Webinar Replay — Planning for Changing Scenarios: Catalyzing School and Family Relationships
Research shows the importance of family engagement and how it can improve student academic success as well as whole child learning and social-emotional learning. A recent webinar hosted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology on October 6 explored how to cultivate and strengthen school-family partnerships, especially during a period of change and shifting circumstances.
With another school year underway, many families may be wondering what role they can play in different learning models and configurations: How can they best support their child? How involved should they be?
In a panel discussion moderated by Chris Rush, Senior Advisor to the Secretary for Innovation and Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, and Jean-Claude Brizard, President and CEO of Digital Promise, district leaders and practitioners shared strategies and stories from their own communities. Attendees also submitted questions for the panel. You may watch the full recording for the complete conversation. We share some highlights and key strategies from the conversation below:
Building authentic relationships with families requires trust, transparency, training, and time. By actively inviting families to shape their child’s learning, districts and schools can strengthen the relationships they have with families. Trusting relationships can be strengthened by recognizing families as the experts of their own children, elevating family voices and opinions, and understanding and addressing family needs.
Scenario Question: How can districts and schools establish trusting, authentic relationships with families and build a stronger partnership?
Recognizing families as the experts of their own children. Families are already engaging more than ever in their child’s learning. Research from Learning Heroes, a national nonprofit whose mission is to inspire and equip parents to be learning heroes for their children, reported that parents and caregivers are spending more than 10 hours a week on remote learning. While they acknowledge their role may be different than teachers, they have unique insights and are often the best advocates for their child’s learning.
Dr. Michelle Rodriguez, Superintendent of Pajaro Valley Unified School District — the largest school district in Santa Cruz County, California — agreed: “They know something that we do not know, and we in turn know something they don’t know, so if we combine and take that synergistic approach, we can have a really powerful partnership.”
Elevating families’ voices and involving them in the decision-making process. By engaging families as full partners, districts can be continuously responsive to students’ needs and pivot more smoothly when needed.
Recognizing the unique opportunities and responsibilities embedded in the 2021–2022 school year, Pajaro Valley Unified School District launched Restorative Start to address the different challenges students, families, and community members have experienced during the pandemic. Using a holistic lens to guide a healthy and successful return to full time, in-person instruction, the district used internal and community supports to allow students to connect, heal, and thrive in a safe and caring learning environment.
The district initially piloted the initiative during summer programming so they could elicit feedback from students and families and gauge the challenges that were most pressing for their school community. This allowed them to iterate and reshape their social and emotional learning (SEL) resources according to how identity, agency, and belonging showed up in families’ experiences.
During the first three weeks of the school year, the district implemented Restorative Start by inviting staff members, parents, and caregivers to participate in virtual training to learn how to build and nurture relationships and uplift student strengths, social emotional needs, and academic growth.
Understanding what families need to effectively participate in their child’s learning and establishing mechanisms to provide families with the necessary supports. In Pajaro Valley, the district started with practical support to ensure families had the access, tools, and devices needed to participate in remote learning. In addition to distributing Chromebooks to every student, the district provided families with 4,500 hotspots and worked with the local internet service provider (Cruzio) to install wired internet in 400 homes that previously lacked access.
Brenda Guzman, a parent engagement specialist for Pajaro Valley, described how the district formed a team to strategically connect families to information and resources and provide differentiated technology support based on the level of digital literacy that families had. Some of the ways in which they did this included producing short tutorial videos and handouts in English and Spanish to help families learn how to use the Chromebooks, access QR codes, and navigate different platforms like Google Classroom; building three walk-up and drive-through sites across the community to assist 1,477 families in just eight months; and creating a tech hotline for support in English, Spanish, and Mixteco Bajo where they answered 15,540 calls last year.
The district also established virtual meetings and conferences, enabling them to communicate with families who otherwise would not have been able to participate due to work conflicts or other constraints. The district envisions continuing this practice to reach as many families as possible.
Panelists noted that if family engagement is not happening authentically, interactions can create more stress than support. If families are eager to get involved, schools should find opportunities for them to contribute their time and talents and help however they can.
Educators can provide families with the means to be partners in their child’s learning when they carve out time to connect with and get to know families; ensure that families understand how to access information regarding their child’s academic and social-emotional development; and provide them with multiple resources and opportunities to engage in their child’s learning environment.
Scenario Question: How can districts and schools set up systems/infrastructure to support and sustain family engagement? What strategies or practices introduced during the pandemic improved or deepened school-family relationships?
Dedicating time and resources for educators to build relationships with families. Families want to know that their children are under the care of adults whom they can trust. Guzman mentioned the positive impact of having a school welcoming committee to cultivate connections, especially with immigrant families who may be new to the community. Having someone from the school reach out to the family and offer to sit down to hear their needs can make them feel more comfortable and more willing to access support services at the school.
Windy Lopez-Aflitto, Vice President of Content and Partnerships for Learning Heroes, shared one practical way schools can support educators in relationship-building is by giving them time during staff meetings to make phone calls to families. More sustained efforts can revolve around providing educators with training to facilitate two-way communication with families, especially around navigating difficult topics.
Providing accessible and easy-to-understand data. Families are even more eager to know how students are doing academically given the disruption caused by the pandemic; however, they need an accurate picture of achievement to advocate for their child. Schools can use data to bring families into learning recovery. When shared in a respectful way, data can help illuminate how students have progressed with core skills, as well as point to concrete actions and resources to aid families as facilitators of academic learning and critical social-emotional development.
Family involvement does not have to fit conventional models, and participation can be personalized for each family. Furthermore, traditional notions about family engagement are usually one-way, and districts should invite families to provide options and ideas for their involvement. Together, educators and families can co-create solutions encouraging their involvement in ways that appropriately meet their needs.
For instance, if parent-teacher conferences are the primary way families and teachers have 1:1 interaction, how can they work together to reassess how conferences look like, so they improve in both value and benefit? Lopez-Afflito shared that educators and families could opt to have several, shorter touch points rather than one traditional conference.
Utilizing different approaches that support multiple forms of family engagement. Dr. Rodriguez suggested districts should provide opportunities for families to share their assets, passions, and strengths with the school community by asking what they enjoy doing, while also being mindful of anticipated time commitment. For example, would they prefer supporting the classroom by reading to children or doing an art project with them?
Elementary schools in the Pajaro Valley district have community gardens. Given their context of being an agricultural community, the district leverages families’ skill sets and expertise to teach students how to tend the gardens.
“How do you actually use what their [strengths are], and show them you don’t have to speak English or even have to read? What you have is so important and all our students can benefit from that so come to us and share your gift,” added Dr. Rodriguez.
Lopez-Aflitto reminded attendees that a child’s support also comes from out-of-school time community organizations and other family members, like a child’s grandparents or aunt. Trusted community partners can serve as liaison between schools and families. In addition, districts and schools can turn to community-aligned partners to help meet families’ needs.
Scenario Question: What role can community ecosystems play in the success of schools, students, and their families? How can districts cultivate relationship and partnership with community organizations to meet families where they are?
Engaging trusted community organizations to support family partnerships. The Pajaro Valley district is supported by a broad range of collaborative community partner organizations (including Salud Para La Gente, Kaiser Permanente, CASA, Food What!?, Cabrillo College, UCSC and others) that collectively form an ecosystem and brain trust for their schools. The collaboration, commitment, and cross-sector work among partners in the community is paralleled in few public school districts. During the pandemic, Pajaro Valley leaned on these partners to provide a broad range of services, from distributing over 7 million meals to offering teletherapy to families.
The current moment presents a unique opportunity for school districts to leverage family expertise and perspective and invest in long-term strategies for family engagement. Districts should consider how the strategies shared in this discussion might apply to their local contexts and in what ways schools may adapt practices to best meet the needs of students and families.
The conversation continues: Join us on Wednesday, October 27 from 12:00–1:00 p.m. EDT for a free webinar focused on engaging community stakeholders and building strategic community partnerships. Register here.