When one considers the concept of family engagement in schools, the thought usually starts and ends with the parent-teacher conference. However, although these conferences are important, true full family engagement is a more involved, richer experience, and is key to the sustained academic success of all children.
Over the past two years, the Aspire Institute has sought to understand and advance family-school engagement across a diverse landscape of Boston schools. With funding from the Barr Foundation and the Lynch Foundation, Aspire launched the Boston Family Engagement Partnership (BFEP), an initiative to support 13 public, charter, and catholic schools to revise the way they engage families. We are now excited to announce the BFEP has begun planning its third year this fall.
One of the more critical challenges the BFEP faced was eliminating common barriers to positive family engagement in schools. One such barrier was limited avenues for input and voice. Families sometimes feel that they do not have consistent and meaningful opportunities to participate with the school in priority setting, key decisions and program development activities. Rather, their engagement can be one-directional – from schools to parents, in the form of letters home, presentations, predefined activities (e.g. book fairs, math night, etc.) and teacher conferences. Another key barrier is scarce time among families. Even with schools creating more engagement channels, it is often only a few parents that can participate in ongoing ways.
According to Jibril Solomon, Program Director, Equity and Access in Education: “Parents are more aware of the concept of family engagement than us professionals ever thought. This realization is exciting, and has the potential to establish unprecedented opportunities for family engagement. Recognizing the need for families and schools to collaborate in a student’s academic career will allow the child to grow, develop, and achieve in and outside of the classroom.”
Each participating school in the BFEP selected one Fellow, a current staff member of a school. Through Wheelock College and the Aspire Institute, these Fellows were provided training, mentoring, and support to establish an improved family engagement infrastructure in their school. They worked closely with other teachers, administrators, and parents to identify and implement new family engagement strategies.
One such strategy included the use of a new family engagement application for smartphones and tablets to facilitate communication between school staff, administration, and families. The application also had several learning modules for parents that provided informative, user-friendly, and open-source data in relevant topic and content areas. Families First, a Boston-area organization that specializes in creating parenting workshops, developed the learning modules, which included seminars such as: Parents as First Teachers, The Social-Emotional Side of Learning, and Homework Healthy Households.
The BFEP required Fellows and their colleagues in schools who were willing to grow and evolve with the project. According to one Fellow, she noticed this personal growth: “Before my experience with the BFEP, I viewed families as guests to our school learning community…They were not viewed as partners, and they played a limited part in school governance and policy making. I can acknowledge now that, families are an integral part of the learning community, they are the teacher’s natural partner.”
Although the Fellows were critical to the program, the true stars of the Partnership story were the active and willing volunteer parents. As part of the project, parents participated in 21 parent focus groups, totaling approximately 300 parents. These were parents who took extra time out of their hectic schedules to support their schools and contribute to the academic success of the children in their community.
Parents can also be the best advocates for why their voice and participation in school is essential. During one focus group, a parent commented on the full impact of positive family engagement, and noted that the parent voice was crucial to build self-esteem and take responsibility for their children: “I like it because I’m engaging with the teacher, and with the principal, and I’m finding out what can I do at home to make my child progress and be a better scholar. Engagement for me and my son, that’s everything. That’s breakfast, sleep, lunch, dinner, it is about myself communicating with him…whatever it is that makes me engage with him so that he is like: Hey, my mom is present.”
As part of the BFEP, the Aspire Institute has conducted and submitted a research and evaluation report to both the Barr Foundation and the Lynch Foundation that summarizes findings from the first two years of the project. The study report will be released to the public this fall.
Note about the author: Eric Burkes is a program coordinator at the Aspire Institute.
Photo Credits: (1) Taken by Dana Fitchett for the Aspire Institute, and (2) Image found on Heraldpost’s Flickr feed and used under a Creative Commons attribution license.