executive director of communications and community partnerships.

Valenzuela highlighted numerous outreach tactics. The district communicates with families in multiple languages, hosts a superintendent’s book club for families, and works with parent focus groups that function as a sounding board for school officials. In addition, the district hosts a “Parent U” lecture series. This offering that is carefully curated, Valenzuela said, to educate parents on important school issues and also provide information that may be of particular interest to families, such as understanding the grading system, the dangers to students of vaping, how to raise confident girls, and helping kids with anxiety.

For immigrants, the district works in a proactive way, Valenzuela said, conducting in-home visits and partnering with local nonprofits to reach those parents and ensure they understand the basics of how the school system works. Even a parent-teacher conference can be baffling for recent immigrants — and districts need to explain in advance that the parent is expected to ask questions and advocate for their child, she said.

“[Immigrant parents] think teachers know best and questioning their authority or even making suggestions is not only intimidating, it is also very impolite,” Valenzuela said. “We have to shift the mindset, for both staff and parents. There may be mismatched expectations about parent engagement.”

‘A Huge Disconnect’

Another challenge is that parents’ impressions of how their children are doing academically may be out of keeping with what the data show, according to David Park of Learning Heroes, a nonprofit that has surveyed parents of K-8 students. The organization aims to get families more engaged in their children’s learning.

Park said the organization’s survey data has found that 90 percent of parents believe their children are at grade level, while standardized test scores put that figure at about 30 percent.

“That’s a huge disconnect right there,” Park said. “Communications just aren’t meeting parents where they are. It’s really not speaking to parents the way it needs to be.”

Weiss said the research has long shown that the efforts are worth it.

“Family engagement pays off,” Weiss said. “There is return on investment, in terms of kids staying in school and graduating from high school.”