Boston schools changing the family engagement culture

Karen Marshall and Dana Fitchett, Program Director and Coordinator for Education Innovation at Aspire, joined me to talk about the Boston Family Engagement Partnership (BFEP), which seeks to understand and significantly advance family-school engagement across a diverse landscape of Boston schools. Specifically, Aspire in collaboration with 11 Boston public, charter and parochial schools is piloting the BFEP over the next three years. The program consists of a year-long, graduate-level fellowship to train the next generation of family engagement professionals, data-driven planning and action, and online learning modules for families.

Almost five months into the project, Karen and Dana reflect on their time with the fellows and describe the impact the content and community have had on them, the cohort of fellows and the schools. Visit our webpage for more information.

1. What changes do you notice in the cohort since the beginning of the project?

As a group, the fellows are looking at their positions in the school with a more critical eye. We can tell that they are excited about possibilities regarding understanding families, as well as the organizing and advocacy piece of their jobs. There is renewed excitement around their work, and this is definitely a group that functions well as a whole; they get along well, listen to each other and are an inspiring group to be around. The more comfortable they get with each other, the better the process becomes.

2. Why is it important for the fellows to get this kind of training?

The experience is not just about training. People in their positions rarely get the opportunity to talk to each other about the stresses and obstacles they face or share success stories. This is augmented by the fact that they represent a cross section of schools – public, charter and parochial. The program is important just for the support network they’ve created amongst each other. Amelia Ford (left) and Lisa Warshafsky (right) Not only do they have the opportunity to reflect on their jobs, but also really understand practices that are out there and how they can be incorporated into their school’s context.

3. How are they responding to and using the information you are providing them?

So far the fellows have responded positively to every single class. They are excited to talk about the readings and the information we have to share with them that week. For some people, the learning is changing their perspective on what they believed about family engagement, and for some, it’s the first time they are hearing about any of this stuff. All of them have been really enthusiastic to apply things right away. We have actually been the ones to hold them back in the application because we want to impart more knowledge to them before they start that process.

4. What, if anything, are they already applying from the course in the schools?

Wheelock Professor, Tina Durand taught them about participatory action research, which they will be implementing when they conduct their first focus groups in a couple of weeks. Some will be full groups. Some will be individual interviews. Some fellows just want to see new faces, some want to find out what parents want and what’s working and not working. Those who weren’t thinking as critically about certain things are already asking, “How can I message this differently to be more attractive to parents” or “How can we adjust meetings to accommodate more parents?” They’ve developed an understanding that there are barriers and issues that prevent parents from being there – that, like most things – this is a systemic issue.

Rory Grace 5. What can you glean from the discussions they have with each other? 

There are a lot of similarities across the three types of schools, but there are significant differences in some of the challenges that they face. It’s good to know that family engagement is not the same across the board. There are various challenges at different types of schools and at different levels of the schools. You hear that come out in their conversations and how they address those different challenges. The program really shows that there is no real forum or community for family engagement professionals and that the position is often overworked and under-respected.

6. Is the partnership meeting or exceeding your expectations? Why or why not?

So far the process of developing this Boston Family Engagement Partnership which includes working with the fellows at each partner school has exceeded expectations. We are really impressed by the group of fellows and feel incredibly fortunate to have such a stellar first-year cohort. Additionally, the experience of partnering with Wheelock faculty and other community partners on all aspects of the Partnership has been wonderful. Tina Durand’s expertise in data collection and research is invaluable and she has really connected with the fellows. Stephi Rubin has been helpful as an advisor to each step of the process in the creation of classes for the fellowship. Harvard Graduate School of Education developed one of the most – if not the most – comprehensive survey tools to assess family-school involvement and they were and still are gracious partners in this process. Really, we just can’t say enough about who we’ve collaborated with thus far. We’re excited about moving forward.

7. Anything that you didn’t expect that’s emerged from the project?

We didn’t expect to see the relationships that have developed between the fellows, between the staff and the fellows, and connecting with people more than we expected to. Tina Durand (left) and Carmen Rodriguez (right)

8. What kind of response are you getting from the schools?

Overall, the responses are overwhelmingly positive. I think that we see the time crunch administrators have, so prioritizing this can be challenging at times. The majority are excited to work with the fellows; all are looking forward to seeing improvements in their schools and some have shared that they already do.

9. How has the course changed their perspective on family engagement?

For some of them, it’s opened their eyes a lot on the potential of families to be more engaged and on the limitations they’ve had and their colleagues have on how they and larger systems perceive families. Understanding families is much more complex now that they are thinking about it critically.

Julie Kalt is the Communications and Operations Specialist and New Sector Americorps Resident in Social Enterprise at the Aspire Institute. You can reach her at


Wow, Karen – this sounds awesome! I’m so excited to hear that it’s been so successful :) Congrats!

Posted @ Tuesday, January 29, 2013 9:55 AM by Adrienne Zak