Amidst the excitement of an enthusiastic chorus rehearsal, Tabitha Rosien calmly ushers me into her office. She smiles for the obligatory picture, and I laugh at the contrast between her calming presence and the jaunty rendition of Jingle Bell Rock in the background.
Tabitha is a fellow with the Boston Family Engagement Partnership – a program launched by the Aspire Institute and supported by the Barr and Lynch Foundations. As a Family Engagement Fellow, Tabitha belongs to a graduate-level program designed to train the next generation of family engagement professionals and leaders in schools.
Tabitha taught second grade for four years in Chicago and Boston before becoming a school administrator. Today, she balances her duties as director of admissions, managing the tuition collection and financial aid processes, and supporting development and community partnerships as member of the leadership team at Mission Grammar School all with a smile and grace.
What drew you to become a Fellow with the Family Engagement Partnership?
I was a classroom teacher for four years and now I’ve been outside the classroom for another four years. I was drawn to the Family Engagement Partnership because I’ve seen both sides of the story. When I was a classroom teacher, I knew the million things that a teacher has to do in the course of a day and remember feeling like I had really good connections to some families but not all. In my current role, I see the other side of the equation. Families come to me because I manage all of our admissions, tuition, and financial aid processes, and so I hear a lot of personal stories. I hear about their struggles – some families are working three jobs just to have their kids in a tuition based school like Mission Grammar. So now I understand that when families aren’t physically present it doesn’t mean that they’re not engaged in their child’s learning.
Now I understand that when families aren’t physically present it doesn’t mean that they’re not engaged in their child’s learning.
I really believe that the reason our scholars are successful is because we have families that are invested. I was eager to finally look at family engagement in a different way and to bring that to the teachers at our school as well as the families that we serve. There are different groups of stakeholders; the families and students, the teachers, and then the administration. How can we meet the needs and wants of all those groups in a way that’s beneficial to everybody, and at the center of that, in a way that’s beneficial to our scholars?
How has your participation in the Family Engagement Fellowship impacted family engagement practices at Mission Grammar?
The fellowship changed my perspective on family engagement and what that looks like. It opened my mind to the idea that engagement looks different for almost every family and allowed me to think beyond ‘who are the parents that are here physically in the building?’ – family engagement goes a lot deeper than that.
We’ve done a lot of focus groups with our families, and it’s been a phenomenal experience for me to hear what families experience. A lot of them have talked about their own experiences growing up with their parents. Some of them grew up outside the United States and it is so interesting to hear what that experience is like and how that shapes their involvement in their own children’s education. In the coursework we did a lot of research on PAR – participatory action research. The focus groups came out of that work. We’re working to authentically engage in dialogue with parents about how they want family engagement to happen at our school. We’re focusing on listening to that and really valuing it and incorporating it into the practices that we are using here.
Three big themes came out of our research last year. One was the importance of consistent communication between school and home – we heard that some teachers are really great at it and parents felt super informed, almost over informed, and then other families had a different experience. So we really worked to streamline communications so that everyone feels informed about what’s going on at school and that they can also communicate with the school if they have a concern. The second piece was families wanting education around how teachers are instructing in the school. A lot of parents expressed frustration at trying to do homework with scholars at home and, you know, trying to explain a math problem and having their child say ‘that’s not how my teacher teaches it.’ So, we’re working to provide families with a better understanding of how teachers are teaching things in school because we recognize that the education system and practices have changed and this will help families to support what’s going on in school at home. The third piece that parents said over and over again was that they wanted more opportunities to build relationships with each other and do that socially. So that’s the three main themes that are grounding the work I’m doing this year with family engagement.
How are you using these three key research findings to improve family engagement practices at Mission Grammar?
We have a couple of different things that we are starting this year. First, we’re initiating something called class-family reps – in each classroom, we’ve asked for 2-3 parents to serve as the family reps to build community and relationships in that homeroom. The idea is that the family reps will help communicate with the full list of family members in the class. They will communicate information from the teacher, but also set up opportunities for parents to socialize outside of the classroom, coffee hours, play dates, dinners and things like that. We’re really just at the beginning stages of this idea, but we’re excited to see where it goes from here.
The fellowship changed my perspective on family engagement and what that looks like. It opened my mind to the idea that engagement looks different for almost every family.
We’re also hosting free family workshops this year on topics that families have chosen. One will be focused on technology because we implemented one-to-one iPad use for our 1-8th graders and we want to provide education around how that’s being used in the classroom. There are fears that technology is replacing the teacher and that’s not the case – we’re really trying to focus on why we’re using it and how we’re using it and give parents the opportunity to interact with it in the way their children are interacting with it. We will also be continuing with focus groups with our families and working with school faculty to gain their perspectives on family engagement.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The fellowship has really been a great opportunity for me, in my personal learning and my understanding of family engagement and community organizing. I think this program would be really beneficial for other schools within the district and other Catholic schools in the Archdiocese. We’ve seen a lot of phenomenal examples in some of the readings we’ve done of schools where families have really taken ownership and been empowered to play an active role in the schools – the program has such great possibilities for the success of the children that we serve.
About the Author: Kayla Howard is the Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Aspire Institute where she helps manage the blog. Kayla attends Emmanuel College and will be receiving her B.A. in May, 2014.