My Top Five Strategies for Family and Community Engagement

A home visit in Sacramento — Courtesy PTHV 2017

As part of its effort to shift control of public schools from the legislature to local school districts, the state of California will spend over $13 million in the next six years to ensure that local community members play an active role in school district decision-making. John Fensterwald at EdSource gets it right when he calls community engagement “an essential but elusive part of local control.” The elusiveness explains the $13 million price tag. Community engagement has been mandated for five years, yet parents and students still feel that their voices aren’t being heard.

Personally, I’m not surprised. As I learned during my tenure as school superintendent in Sacramento, authentic engagement with the community takes trust, transparency, and equitable outreach. In other words, everything that’s required is what most bureaucracies are too clumsy, risk-averse, and top-down to do well. The good news is, the state is getting great input from a range of nonprofits and stakeholders and has established the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence to identify and scale successful models of engagement. Having personally experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to engaging communities and families around public education, here are my top 5 strategies for success.

1. Explain the Why

Most school districts — like most organizations — operate as hierarchies. Orders come from the top, and the expectation is for those orders to be followed without question. One problem with that model is absence of buy-in: The people lower down the ladder — like principals — may do what they’re told, but their enthusiasm is likely to be nil. As Superintendent, I learned quickly that real leadership requires trust and collaboration: If you want to maximize your outcome, then instead of issuing an order, explain the why and ask for feedback.

In the case of community engagement, it’s one thing to instruct teachers and principals to engage with parents — and entirely something else to share the facts about parental involvement in schools. It’s proven: Students whose parents take an active interest in their children’s education get better grades, have better social skills, and are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. Until they understand the why, educators may operate with the same assumptions and biases as the rest of the world. Yet the data are clear: Economically disadvantaged parents have the same degree of interest and involvement in their children’s education as their wealthier peers.

When your front-line ambassadors, your teachers, principals, and school staff, understand that forging better relationships with families yields better outcomes for children across the economic spectrum, they will value their own role in the process, and give it all they’ve got.

2. Engage with Equity

People sometimes confuse equity with equal treatment. Equal treatment means treating everyone the same way: We sent out a flyer inviting all parents to the school board meeting, but only 4 people showed up.

Equity is different. It starts by asking questions: What languages do families speak at home, and was the flyer translated? How many children have parents who can’t read? Was the PTA meeting scheduled during work hours? Will parents who fled dictatorships feel intimated meeting with the school board? Did the photo in the flyer include families of all races? Are we welcoming to single mothers, grandparents, LGBT families, and other nontraditional families?

In any school district, families will be coming from different walks in life. Bringing all of them into the process will require different types and levels of effort, and that’s OK. In fact, it’s more than OK. It’s a lesson in equity, and the payoff will be amazing. We all have so much to learn from one another, if we take the time to reach out, truly listen, and ensure that all of us are heard.

3. Go Home

EdSource’s Fensterwald reports that home visits are one model of family engagement that’s winning accolades for connecting with “hard to reach” communities. And that’s great news. As former Sacramento Teacher of the Year Stephanie Smith observed: “We ask [parents] to come to back-to-school nights and teacher conferences without having tried to understand their reality. What if we, educators, took the first step? It’s time for school districts to rethink the approach of inviting parents into a prescribed time period and place and instead reach families and parents where they are.”

Reach them where they are. Yes, what Smith proposes is a step toward equity, and I saw its impact first-hand in Sacramento, where the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project (PTHVP) trained our teachers to engage families in education through visiting their homes. What are your hopes and dreams for your child? That was the question at the heart of every visit. PTHVP, which improves attendance and test scores and reduces disciplinary actions, works because it nurtures trust, a rare commodity between people and state institutions.

PTHV Model — Core Practice/5 Non-negotiables

Aimed at family empowerment, it’s an appointment between two willing participants — parent and teacher — not a “home invasion” like other more punitive types of visits from social workers or state officials. At its heart, educating and developing children is about relationships — among students, educators, families, and community.

As you can see, these five strategies are adding up: give teachers, principals, and school staff the why; practice equity; and connect your teachers to parents and families in their home. Next, I’ll share the other side of the home visit coin.

4. Educate Everyone

In Sacramento, my team worked hard to make our district schools into community centers serving everyone. If your goal is community engagement with schools, then open the schools to the community! Remove the fences and open green space up to neighborhoods often defined by fenced-in lots with barking dogs. Provide community access to school libraries and commuter labs. Open a health and welfare center for students and their families. Give parents a resource room in each school so they have a space to call their own. And, like we did, fight to preserve adult education programs in the face of the inevitable budget cuts. The value of adult education is exponential.

Many adult students are immigrants seeking English literacy and language skills to better provide for their families. But besides yielding greater earnings for parents, improved adult literacy directly impacts children: According to the National Institutes of Health, maternal literacy outweighs income and neighborhood in shaping a child’s chances of succeeding in school. Job skills and education also correlate to better health in adults and their children. When people argue that we can’t afford to provide adult education to immigrants and other disadvantaged adults, my answer is: we can’t afford not to. Improved community engagement is just one positive outcome among many.

5. Prioritize Transparency

EdSource reports that California’s engagement budget includes an extra $200,000 to address the fact that the school budget information provided to communities is “often indecipherable.” No kidding. In my experience, it’s not just indecipherable to parents. Sometimes it felt like the people crafting the budget were counting on the fact that none of the stakeholders — teachers, administrators, parents, or legislators — could fully understand where all the money was going. So fiscal transparency is crucial, and for equity’s sake, I hope that $200,000 covers translating the budget into the 30 different languages parents in my former district speak.

But transparency means more than openness about numbers. To me, it also means being frank and honest when hard decisions need to be made. Some districts have complained that parents don’t see the whole picture and expect their priorities to pass despite scant resources and competing concerns. My answer is: Show them the whole picture. Don’t confuse community engagement with PR. Instead of painting a rosy image when your district is in trouble, let the people know. When Sacramento schools desperately needed a bond measure to pass, our parents, teachers, and administrators worked shoulder-to-shoulder to muster the votes because everyone knew how urgently we needed the funds.

Does transparency work? I’ll leave you with this brief story. In my district, we initiated community budget forums, and the staff member who operated our portable sound system traveled around with me to all of them. After the last one, he approached me. “Superintendent,” he said, “I know I might lose my job given how dire our situation is, but thank you for helping me finally understand why, and what’s at stake for our children.”

These five approaches to engaging and empowering parents, families, and community don’t come without effort and focus, yet school districts don’t need to reinvent the wheel to do this work well. Lots of models exist. What’s required is a vision; remembering that parents and families are a district’s most important partners; getting out into the community to engage people on their terms; and bringing a sense of humility to the work.