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How These District Leaders Turned Family Engagement on Its Head

What happens when school and district leaders prioritize working with families to improve the school experience? Everything from finding solutions to chronic absenteeism to launching innovative programs designed to improve students’ academic achievement.

That is evidenced by Sharon Bradley, the director of family and social services for the Plano, Texas, school district, and Ana Pasarella, the director of family and community engagement for the Alvin Independent school district in Texas, who were named two Leaders to Learn From for their creative and successful engagement work.

Bradley launched an attendance review board in her district to identify the root causes for unexcused absences and find solutions that didn’t involve a punitive, court-based system. Meanwhile, Pasarella launched multiple initiatives ranging from a mobile book bus to address the “summer slide” of reading proficiency to an inclusive pre-K program.

Both leaders spoke at this year’s EdWeek Leadership Symposium, sharing their insights on what effective family and community engagement entails to an audience of school and district leaders. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you build trust with families to facilitate open communications about their challenges?

Sharon Bradley: One thing about chronic absenteeism, it is a very complex issue that several schools are facing, and it has a negative impact on the schools, the families, and the communities. Therefore, it’s going to take … the schools, the families, and the communities in order to co-design solutions—just extending the invitation to partner with them.

At the end of the day, our parents are a treasure trove of information. They know their child’s motivations, their strengths, and their areas of concern and improvement…

And so when we lean into curiosity, rather than assuming we know why a kid is missing, if we communicate with care, because when a family, a parent has a really good interaction with the schools or with the school community, they tell others.

In the beginning, they may not be comfortable sharing what’s truly going on. But the more we communicate, the more that we show that we care, that we’re not here to blame or shame them, that we really, truly want to help and support, at that point, they will allow us to provide the support that’s needed to help them break down the barriers as it relates to attendance.

How do you identify the needs within the community and translate them into actionable programs?

Ana Pasarella: I was a classroom teacher. During that time, I saw the needs of the students and I paid attention and even though I couldn’t do anything at that time, once I became a district administrator, one of my main goals was to address those types of needs that I had seen as a classroom teacher.

One being the summer slide, the reading slide that we all see if we have been in education. We see how students leave on a reading level and then they come back and they have regressed a couple of reading levels sometimes. So I started asking questions. Why is this happening? We have so many great curricula for reading. We have all these programs in place for reading during the summer. But why are we still seeing this?

And I realized that the problem was that the children didn’t have books to read. We are in a school district where 21 out of our 33 schools are Title I. So our students stay at home during the summer. They didn’t have any books to read. So I said, ‘how can we address this?’

And the answer was, let’s go to them, let’s bring the books directly to where they can access the book. So we created a mobile program. Every summer since 2016, we target these places, based on where we know that our kids are without transportation, mom and dad are working, and they are there all summer. So we bring the books, we also bring people that will read to them. Everybody in the community goes to these stops, and they make sure that they keep an eye on these children and the children feel that they’re seen, heard, and they have somebody that they can trust visiting them.

How can feedback from teachers, parents, students, and communities help shape the implementation of your programs?

Bradley: With the attendance review board, it is a forum that we bring together the campus administrators, so they can let us know what interventions they’ve tried in order to re-engage the student and families. We will also invite the family and the student to let us know what exactly is standing in the way of them attending school. And instead of a judge or anything like that, we have a mediator, which is a retired administrator that has a very good knowledge of all the services and resources within a district, along with social workers, along with counselors.

We bring all these people together in order to co-design a solution before we refer the family to the county court system. Because what we’ve noticed is that if we have families that are struggling, and they’re just trying to survive, a court order or fine is not going to help the situation. It is not going to change the behavior.

If we truly believe in continuous improvement, we need to continue to ask, what are we doing? And is it being effective?

Pasarella: I tried to shift the approach of community and family engagement from the standard of bringing the parents to the schools, and if the parents are in the schools then they are involved. Not every parent can be in the school, either because they’re working or they don’t have transportation or many barriers. So the approach is going where they are. When you do this, what happens is that parents will want to talk to you, they will see you. So now [they] can ask questions, [they] can say what [their] needs are. I think that it has been very helpful for us to be out in the community to go to a park, instead of doing a function inside the school, just doing a family math night at the local shopping center. So that way the parents are coming there and it becomes more of a community affair than having to go to do this function in the school because I have to.

What are the essential elements of any substantive family and community engagement work?

Pasarella: How much does the district truly believe in family and community engagement? Because what I have seen is that sometimes family engagement is seen as a checked box. This school has amazing family engagement because the parents are doing amazing fundraising. But then, how much is that impacting the students?

One of the key elements is to tie family and community engagement to academic success. Once you make the connection between the family, the community, and the school working together for the common goal of having the kids have academic success and emotional well-being, that’s when you can say that family and community engagement is truly happening.

Bradley: Family engagement is essential to student engagement. We know that when student engagement increases, we can begin to truly close those learning gaps. With family engagement, and the partnership with the schools, it also closes the trust gap with families. And when families can trust you, they will allow you to support them. But also a key element is the school. The school is like the hub of the community. But do we truly know that? Do we truly utilize that? Why not take a look at what our families can contribute to the school for the greater good?

When people have their thumbprint on anything, then that holds a certain level of accountability and a certain level of responsibility, like this is ours. We want this to work for us. And we know if the school is the center of the community, then we also know that we need to keep relationships as the center of the work itself.

What advice do you have for other district leaders who may be interested in implementing similar programs?

Pasarella: Don’t be afraid to do something new. They might call you crazy, but you’re going to be the first or you’re going to have a lot of people asking how to do it. So just do it. Do it with passion, and look for the key people in your district that can help you make it happen. You don’t have to look outside of your school district. The school district has plenty of smart people that can help you get these programs going. The funding comes later if you have it well-scripted and if you have your vision very clear. Once you have the vision clear, you can present it and you will get a lot of buy-in from the people that you need.

Bradley: Dare to be different. Do something that has never been done before because our families are experiencing challenges that they’ve never faced before.

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