Educational Justice Starts with Equitable Family Engagement

Designing surveys and sharing data with a wide range of stakeholders results in a deeper understanding of the data from multiple perspectives.

foundry10 News
Published in
10 min readDec 9, 2020


By Riddhi Divanji, Ella Shahn, and Sydney Parker

Whether conducting a home visit or teaching virtually, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced teachers, school administrators, and youth-serving organizations unprecedented access to the home lives of their students. This intimate blending of school and home can feel invasive at times, but is also a meaningful opportunity to build deeper relationships with families who are part of historically marginalized social groups in school communities.

To learn more about how to engage with low-income, POC, immigrant, and world-language speaking families during COVID, many school administrators and organizations across the country are using surveys to assess each family’s needs and preferences. But not all surveys are created equal. Far too often, families give their time in hopes of contributing to positive change in their school communities, but rarely get to see the final data or their words turned into action.

“Part of the reason that there’s so much fatigue with answering anything — whether it’s a survey collecting data from families or a conversation — is that they have experienced time and time again nothing happening as a result of them sharing their challenges,” said Dr. Ann Ishimaru, associate professor at the University of Washington School of Education and author of Just Schools.

Ishimaru and UW researchers Jondou Chen and Aditi Rajendran collaborated with the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), local schools, caregivers, community organizations, and other stakeholders to design an equitable family engagement survey for Southeast Seattle schools. The survey was adapted from a previous co-design process the UW researchers had developed with input from community leaders across the region. Foundry10 research coordinators Riddhi Divanji and Ella Shahn supported the Southeast Seattle effort through data collection and analysis support.

Ishimaru spoke with Divanji about family engagement and equitable survey design collaborations with families and communities during COVID-19 remote learning. Here are a few takeaways from their conversation that may be valuable for researchers, school administrators, youth-serving organizations, and educators looking to build equitable family engagement into their professional practice.

Relationships, Responsiveness and Reciprocity

Making time for deep conversations and space for cultural context may seem like taking the long way home to those who want to rapidly meet community needs during the pandemic (and future periods of collective crisis). But building authentic relationships with real people is what enables an agile and meaningful response. How can you quickly and effectively serve a community if no one who’s a part of it wants to talk to you? Putting in the time to listen and learn from people on their terms and from a place of mutual respect is the work that ultimately fosters the most dramatic progress and change.

“We are in this default mode of engagement where educators ask, ask, ask families what they need, and then give you pre-baked information about what you can and should do,” said Dr. Ishimaru. “Rather than, ‘how can we talk about the challenges and the places where our kids are not yet thriving but could be and then how do we co-construct something different there?”

There is a tension in wanting to be thoughtful and intentional without sacrificing the need for quick, responsive action. Thankfully, foundry10 and other organizations can learn from Southeast Seattle Education Coalition’s survey design experience and work to make our research, programs, and philanthropy both responsive and intentional.

Data Inquiry for an Equitable Collaboration

As part of the University of Washington’s Equitable Parent–School Collaboration research project, Dr. Ishimaru and colleagues developed the Equitable Survey Design Process to engage a broad range of stakeholders in making sense of data to improve student learning. From the Data Inquiry for Equitable Collaboration Brief:

“Although data in educational organizations — from early childhood to K-12 — have historically been used for compliance and accountability purposes, research suggests that using and sharing data with other stakeholders can fuel organizational learning and help address disparities in educational systems, policies, and practices. Our research suggests that we understand problems more clearly and come up with better solutions when we ensure that those with less power traditionally have voice and influence in using data to create more equitable learning environments.”

Here is a visual representation of the Data Inquiry for Equitable Collaboration research cycle:

Figure: Paul Kuttner and The Equitable Parent-School Collaboration at the University of Washington


Convene a leadership group to initiate the process. Why are we doing this? Who do we need to work with? What questions do we have and how will we use what we learn?


What data or process will best help us attend to equity and answer our question?


Draw on cultural brokers and existing leaders to reach out to stakeholder groups and invite their participation.

Make Sense

Share data. Collaborate with stakeholders who participated in the survey design to make sense of it. What does the data tell us? What other questions do we have?


Reconvene and expand leadership group. What did we learn? What are the next steps?


Change policies or practices. Leverage new relationships. Discover new questions for further inquiry.

To learn more, check out the User’s Guide for Road Map Family Engagement Survey: Data Inquiry for Equitable Collaboration, a report from The Equitable Parent-School Collaboration Research project at the University of Washington.

Choose Your Survey Design Leadership Group Wisely

When Erin Okuno and Mindy Huang of SESEC and Jondou Chen, UW College of Education set out to convene a representative survey design group, they intentionally recruited members who would represent and amplify the voices of Majority families in southeast Seattle elementary schools. The survey co-designers described families in the following terms:

Dominant: Being in a position of systemic power and privilege. More specifically, exerting control over educational practices, policies, and research to reinforce hierarchies between social groups. White | Full-price Lunch | Non-Immigrant | Primary English Speaker

Majority: Being in a position of democratic potential and possibility. More specifically, transforming educational practices, policies, and research to support historically oppressed and overlooked social groups. Person of Color | Free or Reduced Lunch | Immigrant | Primary Non-English Speaker

The final group consisted of caregivers, representatives of southeast Seattle community-based organizations and schools, and community members who were committed to working towards educational justice in southeast Seattle schools.

“I loved seeing the group of people that Erin, Jondou, and Mindy had put together at that table. They did that community engagement work to inform which questions we should be putting on the survey and then made sure that the survey was going to reach the right groups of people,” said Divanji.

Despite all the thought and intention that went into bringing in diverse partners to design the survey, there were still blind spots. “The first time we did the survey, we forgot to include middle and high school partners,” says Okuno. “The majority of the survey results that year came in for elementary school families. Midway through the process I went ‘duh.’” They learned from this oversight, and made sure to include middle and high school partners for the second iteration of the survey.

At the first meeting, the leadership group reflected on questions including: Why are we doing this? Who do we need to work with? How will we use what we learn?

By placing an emphasis on shared values and relationship building from the very beginning of the process, the group set the tone for an equitable collaboration.

Don’t Let Partners Become Proxies

It can be tempting for school administrators to define “family engagement” as talking to the leaders and staff of community organizations. While consulting with organizational leadership is critically important, it is not the same as taking the time to engage directly with families.

“Executive Directors should be a starting point for connecting, listening, and relationships, not the end point,” says Dr. Ishimaru. “Otherwise, they turn into what a colleague of mine calls a ‘proxy’ for actually talking to the parents in their schools or districts.” Let the relationship with the community-based organization become a starting place for you to initiate more frequent and authentic conversations with families.

How to Engage Community in Equitable Collaboration

To collect the data, they distributed paper surveys in 10 languages: Amharic, Chinese, English, Oromo, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Tigrinya, Vietnamese. Survey designers and partners worked together to connect with families in-person and answer questions as they filled out the forms. They also used an online survey form published in the Seattle Times.

The success of the survey can be credited to SESEC’s dedication to building relationships and trusting partners as experts in their understanding of their own communities. As SESEC Communications Manager Mindy Huang describes in her blog post, There’s No Magic Bullet:

“Graham Hill asked for online surveys to be available so families could be routed to the computer lab after parent-teacher fall conferences. Partners volunteered at school events to help families complete the surveys. Powerful Schools YMCA handed out paper copies of the survey and stamped envelopes for families to take home and mail back. CISC ran focus groups where they talked through the survey with their families and explained the survey to parents. SESEC recruited and provided a stipend to a multi-lingual Somali parent in the New Holly neighborhood to recruit East African parents to complete the survey. Emerson Elementary collected surveys in conjunction with the school’s data summit.”

During remote learning we can’t do as much in-person but there are still opportunities for folks to interact. Meal and resource pickup times have become the main tool for in-person communication with families.

Remember that universal approaches don’t work — ask your families of color, immigrant families, world-language speaking families, etc. what they want school to look like, and involve them in the planning process.

How to Make Equitable Family Engagement Part of Your Professional Practice

As COVID infection rates increase this winter, educators and administrators can learn from the success of other schools to incorporate equitable collaboration research practices and connect with families from a distance.

For example, at the beginning of COVID school shutdowns, an assistant principal at a local middle school in Dr. Ishimaru’s network had staff call every single student’s family and ask specific questions about their distance learning circumstances. That information was then recorded in a Google spreadsheet that all of the educators could access.

“You could look in that spreadsheet to find the individual kid and get some sense, but then also you have a systematic way to look across and you could group them,” said Dr. Ishimaru. “These are some of the things that are going on, that’s the actionable research.”

Learning from home is rife with potential: Potential to make meaningful connections and improve student learning, and potential to cause harm through cultural incompetence.

“On the one hand, there’s a way in which teachers could build in ongoing inquiry and relationships into their everyday practice as they’re teaching,” said Dr. Ishimaru. “And on the other hand, teachers have to be careful because we have done very little to really prepare them or the families. It raises all kinds of issues with power and culture and assumptions and all these kinds of things.”

For example, some educators may assume that the parent is the only appropriate person for them to consult with about a student’s progress. They may need to expand their ideas about family and talk with an older sibling, grandparent or aunt and when engaging in those conversations, to listen. No, really listen.

“All of us think we’re good listeners, right?” said Dr. Ishimaru. “But often we bring a set of assumptions and frameworks to what we’re hearing.” Dr. Ishimaru emphasizes the importance of developing the capacity to listen for connections between the granular details families are sharing and deeper structural inequities. Families are unlikely to use the jargon that well-intentioned educators and organizers are primed for, so it’s up to the listener to process the insights and knowledge families can offer about their own children and apply them to change school structures and practices.

Listening well can only take you so far. It’s also to whom you’re listening.

“Last week I ended up moderating a call for working parents from a large public organization,” says Okuno. “Without meaning to, the white women started to dominate the call. I had to facilitate hard to quiet them and make space for the POCs to have a chance to share. Teachers and principals need to be mindful about who they are hearing from and reacting to.”

Evolving Research Practices at foundry10

Inspired by this experience, foundry10 is actively working on ways that we can be community responsive by both listening deeply to students, educators, families, and acting on that information. We learned a lot from our participation in the SESEC family engagement survey design process, and we’re working on ways to incorporate some of those practices into our own work including:

  • Sharing data back with participants in accessible ways.
  • Getting information into the hands of people that can act on it.
  • Continuing to learn and listen from communities we’re connected with.
  • Working to center marginalized students and families in our programs, research, external sharing, and philanthropic work.
  • Prioritizing relationship-building with youth and educators and the folks who interact with them directly.

“The approaches of our different CBOs and schools may not work for yours or others elsewhere,” writes Huang in There’s No Magic Bullet. “That means you just have to find another one that does, not try to shove your constituents into a box and force it. Relationships don’t work that way. Humans do not work that way. Our communities have not survived and thrived under these conditions by trying to live that way. To be culturally competent and live true to our values of community, we strive to understand and honor the nuances that each and every individual and group brings to the table.”

We want to hear about your equitable collaboration practices. What’s worked in your community? Connect with us at To learn more about foundry10, follow us on social and subscribe to our monthly Newsletter.

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foundry10 News

foundry10 is an education research organization with a philanthropic focus on expanding ideas about learning and creating direct value for youth.