“Student success is a shared interest of both school and family.”
Research informs us that students whose parents [and communities] are involved in their education are more likely to:
- Adapt well to school
- Attend school regularly
- Complete homework
- Earn better grades
- Have better test scores
- Graduate and go to college
- Have good social skills
- Demonstrate positive behaviors
- Have better relationships with their parents
- Have higher self-esteem
*Bonus: parents who are involved in their children’s education at a young age are more likely to stay involved with their children’s education as they grow
(*Adapted from “The Importance of Community Involvement in Schools” by the George Lucas Educational Foundation. Retrieved 8/2/18. www.edutopia.org )
So, how can teachers engage and involve families and communities in students’ education?
In an attempt to answer this question, I went to my own community and interviewed current middle school principal and former classroom teacher--with over 30 years of experience, Brenda Becker. She gave me her recommendations and allowed me to tap into her knowledge concerning ways to involve families and the community in students’ education. As we began our discussion, we thought we should review what Dr. Joyce Epstein, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University, had learned about community and family involvement.
According to Epstein, involvement means different things to different people. In her work in this area, she was inspired to create a framework which defines involvement in six ways:
- Learning at home
- Decision making
- Collaborating with the community
Learning about Dr. Epstein’s framework was beneficial for our conversation, and helped Becker distill what she believes are the two most important tenets when it comes to involving families and the community in students’ education: mission and purpose.
The mission, according to Becker, is the “easy” part. Practically speaking, the mission involves getting the community and family to the school or the students into the community.
Mission: Welcome, invite, include, and engage the community and families in students’ education through:
- Technology. (At Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Virginia, the introduction and use of an interactive voicemail system was attributed to an increase in attendance at school orientation from 50 to 1000.) Other tech examples include the use of classroom websites, texting, and apps specifically designed to communicate with parents
- Inviting families and the community to join Open Houses
- Offering meals, treats, or coffee for families and the community
- Letting parents know there will be translators and ensure you are offering communications in other languages. Check out Google Translate
- Transportation, or a voucher for Lyft or Uber
- Providing access to calendars via websites with events and activities laid out for the year so parents can plan
- Flexible scheduling like weekend and evening opportunities to accommodate parent schedules
- Inviting community members to visit schools, to talk with students in the classroom, and to advocate for teachers
- Creating a school climate that encourages family and community involvement
In other words, this middle school principal explained, “we can accomplish our mission of getting families and the community to the school, but then the questions become:
- What is our purpose once they are here?
- What do we want parents and the community to learn and understand about what happens at school?"
The “purpose,” Brenda shared, is more challenging. It is about building trust, creating connections, and helping parents understand that teachers are working on their own journeys of equity. In other words, like all people, teachers, too, are learning and growing right along with their students.
So, how do we create connection with families and communities to ensure we are meeting our purpose?
Purpose: Ensure families and the community are vested in students’ education through understanding, connection, and communication.
- Communicate with families openly and honestly--and not only when there is a discipline issue
- Reach out before school starts by sending a postcard, an email or making a phone call to introduce yourself
- Connect by including your email address, phone number, website addresses, and communication apps
- Provide time for casual or organic check-ins
- Let parents know when conferences are, where to be, and what to expect
- Depending on the age of the students, invite parents (or the students if they are older) to complete an interest inventory/survey (there are many online!) so you can get to know (and better understand) your students
- Ask for community support/resources to strengthen schools
- Communicate effectively through use of common “family friendly” language (not educational acronyms/jargon)
- Nurture relationships through asking questions and learning about students
- Be available for impromptu conversations and/or post your office hours so students know when you are available
- Provide resources for students and families
- Work with school social workers, nurses, counselors and other specialists to make sure students are being supported
- Emphasize and support other interest areas beyond academics, or sports, such as: theater, art, dance, debate, and music
- Respect confidentiality
- Build trust
- Learn about cultures, best ways to communicate, customs, and values
When it comes to connecting students with the community, Becker champions service learning projects. “Service learning,” she said, “is a phenomenal way to link schools with the community through common goals--and provides students with an opportunity to learn empathy, collaboration, leadership, teamwork and creativity (great lifelong skills!).” Here is an example that one school created--based on the needs in the community.
Beyond the mission and purpose, Becker emphasized the importance of (teachers) asking themselves these two questions:
- How might I work with a student who doesn’t hear the message that education is important?
- How can I ensure I am meeting students where they are?
She went on to explain that some students come to school hungry, some after caring for siblings, some after working late the night before. Other students may feel pressure from parents or siblings to excel, to get into a certain college, or to be on a high level sports team. Still others may struggle with issues of mental illness or childhood trauma.
As Becker said “It’s a lot.”
It is a lot.
And, that is why it is imperative that our purpose be about connection. Without it, students, families, and communities can feel untethered.
Becker encouraged teachers to recognize that not all students, families, or communities view education in the same way, and that educational jargon can be confusing or intimidating. Some families or people in the community may have had negative experiences which have impacted how they view school or education. It is essential for educators to meet students where they are, and to learn from one another, to create a culture of mutual respect and learning--particularly when it comes to nuances in customs, values, and priorities.
In addition, Becker reminds teachers to ask students what they need to be successful both socially and academically so we can assist in practical ways. In some circumstances, it may be as straightforward as teaching good study habits, or helping to organize, and prioritize. For other students, it may mean guiding them about what it means to be a friend, or modeling how to apologize when we’ve hurt someone.
Finally, Brenda asserted how important it is for families and communities to see the great work teachers are doing and that those in the community recognize that schools want to be in partnership.
Gradually, through connection, we create a school climate built on trust. This bridge of trust positively impacts both families and communities. As students become connected and trust equity increases, they begin to share what is happening in school with their families--that their teacher helped them, taught them, advocated for them, or was simply patient and kind.
WEB, LINK and Youth Frontiers
Three powerful resources that emphasize connection and leadership, and help students and their families ease the transitions between elementary school to middle school, and middle school to high school are WEB, LINK, and Youth Frontiers.
The goal of each of these programs is to help create a better experience and to alleviate some of the anxiety associated with transitioning from lower grades to upper grades. Both WEB and LINK cite studies that state “If students have a positive experience their first year in middle/high school, their chances for success increase dramatically.” Each program provides support and guidance with transitional challenges that can “sometimes be overwhelming.” Youth Frontiers is a retreat program that seeks to “build positive school communities” and is gaining in popularity as more and more schools seek to increase positive community connections.
Remember your mission. Focus on your purpose. Keep connection front and center, then see what happens in your community and in your school, with the families and students you serve.
- Course 859: Parent Trap: Achieving Success with Difficult Parents & Difficult Situations
- Course 5844 Engaging Parents for Student Success
- Course 5702: The Culturally Competent Educator
“You’ve Gotta Connect” by James Alan Sturtevant