Sherra Cates is a graduate student at Tufts University who worked with the Aspire Institute this semester on the Boston Family Engagement Partnership.
What drew you to apply for the Family Engagement position at Aspire?
In my master’s program at Tufts University I had just completed a project with Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) developing a culturally sensitive baseline survey for their Dudley Thrive in 5 school readiness program. The program focuses on how parents can perform intentional activities to help prepare their children for school. I was very interested in how families and communities see their role in their child’s education and how schools can better engage families who are “non-traditionally” engaged. Naturally when I heard about Aspire’s Boston Family Engagement Partnership I was excited to continue my work around family engagement and learn more about school efforts around engagement.
Can you describe your work with Aspire’s Boston Family Engagement Partnership?
At BFEP, I am assigned to a group of six Fellows who work in various schools in the Greater Boston area. My Fellows are in the second year of implementing their family engagement action plans for their schools. I provide key assistance with their work, which includes assisting with focus groups, developing and disseminating surveys, gathering and archiving school specific data, working with teachers to understand and set family engagement goals, and other activities to support my Fellows in their work.
What will you take away from your experience working with this project?
In this position I have the opportunity to work with several schools in the Greater Boston area. It has been very interesting to go from school to school and see the different levels of family engagement. Some schools are doing great, and really understand the populations they serve and how to best engage them. In these schools, my job is to just support the process. Other schools are still defining how they want to engage their families and what steps they need to take for it to happen. With them, I get to be a part of the process from the defining stage through the implementation stage.
In order to see significant changes in academic achievement gaps and disparities, there needs to be a serious paradigm shift in how we think about families and the realities they live in.
Working on this project has taught me the importance of working from the ground up. The Greater Boston area has a turbulent history around education (i.e. Busing Crisis), and the city is home to a large multi-cultural, multi-ethnic population. The “mainstream” ideologies of the education system do not serve these families well. In order to see significant changes in academic achievement gaps and disparities, there needs to be a serious paradigm shift in how we think about families and the realities they live in. Anyone working in education needs to start from the ground level and begin to understand the deep held biases and prejudices they may have, whether it be race, class, sexuality, etc. They need to continuously challenge and push back on privileged ways of thinking on a day-to-day basis in order to adequately serve diverse families and their children who do not fit the “norm.”
How are you connecting this internship to your pursuit of a Masters in Urban Environmental Policy and Planning, and Child Development?
This internship is a great intersection between urban policy and child development. Children do not develop in a bubble. Contextual factors such as family, peers, teachers, schools, communities, and society heavily influence development. With that in mind, it makes a lot of sense that family engagement is very important to a child’s ability to perform well in school. However, when schools are not accommodating to diverse families or families feel unwelcomed and inferior to their children’s schools and don’t engage, this is a public policy/social policy/educational policy issue. This is not only a failure to the families who trust schools to provide their children with a quality education so they can be prepared for 21st century jobs to become productive members of society, but ultimately an indication of broken systems. Programs like BFEP can be a small step toward education reforms to better serve diverse families.
How have you seen BFEP impact Boston partnership schools and families?
During my time with BFEP, the most significant impact I have seen is how the Boston partnership schools and families are being challenged to think critically about how families should be engaged. Many of them are becoming aware of the root, systemic oppressions faced by many of their families, and are becoming committed to addressing the barriers in comprehensive and effective ways.
Image of parent-teacher conference from Santa Barbara’s Catholic Schools Flickr account and used under a Creative Commons attribution license.